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Men’s Grooming Brands Have a Man Problem

How men’s beauty brands are wooing a still-wary customer.

I’m on a horse," Isaiah Mustafa says at the end of an Old Spice commercial that sees him embody every enviable masculine stereotype — rich, muscular, great with women — and add "great-smelling" to the mix. He’s the man your man could smell like. The commercial is playing with and making fun of the branding in this space, but also: Is it? Six years later, branding on men’s products remains extremely over the top.

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A search for grooming products in the men’s sector unearths some brand and product names that would fit perfectly in the console of an unnecessarily loud sports car: Bearded Bastard, Ab Crew, Hair Arousal Wax, Suavecito, Uppercut, Combat-Ready Balm, and so on.

Men’s beauty is one of the fastest-growing categories — sales in the market have increased 5 percent each year since 2010 and were worth $47.17 billion in 2015, according to Business of Fashion. Yet, despite positive numbers, it remains one of the most difficult categories to market. Dr. Lars Perner, a Ph.D. in marketing who teaches consumer psychology at the University of Southern California, says that while most products benefit tremendously from word of mouth and environmental factors (i.e. seeing your friend or other influential person with something and wanting it), this category doesn’t work that way.

"The problem here is these are products that are usually consumed in private," Perner says. "These are things you use in your bathroom so it means you don't really get to see the brands that other people are using." That’s what makes branding and packaging in this space so crucial.

Ab Crew Product shots Photo: Deciem

And we should get this out of the way: Men do require products engineered specifically for their skin, says cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank. Men’s skin, he says, "is 20 percent thicker than women’s, making penetration more difficult" and has a higher content of oil and collagen.

Despite the scientific justification, men are still extremely wary of diving too deep into the category. "They're afraid if they get too many products in their bathroom something will happen to them and they'll no longer be a man," says Ted Muething, marketing manager for The Bearded Bastard.

Not only are tried-and-true grassroots methods out of reach for these brands, but social media is also mostly hopeless. "You don't see guys talking about it," Neil Agarwal, managing partner of skincare brand Recipe for Men, says. "Even on social media I’ve seen certain brands do a bicycle giveaway, and you'd think that'd be shared. A bicycle isn’t unmanly, or whatever, but there's still minimal engagement on it."

"They're afraid if they get too many products in their bathroom something will happen to them and they'll no longer be a man."

That leaves brands with one place: the good ol’ shelf (both digital and physical). And it explains why branding and packaging is so important for men’s grooming products. Excluding the commercials flooding our airwaves with testorones by some of the heavier hitters like Old Spice and Axe, the shelf is the one chance a brand has to make an impression, to tell you about itself and about the man you can be by buying their product. Sitting on the shelf is so important for grooming brands, Agarwal says, that even if the brand were doing zero dollars in-store, it would still be worth it. "Just being on the store shelf is marketing and that is important to create brand awareness and awareness around personal care and grooming for guys," he explains. Couple this with the fact that it’s not seen as quote-unquote "manly" to buy grooming products, and you have an industry churning out brands that are avatars for the toned, motorcycle-riding, recently-promoted, irresistible, lady-killing, whiskey-sipping dude that guys are thought to idolize.

"If you show hyper-masculine themes, guys think, ‘If that's what they're about, I’m on board. I can do that,’" says Muething. "They want to see something that is very much 'fuck you to the world' and although they may work in a cubicle, they want to live through our brand. They want to feel like that's the lifestyle they want." (Muething’s phrasing here, "feel like that’s the lifestyle they want," is interesting. As if, deep down, men are more comfortable daydreaming about this badass persona in their cubicle or their 3 p.m. meeting with Janice from finance than they are actually living it.)

And while not all men’s grooming products embody that exact look, there are clearly defined (and limited) types of men that seem to exist in the minds of grooming brands’ marketing departments. There’s the hardcore bearded bastard, the elegant James Bond type, the Pauly Ds of the world, and a strain of men who wish for the bygone barbershop era. We’ve charted them all on a matrix that places brand according to how minimal, exaggerated, low, and high they are.

