3 Ways Prestige Beauty Brands Can Preserve Their Allure in the Digital Age

It's all about balancing style with substance

Beauty is hope. It's about our dreams and aspirations. Yet, as with everything, digital has made reality creep up on it big time. Where beauty brands, especially prestige ones, once fancied themselves as hovering above the fray in a realm of the untouchable and ideal, they have to deal these days with the down and dirty just like the rest of us—from all-out accessibility to unseemly e-sales to opinionated bloggers.

Wolfgang Schaefer Illustration: Alex Fine

How do they do this? How can beauty brands create desire and retain an air of otherworldly allure while engaging everywhere with (almost) everyone? The answer is as simple as it is difficult: They need to balance their style with substance if they want to be successful. Here are three major musts for modern prestige in general—and beauty in particular:

The must for mission and myth: Modern prestige brands must underpin the pretty and precious with something more profound. They need a vision beyond the looks and to radiate around a core ideal—translated into relentless, multifaceted storytelling. One of the stars in this is certainly Chanel. No matter what they do—from "hygiene" content to their inside series of funky fashion shenanigans to historic mini movies—they always harken back to their original premise: emancipated elegance. Gabrielle Chanel is the modern woman's heroine, and Karl Lagerfeld is her of-the-moment missionary. This gives their shine an inherent glow and elevates the play around appearances with something essential … allowing you to engage in all the frivolity without ever feeling totally frivolous or fooled.

In another example, Sebastian Professional unleashes its fireworks of fearless hair fashion on the idea of continuously inspiring creative stylists with What's Next. And Wella Professionals built a close-knit, engaged and growing community around its passion of elevating hairdressers and hairdressing, advocating for their stakeholders as much as they support them with business tips, guide them with trends and service them with products.

The balance between connection and exclusion: Since the floodgates of access have opened beyond control, beauty brands need new ways of balancing belonging with longing. In fashion, this is being done smartly by H&M sister store & Other Stories in a campaign featuring the Gummer sisters (Meryl Streep's daughters) shot simply but with great connectivity by Stephen Shore.

The most successful beauty brands do this by clearly distinguishing between their design targets—those that personify their myth and mission—and their strategic target at large. They keep the former as close as can be while allowing the latter to connect and engage—but never to the point of reaching the inner sanctum. Like any good cult, they stoke the fire by clearly separating those inside from those not, but in softer, warmer and more permissible ways.

Estée Lauder's brands have been topping business intelligence firm L2's digital rankings since the beginning. It's clear why when you look at how suavely its MAC brand manages this balancing act for instance. After 30 years, it's still as close as can be to the makeup artist community—giving the regular consumer access to supposedly pro-grade products and services while still playing to their aspirations. It's largely the same with the recently reinvented Frederic Fekkai brand—celebrating its ultra high-end salons and clientele, yet wooing the rest of us with personalized mailings, bloggings, tutorials and discounted offers from Birchbox to Target.

The need for truth: Lastly, in an age where the wisdom of many is already evolving into the recommendations of mine, beauty really needs to be truth. When overpromising and underdelivering is outed quicker than marketers can say "new and improved," there's very little room to gild the lily. Of course, the brand still needs to polish the product and wrap it in a bit of the sublime. But underneath all the pretense, there must be performance—or at least the sustained illusion of it.

There's a whole new slew of beauty brands that achieve this through an unerring focus on product (like Aesop), origin (like Yuan Soap) or customization (like Le Labo). But there are also those that intrigue and convince us with ideas that let us experience their superiority and integrity right then and there versus just bombarding us with marketing gimmicks. The latest example would be L'Oréal's Makeup Genius App.

And that's the whole point. Beauty brands in the postdigital age must become less self-important—or aggrandizing—than they used to be, and more self-aware and -reflected.

They must elevate their devotees not by putting others down, but by staying a step ahead and true to their core. That way they can come down to earth—and still stay up, where they belong.

Wolfgang Schaefer (@wolfnewyork) is chief strategy officer at SelectNY and co-author of the upcoming Rethinking Prestige Branding—Secrets of the Ueber-Brands.