Geoffrey Jones


On his book Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry

Cover Interview of January 02, 2011

The wide angle

I am sometimes asked what a grown man, let alone a Harvard business professor, is doing with a history of the beauty industry.  Underlying the question is the assumption that beauty is not a serious business.  I dispute this.  Beauty is a fascinating and puzzling business: Exactly what are people buying when they buy skin cream or a lipstick?  The important beauty business tells us much about our world today.

Let me start how I got to write this book.  My background is as a business historian teaching in a business school.  I write and I teach MBAs about the history of business, especially the history of global business.  My first professional encounter with the beauty industry grew directly out of this interest.

During my research for a book I published five years ago, on the history of the consumer goods giant Unilever, I was taken aback when I saw how little had been written on the beauty industry from a business perspective.  Business historians had written more on diapers and margarine than on make-up or hair dye.  The giant French beauty industry, in particular, was seriously under-researched—even in French, let alone English.  I concluded that a $330 billion industry merits serious attention.

But it was the potential of the beauty industry to provide a new lens on globalization, past, present and future, which fascinated me.  We all experience globalization in our daily lives—sometimes painfully so, when jobs are outsourced to lower wage countries—but the phenomenon itself is almost too big to comprehend.  The beauty industry turns out to be a powerful way to understand the impact of globalization at a very individual level.

The desire of people to be attractive is certainly not in itself a product of globalization.  Humans have been interested in being attractive since the dawn of history, and they have made and bought products to help achieve this for as long.

From Charles Darwin onwards, many have argued that the search for being beautiful is based on the need to reproduce.  However different societies and time periods defined beauty in very different ways.  I show in the book that this changed dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century, as revolutionary improvements in transport and communication created the first great wave of globalization.  Beauty became associated with white people, and with certain Western cities, notably Paris, and later New York.

I do not claim that the association of beauty with Western countries and white people was the direct result of explicit corporate decrees.  For one thing, racism is far older than the beauty industry.  The timing of the emergence of the modern beauty industry and the first wave of globalization, coinciding with the highpoint of Western imperialism, made it all but inevitable that being white was seen as possessing superior beauty—alongside superior everything else.

I do argue that beauty companies interpreted such prevailing societal assumptions about ethnicity and appearance, translated them into marketing campaigns, reinforced them, and took them from the West to around the world.  Cleverly crafted marketing campaigns linking their brands to civilization then became reinforcers of societal and cultural prejudice, in the same way that the beauty industry in the United States mirrored its segregated society.  The result was an extraordinary worldwide homogenization of beauty ideals.  It was a homogenization born more from aspiration than coercion.

An extreme case I talk about in the book was in Japan, which resisted colonization, yet whose government sought to change the face of the Japanese people by banning tooth blackening and male use of cosmetics.  When Japanese-owned beauty companies emerged, they looked to France and the United States for products and brands.  The momentum of homogenization continued after 1914, by which time the creativity of US-based companies, the attractions of American wealth, and the beauty ideals represented in Hollywood movies, created a powerful new momentum.

There was little threat to the global pre-eminence of Western beauty for many decades.  Controversially, I suggest that our present era of globalization, which got underway two or three decades ago, is now facilitating more heterogeneous beauty ideals rather than simply working as a force for homogeneity.

The beauty industry is, again, interpreting political and societal shifts.  Responding to the new realities of the post-colonial world, firms began employing more local models in their advertising in non-Western countries.  As the racially segregated society of the United States gave way to a diverse mosaic of different ethnic groups, meeting the needs of the “ethnic market” became a marketing priority.  The economic growth of Brazil, Russia, India, and China not only created huge new markets for the industry, but also highlighted the wider range of skin tones, hair textures, and facial features that characterize humanity.  As Chinese and other consumers became affluent and confident, they demanded that the products they bought were relevant to them and their culture.  Aware of the growth of these markets, the large Western beauty companies are now scrambling to achieve this relevance.