Men’s grooming brands matrix
The men’s grooming brands matrix.

The most dominant (and crowded) category is the high-end minimalist brands. In 2016, minimalism is manly. This is true in fashion and it’s also evident for grooming brands. Anthony Sosnick, the founder of grooming brand Anthony, gives a couple reasons for this phenomenon.

"First, men have very short attention spans and men like to feel smart about their purchase," he says. "These are things that we've learned (Anthony uses focus groups). When packaging is easy for them to look at and comprehend, that plays into a man's psyche. Second, with the copy that we have on the packaging, it's not loaded down with paragraphs of text, you can read the copy with the objective and the strategy and really know what the product does."

The last point is a recurring theme among the more minimal brands. Several founders speak to the importance of making the name of the product exactly what it is. "Our shave cream is called ‘shave cream.’ Our facial scrub is called ‘facial scrub,’" Sosnick says.

Agarwal of Recipe for Men echoes that sentiment. "Our facial cleanser is called ‘facial cleanser,’ it's not ‘gasoline for your face,’ or something like that," he explains. In Agarwal’s experience, men want something they can easily identify on the shelf so they can get in and out. "It's not a catchy product name because, in our experience, guys generally seeking skincare want something quickly."

Recipe for Men Product Photo: Recipe for Men

The idea that men don’t want to be caught serum-handed in the beauty department is one that plagues the marketing of men’s grooming in general. And the proliferation of e-comm shops is a potential reason for the boom in men’s grooming. "Online tends to do pretty decently for men," Agarwal notes. "Guys want to try it, but at the same time I think they like the comfort of reading about it in a publication and seeing press around a product. From there, they're willing to go to our site or one of our online stockists and try the product out." In 2015, the sale of men’s grooming products at online-only retailer Mr Porter increased 300 percent, reports The Independent.

Popular New York City beauty retailer Ricky’s recently beefed up the men’s section at its 14th Street location — and is planning to do so at its other stores — to keep up with demand, and it’s instantly noticeable: It lives right in the front and smack dab in the center. You can’t Electric Slide from Ricky’s entrance without running into its men’s section.

The store’s manager, Mike Thcuri, says that the store is set up this way so that the men who come in the store aren’t forced to navigate a labyrinth of women’s products to get to their section. "We don't want men to walk into Ricky's and feel lost," he explains. He also says that the placement serves as an effective draw for men who haven’t crossed the threshold yet. "The way I usually think about it is, you're out with your girlfriend, you're walking, she wants to go into Ricky's and the guy is like, ‘Eh,’ but they see from the window there's a men's section and they're like, ‘Alright, let's go.’ They can keep themselves occupied for a little bit."

Wives and girlfriends play a huge role in general in this space. Thcuri says that the products that do best in store are those that are water-soluble, which means they wash out easily and won’t turn hair into the kind you can look at but not touch. "Mainly because their significant other doesn't want to run their hand through their hair and just feel gunk," Thcuri explains.

Ricky's men's section
Ricky’s men’s section
Photo: Ricky’s

In fact, at Ricky’s, women are actually the ones shopping for most of these products and making a call for their partners. "Mainly it’s a lot of women coming in like, ‘I need to finish and fix my man's hair,’" Thcuri says. The fact that women still make many of the purchasing decisions in this category is part of the reason so many higher-end brands lean minimalist.

Sosnick says women are responsible for 30 to 40 percent of Anthony’s sales, and the brand has explicitly leaned into these sales. Sosnick says his products’ packaging has changed over the years to have "a masculine feel that also appeals to women." In fact, one of the brand’s taglines is "Developed for men, borrowed by women."

If you look at the matrix, it’s not hard to draw a line that separates the brands for single men and those for men in relationships. Axe is the most extreme example of this. The brand’s commercials envision a world where a simple spray of scents like Dark Temptation, Anarchy, and Excite attracts a stampede of attractive women.

