Every place you go today, someone is opening their mouth too much and too enthusiastically about “innovation” and setting an “innovative mindset”. While I am all for shifting the way of doing things to reach unheard-of, unthought-of conclusions, innovation – as those who really work with it know – is the end product – sometime after it is in the market or being used. Usually a person or team does not come up with an innovation by sitting in a workshop talking about what would be innovative. It comes from a lot of different places, angles and factors and can only be called “innovation” – or true innovation – after the fact when its results are known.
I would never have imagined, for example – and this is a point that lies at the heart of “innovation” – something happens that no one imagined, knew was needed or possible that changes the game somehow – either an entire market, a market segment or even whole industries and cultures – that we needed or would see some kind of major innovation in the area of consumer cosmetics and access to them. But the tech-news circuit is abuzz this week with the story of Grace Choi, a Harvard Business School grad, who realized that she could use cutting-edge 3D printing technology to print her own cosmetics.
Recently I started refreshing my basics of marketing knowledge by taking an online course via Coursera/Wharton. One of the cases the professor made was the changing face of consumer interaction with cosmetics. It used to be, if one were not going to the drugstore or big box store (e.g. Wal-mart, Target, etc.), the consumer had to ask for help from a salesperson, all the merchandise was hidden away behind a counter and each brand had its own area/station – meaning that there was not a lot of opportunity for testing and comparing things right next to each other or without having to interact on some meaningful level with another person. This perhaps created a more upscale, customer-oriented experience but for some it was inconvenient and intimidating. And completely out of the customers’ hands. The marketing model and the ways in which the brands were marketed to consumers started to change, though, when online shopping became the mainstream and when the retail experience changed by introducing stores like Sephora. Sephora is an emporium full of all kinds of different cosmetic brands, offering some staff to help out but mostly putting the testing and trying experience into the customers’ hands. To some degree, shopping online changed the process of buying cosmetics as well – but makeup is still such a trial-and-error thing – the expense of it makes one really want to test things out before committing to buying, which led to the very logical but very different retail experience in the form of a Sephora experience.
Now, thanks to some clever innovation, technology and someone simply saying, “Why not?”, we can see the next incarnation of this developing trend of putting the power (whether it is cosmetic creation or something entirely different) in consumers’ hands.
But now with her Mink printer, Choi has used 3D printer technology to remove the middle man (and its often exorbitant mark-up and lack of choice) from the equation, creating a whole new groundbreaking platform to think about. A consumer is at home and can select, print and try just about anything they want in the convenience of their home, the privacy of home, without breaking the bank. This has major implications, of course, for the multibillion dollar global cosmetics industry, especially as this innovation becomes mainstream and is perfected for consumer use. It’s early days – and maybe right now really will only appeal to Choi’s target audience (teen and young-adult women) but like everything that revolutionizes daily life, our purchasing habits – we will start to think about these things in a different way. Today we think about going to Sephora and testing out lots of colors, brands and styles. Yesterday we thought we’d go to the Chanel counter and have to ask for help at the local department store. And tomorrow we can print anything we want.
I exchanged a couple of surface-level Tweets with thinkspace (thinkspace) (after reTweeting their initial Tweet about the Mink printer) and they posed the question, “Would you buy the printer?” And the truth is, probably not now. With most things, I am not an early adopter – and I am not the target audience for this product in any case. I like to wait for things to be perfected and to offer a few more choices and options before I jump in and buy. But as someone who is always thinking about where innovation is born and how it unfolds in unexpected ways, this struck me as a game changer – even if people don’t start printing their own make-up en masse – it may shift the dynamic in terms of how cosmetics companies reach out to consumers, in the choices they offer – and that is just the beginning.
And it really could not come at a better time. In a 2012 McCann WorldGroup study, women expect brands to do more than they currently do “to help guide the process of discovery, choice, purchase and application of products, as beauty regimes become more complex”. If this is the feedback cosmetics companies are getting and they don’t respond, then I assume it’s about time that some other solution come along and deliver what people are asking for.