The Lure of Nutricosmetic Opportunity

L’Oréal’s plan to develop a pill that prevents grey hair is indicative of a growing fashion for less conventional beauty solutions as companies seek innovative ways to combat sluggishness in developed markets, above all by harnessing the vanity-driven spending capacity of ageing populations.

The George Clooney factor

On the face of it, a pill you would need to take for the rest of your life – to prevent the possible onset of grey hair – is a big ask, even for the vainer among us. One needs to keep in mind that L’Oréal’s proposed hair care pill, which could be rolled out as early as 2015, is not intended to reverse grey hair once it has taken root. It is more a pre-emptive strike.

The problem is that most people do not worry about grey hair until it has become a reality. Were L’Oréal to come up with a pill to prevent male pattern baldness, we would be looking at a Viagra-style hair care revolution. To be clear, baldness is a condition men (and women) do worry about before it has set in, particularly if hair loss runs in the family.

There is also evidence, at least in developed markets, that men are less bothered about turning grey than they were even a decade ago. And that is thanks in no small part to high-profile grey-haired celebrities such as George Clooney. Grey hair used to be considered, somewhat euphemistically, as distinguished. Clooney has made it sexy.

Women are, arguably, more anxious about greying hair than men, but the hair colourants market offers such a myriad of user-friendly solutions it seems unlikely that too many women would sign up to a lifetime stash of pills if they are a preventative rather than a cure. So, why is L’Oréal even bothering to invest in a product which, from inception, looks strategically flawed?

A daily dose of functionality

L’Oréal could argue that millions of people around the world take vitamin pills on a regular basis as a form of illness prevention, so why not pills to prevent grey hair too?

The company has also gone out of its way to stress the natural functionality of the product, which will be made from a (secret) natural fruit extract that helps make pigment producing cells called melanocytes.

Indeed, there is a convergence between vitamins, nutritional supplements and the proposed hair care pill in the sense that they each merge concepts of inner health or inner beauty with outer health and outer beauty. Inner beauty is a central premise of so-called nutricosmetics, and at the core of investment in this category is the development of more natural and less invasive beauty solutions.

So far so good, but while nutritional pills to ward off the immediate threat of colds and flu is one thing, nutricosmetic pills to ward off grey hair at some unknown time in the future is quite another. And unlike health and wellness foods and drinks, there is no immediate sustenance or thirst-quenching upside to complement the functionality.

In Brazil, for example, the carbonated soft drink Guaraná – which is made from Amazonian berries – is one of the most popular beverages in the country, not least because it is a widely held belief that the berries have aphrodisiac properties. Brazilians subscribe to the alleged functionality of the drink, but they also knock back Guaraná because it tastes good and is a source of natural energy.

Finding the sweet spot of The Lure of Nutricosmetic Opportunity

There will, of course, be some markets around the world with a stronger disposition to anti-grey hair pills than others. Japan, for example, is renowned for its affinity with functional products to prevent unwanted ageing conditions, and for products that boost wellness. As such, Japan is one of the most receptive markets in the world to nutricosmetics, along with Italy, Germany and France, which have similarly ageing demographics.

The current fashion for nutricosmetics is another probable reason why L’Oréal has announced research plans for an anti-ageing hair care pill. Specifically, the company needs to be seen as one of the driving forces behind innovation in nutricosmetics, and an anti-ageing hair care pill is a headline-grabbing concept.

The hair care pill might never reach the market but by announcing the possibility of the product, L’Oréal has stolen an innovation march on its competitors and picked up widespread press coverage, which is good for branding even though some of the coverage has been sceptical. Ultimately, the hair care pill is one of many non-conventional beauty solutions that L’Oréal and its competitors will be mulling over. Sooner or later, one of these ideas will hit the sweet spot.