Tellingly, the products that share this side of the matrix with Axe are almost always on the lower range of the price spectrum, and data from market research firm Canadean’s global consumer survey backs that up. "Men living alone are more likely to purchase deodorants at the lower end of the price range (34%), compared to those living in households of two or more (25%). A similar correlation exists with facial skincare and shampoo," says Canadean analyst Jamie Mills. This behavior is most prevalent around males 18 to 24, according to Mills.

Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank's Recommendations

  • Using scrubs with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid is beneficial for fighting acne.
  • Avoid harsh ingredients like nut particles in scrubs, which can make micro tears in the skin.
  • Sugar scrubs during wintertime are a good choice.
  • Lab Series Daily Moisturize Defense Lotion with SPF 15: This 2-in-1 moisturizer offers the protection against the sun.
  • Lab Series Age Rescue + Water Gel Cream: This anti-oxidant moisturizer has anti-aging ingredients.
  • The thought process is that when women are calling the shots, they’re more likely to pay more. Men, when left to make these decisions for themselves, buy something that’s cheaper. The idea that grooming products represent a life that could be rears its head most in this "manlier" category. "Brands such as Axe are capitalizing on this purchasing behavior through their affordable price point combined with hyper-masculine messaging which is largely focused around ‘getting the girl,’" says Mills.

    Brands like Bearded Bastard tend to target the most mainstream audience possible. "It's not typically the guy who follows GQ," Muething says. "It's guys who are already predisposed to liking our branding: motorcycles, babes, rock ‘n’ roll, and tattoos."

    Others, like Ab Crew, try to marry something grooming with something traditionally manly (sports and fitness). "Men have embraced grooming and beauty more than ever before, but not nearly as much as they have embraced fitness," Brandon Truaxe, founder of Ab Crew’s parent company Deciem, says. "Ultimately, most men go to the gym today to look better and are not bothered by following complex regimens of multiple proteins and other supplements, but a complex beauty regimen is still perceived to be a bit unmanly." Truaxe hopes that if men closely associate grooming with fitness, the brand can overcome this stigma.

    But leaning into fitness isn’t exclusive to lower-end brands. Recipe for Men pushes a backstory that involves Olympic-level skiers creating the brand after days on the slopes dried out their skin. "We definitely try and push that because it appeals to guys and it appeals to the active male that does care about their appearance and wants to take care of themselves," Agarwal says. It’s one of the reasons Recipe for Men sits firmly in the middle of our matrix. It’s minimal but dressed up in a bright red shiny package. Agarwal explains that it’s manly in the same way a Ferrari is. It also makes me think of the polos Tiger Woods wore during final rounds in golf tournaments. It’s a power color.

    What comes up in conversations with brands across the matrix is that it’s no longer manly to be a slob. Wherever brands are on the matrix, they’re offering something for men who care about how they look. "It's becoming acceptable to have a couple more products besides deodorant and the 3-in-1 body wash, but it's no longer about primping and being metrosexual," Muething says. "You still want to be a red-blooded American on your Harley Davidson."

    "It's becoming acceptable to have a couple more products besides deodorant and the 3-in-1 body wash, but it's no longer about primping and being metrosexual."

    The word metrosexual is another buzzword in my conversations. It seems impossible to quantify how much pain marketers inflicted on grooming brands when they invented that word. For men, it was suddenly impossible to care about how you looked without getting pegged as a metrosexual and the word was applied liberally — it was "hipster" before "hipster." But it had such negative (read: feminine) connotations, it made putting effort into how you look something to be ashamed of.

    We’re getting over the metrosexual hump, though, and, with some heavy branding, brands are going to find a way for men to be okay with grooming yet. "It's not a balance between being a snob or being effeminate," Muething explains. "You can go out and be the hero in the movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s or have that great beard rocks stars used to have back in the day. Guys who used to think it was manly to not care about how you look are realizing, no, if you take care of yourself and smell good, you'll feel really good and more masculine. Guys are leaning into that more than we've seen in the past couple generations."


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