In the race to be the women's luxury brand of choice, cosmetics companies are outdoing themselves in every aspect, from exclusive ingredients to unparalled customer service. It's no longer enough to offer extracts from the depths of a distant rainforest, or a one-of-a-kind facial treatment designed to replicate the effects of plastic surgery.
"Nowadays, customers are looking for the whole package, not just high-end products made with luxury ingredients, but impeccable service, one-on-one consultations, head-to-toe pampering and speciality VIP treatments," says Anita Yuen, director of beauty for Harvey Nichols, which sells high-end brands including Dior, Guerlain and Valmont. "Customers are getting spoiled."
As consumers become more demanding, brands are responding in kind. "A number of market studies have shown that women of today expect more attributes from their skincare and are willing to invest more in the future of their skin," says Jennie Ma, marketing manager for Clé de Peau Beauté. "We foresee a continuing increase in demand for superpremium skincare products from increasingly demanding and well-informed consumers."
Clé de Peau Beauté's premium line is Synactif, launched in early 2010 to target the health of the skin's lymphatic function. It is sold in a limited-edition box set for HK$3,500.
Estée Lauder can perhaps lay claim to creating the first luxury skincare product, says brand general manager Lisa Chow. "Re-Nutriv launched in 1938, and at the time it was selling at US$113. To give you a benchmark, most of the skincare products in the 1930s sold in the median price range of about US$10," she says.
The latest version of the collection just debuted with the Re-Nutriv Re-Creation Eye and Face sets, priced at HK$3,600 and HK$8,800, respectively. Both feature an exclusive ingredient known as Glacial BioExtract, cultivated from Antarctic glaciers and said to offer potent restorative and hydrating powers.
"Women are willing to spend on excellent eye-care products, more than any other product," Chow says. "So, HK$3,600 to them is an entry point. It's not so expensive to them if the product really works."
But as Estée Lauder is well aware, buying a skincare product is about more than what's inside the jar. "When we market Re-Nutriv, we are not just marketing the functionality or the high performance of the product," Chow says. "I think buying a luxury skincare product is like buying any other luxury product. It's also about the kind of aspirational or emotional value consumers get from the product."
Re-Nutriv customers are entitled to benefits such as a loyalty programme, exclusive magazines and free beauty services. "It's much different from the [services we offer] ordinary or basic skincare consumers," Chow says.
Combining product sales with premium customer service has set brands such as Natura Bisse apart. "When we started with Neiman Marcus in the United States and said we needed a facial room, they weren't really used to that," says Patricia Fisas, senior vice-president of marketing and daughter of founder Ricardo Fisas Mulleras. "We needed a facial room to show customers our products and how to apply them. It was a great success, and afterwards all the other brands wanted facial rooms."
Treasure chest (clockwise from bottom): Lancôme Absolue L'Extrait (HK$3,600), Clé de Peau Beauté Coffret Synactif Limited Edition (HK$3,500), 3Lab Super Cream (HK$7,500), SK-II LXP Ultimate Perfecting Cream (HK$2,350), Chanel Sublimage Ultimate Regeneration Eye Cream (HK$1,400), Dior Prestige L'Huile Souveraine (HK$2,600). Accessories: Louis Vuitton. Styling: Vanessa Torstensson. Photo: Red Dog Studio
Natura Bisse, which has launched its first global flagship at Pacific Place's Beauty Gallery, has become known for its high-end Diamond Collection and unique treatments such as the Bubble Pure Air introduced to celebrities during the lead-up to the 2009 Academy Awards.
Other brands making waves include Lancôme, whose Absolue L'Extrait boasts a concentrate of rose stem cells, and Chanel, with its Sublimage collection featuring an exclusive ingredient extracted from the vanilla planifolia fruit and flower in Madagascar.
Sulwhasoo has a new Harmonizen Regenerating Cream, incorporating extracts from three precious ginseng, along with an obsidian spatula for facial massage, while Dior has added to its Prestige line with the Souveraine range harnessing the anti-ageing power of a precious rose extract.
Niche brands such as 3Lab are also on the quest to produce the "perfect product". Its new Super Cream sells for HK$7,500, thanks to an ingredient that costs US$1 million per kilogram.
SK-II's premium line is its LXP Ultimate Perfecting Series, said to transform skin in as little as three days. "Skincare is about quality, not quantity," according to the Japanese brand, whose three-step LXP collection retails for HK$6,500.
"As opposed to overloading the skin with products, being more discerning in your selection of key pieces could be more effective in realising crystal-clear skin."
Indeed, if there's anything the competing brands agree on, it's that consumers are becoming more aware and more discerning. "Consumers are more skincare-savvy," Chow says.
"There are two types of consumers in the past few years. One is the mainland customer. They only want something that will really work for them. And they can afford it.
"The others are in their mid- to late 30s - they are looking for excellent products to defer the signs of ageing. So, we are also seeing younger consumers more active in buying these luxury products."
"Our customers have extremely high expectations in all aspects of their lifestyle needs," Ma says. "Furthermore, they expect each and every interaction with the brand to be one of utmost luxury and pampering."
The brand has responded by offering customised skincare consultations, thorough after-sales follow-up and more luxurious store settings.
Harvey Nichols also prides itself on its 360-degree luxury shopping environment, from frequent Facebook updates to VIP events and an exclusive Beauty Card.
"Part of the reason why the demand is growing is the increased education of the general public. Customers are looking to find what works for them," Yuen says.
And once they find the magic product that does in fact erase wrinkles and age spots, women will keep coming back for more.
"The only difference in skincare products from other luxury products is that if they work, customers will keep buying them. Once they find something that really works for them, they can't trade down," Chow says. "They will be addicted to it."