The Nail Polish Effect

  • Nail care has been one of the strongest performing categories the past few years, leading to a slew of beauty companies looking to capitalize on this success.
  • Marketing techniques like partnerships with celebrities and major movies have helped spur consumer interest in new nail polish colors.
  • Innovations also include new formulations that are longer lasting, quicker to dry and that help promote the health of nails.

It is no secret that the nail category has been one of the bright spots in the beauty industry lately, and in particular during these past few years of overall lackluster growth. In the U.S., the nail category has been quantified at more than $1 billion, as, according to Euromonitor International, retail sales reached $1 billion in 2012, up 26% from $793.8 million in the prior year. And other market researchers have assessed this category even more aggressively, with IRI noting that nail care sales for the 52-week period ending August 11, 2013, reached $1.7 billion in total U.S. multi-outlets, which was defined as supermarkets, drugstores, mass market retailers, military commissaries, and select club and dollar retail chains.

However you look at it, nail care products—including color lacquers and other treatment and care products—are exciting the consumer, and many beauty brands are jumping on this trend, looking to further capitalize on the excitement.

A History Lesson

The concept of nail color likely goes back thousands of years, with inspiration coming from Asian civilizations—most likely in India and China. Yet it wasn’t until 1932 that the first actual nail lacquer, in hues of red and pink, was launched by Charles Revson at Revlon. The new category was embraced by Hollywood actresses, including Rita Hayworth, who was well-known for her statement red nails.

The trend spread, and its next breakthrough came in 1964 when Clairol launched a nail enamel product that was easier to use and offered more consistent results. Then came the invention of the French manicure in the 1970s and the launch of deep, dark colors—possibly exemplified by Chanel’s Vamp nail lacquer in 1995—followed by the 1996 rollout of the quick-dry Express Nail Color by Maybelline. And thus evolved the nail category as we know it today.

Why Now?

Why has the nail category been such a bright spot over the last few years? While some in the beauty industry have referred to the “lipstick index” as an indicator of the overall economy, the newly coined “nail polish index” suggests nail care products are an affordable way to change one’s look—(polishes, on average, cost between $5–20 per bottle.) Some in the beauty industry also credit the increased use of texting as a means of communicate as impacting this segment, and indeed, texting puts hands—thus nails—front and center.

Celebrity endorsements and partnerships also have driven the appeal of the nail category. Whether looking at celebrity partnerships (Gwen Stefani or Mariah Carey and OPI, for example) or color collections timed to match and launch with the themes and releases of blockbuster movies (for example, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s Capitol Collection from CoverGirl), Hollywood has been great for nails.

Building into the nail polish index theory, nail products can help give an additional touch of luxury to a mundane personal care routine. Brands such as Butter London, Deborah Lippmann, Julep and SpaRitual help nail care offer a feel of luxury and sophistication, and consumers are able to use these types of products at home—not just in a professional setting.

Technology innovation also has driven revenue growth for nails. Most recently, the launch of soak-off gels by brands such as Orly, OPI, CND (Shellac) and Essie have enabled women to maintain the color and shine of a traditional manicure for up to 14+ days.

Beyond gels, various new finishes—including matte top coats, glitter polishes, nail pens, nail tattoos and decals, and even 3D textures—have driven new product launches. And one of the most recent innovations in nail care has been CND’s launch of Vinylux, a self-adhering color coat that attaches securely to the nail without the need for a base coat—and with a built-in top coat that works to continually strengthen the color through exposure to light.

Beyond technology, innovation is visible in the form of nail art. According to Nails magazine, there are upwards of 2.5 million Google searches for the term “nail art” on a monthly basis. And this is in addition to the launch of a plethora of nail blogs, Pinterest boards, Instagram photos and even magazines dedicated to nails.

Noticing Nails

Nail care products continue to be the hot topic today, but of course, there is no telling if it will be the hot topic tomorrow too. However, those in the beauty industry continue to feed the category with fun innovations and smart marketing angles, it will likely continue its climbing trajectory and be a respite for color- and texture-seeking beauty consumers for a long time to come.

Ada Polla is the co-creator of the Swiss antioxidant skin care line Alchimie Forever, which launched in the U.S. in 2004. Her strategic focus and implementation have yielded double-digit annual revenue growth for the company. She holds an MBA from Georgetown University, majored in art history and political science at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1999. She is also a GCI magazine editorial advisor.

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