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Marketing: The War on Wrinkles

7 minute read
Dody Tsiantar

Walk into a Sephora cosmetics store anywhere, and you’ll be bombarded with slickly packaged products promising to make you look radiant, smell good and feel gorgeous. Yet almost hidden among those glamorous potions is a plain medicinal box–labeled with the unsexy pitch INTENSIVE CONCENTRATE FOR EXISTING STRETCH MARKS (STRIAE DISTENSAE)–that just happens to be one of the chain’s Top 10–selling items. No, stretch marks haven’t suddenly become big business. But thanks in part to aggressive ads that proclaim it “Better than Botox?,” the scientific-sounding StriVectin-SD has become the hottest thing in the war on wrinkles–a booming industry that’s generating billions of dollars for dermatologists, cosmetics firms and, yes, retailers like Sephora. “[StriVectin] is driving traffic in our stores,” says Sephora vice president Rod McFadden, “and it’s having a spillover effect: our entire skin-care business has benefited.”

The fight against old age has long been good business, and it’s only getting better. Global retail sales of antiaging skin-care products–up 71% since 2000–are rising faster than any other segment of the skin-care market, according to Euromonitor, a market researcher, hitting $9.9 billion last year. More than 2 million Americans got Botox injections and about 1.6 million got chemical peels or microdermabrasions in 2003 (the most recent year for which stats exist). Says Carol Hamilton, president of L’Oréal Paris: “Now you have a whole generation who basically believes that they never have to see a wrinkle. This is a powerful movement in the beauty industry.”

StriVectin is either the latest fad in that movement or an antiaging silver bullet, depending on whom you ask. But in either case, it is clearly one of the most talked about new products in the industry, roiling competitors, realigning expectations and even prompting lawsuits–from Botox maker Allergan, which disputes StriVectin’s advertising claims, and from StriVectin itself, against alleged copycat marketers pushing similarly named knock-offs. Priced at a hefty $135 per 6-oz. tube, StriVectin, made by privately held Klein-Becker, a division of Salt Lake City, Utah– based weight-loss-supplement maker Basic Research, last year tallied an estimated $60 million in sales, almost double the sales that a new skin-care product typically generates in its first year in U.S. department stores, according to NPD, a market-research firm. Clearly, for every vain soul who has undergone a dermatological procedure, there are thousands more as concerned about wrinkles but squeamish about needles. As Klein-Becker’s marketing director Gina Gay puts it, “There are people who don’t want injections.”

In the past year, nearly every beauty brand, upscale and downmarket, has introduced a new antiaging skin cream–Estée Lauder’s Perfectionist (CP+), Olay’s Regenerist Perfecting Cream and Avon’s Anew Clinical Line and Wrinkle Corrector, to name a few. “We’ve been on the antiaging track for a long time, even before StriVectin came along,” says Estée Lauder’s Peter Lichtenthal, the brand’s senior marketing vice president. “But its success has provided further proof of how hungry the public is for these types of products.”

Klein-Becker stumbled on StriVectin’s effect on fine facial lines by accident back in 2002, when the company started testing its new stretch-mark cream. Says Klein-Becker’s Gay: “There were no directions on the tube. So some of the testers used it on their face and discovered that it smoothed out their skin. It was just dumb luck.” Many products throughout the ages, of course, have promised to reverse the aging process. StriVectin’s particular solution relies on peptides–strings of amino acids that stimulate enzymes in skin cells to produce more collagen, a protein that restores the skin’s structure and keeps it from sagging.

But here’s the rub: many other antiaging creams use exactly the same types of compounds that target collagen production. Says Avon’s research chief Janice Teal: “We’ve been using peptides in our products for years.” Louis Rinaldi, head of Klein-Becker’s new product acquisitions, counters that StriVectin’s particular concentration of those compounds and the inclusion of a certain botanical extract make it more effective.

StriVectin certainly isn’t the first antiaging cream to spark a frenzy with better-than-the-rest claims. Crème de la Mer, bought by Estée Lauder in 1995, was the first cream to become a cult favorite. Made with sea kelp, La Mer sold for more than $150 for a 2-oz. jar, the first skin-care product to break that price point. Another big push came with the publication of well-known dermatologist Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s book, The Wrinkle Cure, in 2000 and the launch of his pricey line of skin-care potions. (Perricone just opened a flagship store on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue last month.) At-home alternatives to dermatological procedures have also hit big. Last June, for example, L’Oréal Paris launched ReFinish, a $25 microdermabrasion kit; it’s the brand’s most expensive–and successful–skin-care product to date.

Meanwhile, Klein-Becker has some wrinkles of its own to worry about. There is competition from alleged knock-off brands, which so far has prompted the firm to file 16 trademark-infringement suits in federal court. Then there’s a Federal Trade Commission suit scheduled for trial in July against Klein-Becker and its parent firm, Basic Research, alleging that its ads for several weight-loss supplements and tummy-flattening gels are misleading, although a spokesperson for Klein-Becker (which denies the charges) notes that StriVectin plays no part in that case.

Perhaps most important, though, is the Botox issue. Even as Allergan’s litigation with Klein-Becker about StriVectin’s “Better than Botox?” ads is pending, the Food and Drug Administration has warned that StriVectin might be reclassified as a drug (which Klein-Becker is seeking to avoid). At the same time, other cosmetics competitors have jumped on the opportunity to compare themselves to Botox. Estée Lauder’s Perfectionist is promoted in its ads as the ideal cream “for every woman who says no to Botox”; Avon’s Anew Clinical Deep Crease Concentrate jabs at Botox with the line, “look stunning, not stunned” and contains a trademarked compound called Bo-Hylurox, a combination of a plant extract and hyaluronic acid (a jellylike substance found in skin tissue that helps restore its moisture). Admits Avon’s Teal: “We made the [term] up. It telegraphs Botox and hyaluronic acid.” And then there is Allergan itself, which came out with its own antiwrinkle cream in January, Prevage (sold only through dermatologists), featuring a 1% concentration of the antioxidant idebenone.

The big question, of course, is whether any of those things actually work. The cosmetics industry spends millions on real science, employing teams of chemists, pharmacologists and microbiologists in labs all over the world. And in clinical tests, each company says its cream decreases the depth of fine facial lines to some degree. None of them claim, however, that their products make wrinkles disappear completely, the way a shot of Botox can. Still, the search for a better fountain-of-youth cream continues. Avon is about to complete a $100 million state-of-the-art research facility in Suffern, N.Y. And Clinique last month announced a $7 million research grant devoted to the study of skin with Weill Cornell Medical College, the first ever collaboration between a university and a cosmetic brand. Perhaps the most revealing insight comes from Estée Lauder’s research chief Daniel Maes, who notes that along with peptides and other compounds, his firm’s Perfectionist cream includes optic polymers that reflect the light that hits the skin–creating the optical illusion that a wrinkle is smaller by blurring its edges. In other words, it’s all about appearances. And who could argue with that?

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