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Urban Decay

By Professor Mike Nicholson and Phoebe Huzar - July 2019

The state-of-the-art equipment has been recording the brain activity of customers as they explore the store, its merchandise, and then indulge themselves with a complimentary makeover from skilled Beauty Advisors. The readings throughout have been varied and interesting, but what the researchers are witnessing now is quite astonishing.

Relaxation measures have increased by over 800% in response to a single event during the course of the shopping experience. This is due to contouring: the skilful application of cosmetics products to define, enhance and sculpt the structure of the face. More specifically, it is the stage of contouring performed with a single large make-up brush!

The power of the ‘fluffy brush effect’ in positively affecting the mood of consumers, along with subsequent spending, is just the latest discovery to emerge from an exciting collaboration between Durham University Business School and the cosmetics brand Urban Decay, part of the L’Oreal global empire. For the past two years, with guidance from supervisor Professor Mike Nicholson, undergraduate student Phoebe Huzar has been making an increasingly important contribution to Urban Decay’s retail experience design. It all began with a Placement Year, during which, Phoebe set out to investigate ways in which the brand’s retail outlets could gain a competitive advantage through the careful crafting of a more engaging and emotionally rewarding in-store experience. Early in this process, attention quickly focused on the delivery of in-store makeovers, a common practice in cosmetics retailing, but one fraught with contradictions when seen through the consumer’s lens. On the one hand, customers relish the opportunity to have their make-up professionally applied by a trained Beauty Advisor, an experience that is both relaxing and an opportunity for learning. At the same time, however, most brands conduct their makeovers in the middle of the shop floor, a very public display that can easily dissuade more self-conscious customers – customers who often belong to potentially high spending market segments.

Phoebe’s early focus groups shed new light on just how intimidating such a makeover can be, along with the untapped potential were a retailer to finally get this right. These insights informed the development of the innovative ‘in-store salon’ concept, which came to fruition with the opening of the flagship new-look store in the Westfield shopping mall.

Dubbed the ‘store of the future’ by Urban Decay, this exciting new outlet offers a complete salon experience, a separate area behind a retractable wall to afford privacy for a makeover that not only includes the ultimate in pampering, but also the ability to view the finished product under different lighting conditions, from natural daylight to the full nightclub effect. And it doesn’t stop there. When she returned to Durham at the end of her Placement Year, Phoebe set to work with Mike in developing a final-year dissertation project that would enjoy unprecedented levels of access and participant incentivisation from Urban Decay.

Through a series of focus groups and repertory grid interviews, Phoebe’s research began to reveal insight after insight of potentially significant commercial impact for the company, from the optimisation of store atmospherics to the ways in which careful shaping of consumer involvement levels can change brand perceptions and loyalty.

But it is the strong neuroscience dimension that really makes this piece of marketing research stand out. ‘Neuromarketers’ study how the consumer’s brain responds to marketing stimuli and the way those brain responses vary in different situations. Armed with portable EEG headsets, a laptop and a large quantity of good-old-fashioned saline solution, Phoebe and Mike spent a fascinating two days in Urban Decay’s flagship store early in 2019. With amazing support from an intrigued in-store retail team, Phoebe set about capturing EEG data under Mike’s supervision from an enthusiastic group of cosmetics consumers. Over 3.9 million data points were captured over the two-day period, charting brain activity as consumers explored the store environment and its colourful displays, experimented with sample products on the ‘play table’ and interacted with in-store tablet technology, and even sought to ‘Burst the Cherries’ and win prizes during a videowall game on the outside of the store. And of course, data captured during the makeovers themselves revealed the power of the ‘fluffy brush effect’, arguably the most unusual output of consumer cosmetics research, much to the amusement and delight of senior Urban Decay executives from L’Oreal Head Office, who dropped by to witness neuromarketing in action.

In many ways, however, the real innovation of the Urban Decay project lies in its value as an exemplar of what can be achieved when a little creativity is applied to the student-supervisor industry relationship. For Phoebe, this was an incredible retail research experience that has enhanced her employability skills immeasurably and already attracted the attentions of a major brand agency. For Urban Decay, this was a unique opportunity to gain new consumer insights and marketing advice from a senior Durham academic. And for Mike? Well, his knowledge of cosmetics products and contouring has become encyclopaedic from witnessing so many makeovers first-hand; a not trivial knowledge gain for an evolutionary psychologist researching appearance enhancing products! In short, the store of the future inspired the dissertation of the future, paving the way for a taste of things to come on Durham’s undergraduate programmes.

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