What Was Brand Loyalty?

Whyyyyyyy do we buy the things we buy? A better, if more myopic question, might be: whyyyyy do I spend so much money on products that might be generously labelled “elective” if not “a useless expenditure that masquerades as vital by creating a perpetual loop of buying, liking, becoming convinced it is a necessity, and then buying again”?

For all my endlessly repetitive thoughts, I almost never ask myself why I consume so many cosmetics. Every so often — like, say, right now — I’ll look down and notice the financial investment represented on my vanity mirror, or in my bathroom cupboard, or propped up in the corners of my shower. I have the whole routine down to a science, practically, should you be inclined to use the term “science” as loosely as I do, and I know people with far more extensive collections than I have, but still: there are a lot of tubes and jars and bottles making a lot of different promises, and I rarely stop to examine why and how I bought in as thoroughly as I have.

My time as a makeup artist, of course, is one easy explanation. You can’t be a makeup artist and think you are somehow above the use of makeup; not only that, common sense dictates that the best makeup artist is often the one with the best makeup on their face, like a business card expertly drawn with a tube-shaped cream. The makeup artists I knew who worked the most demanding jobs (film shoots in Alaska, breakfast television shows that commenced at 4 a.m.) often didn’t bother with makeup — but their skin and hair was always flawless. So when I was working at counters and on shoots I tried my best to look like a walking representation of my skills: hire me to get this look!

In beauty school, we were encouraged to try different brands to get a feel for what we liked and what worked in different situations. At the same time, cosmetics companies were making such transparent plays for our affections it was almost embarrassing. Discounts at popular chains, extensive demonstrations from marketing reps, high-paying (although always short-term) contract work at department stores, and free samples were just a few of the ways different companies tried to convince us that their particular breed of cream, oil, liquid, or powder was just what we needed to be using in our kits and on our clients and, most importantly, on ourselves. Our goal was to eventually find a cosmetics company we’d want to work with…forever, or at least until something better came along. Our teachers, for the most part, had worked or did work for NARS and Laura Mercier, and the resulting influence was one I felt acutely and never questioned: those must be the best brands, since the best makeup artists I knew used them!

The problem came when I started developing my own brand loyalties in school (the ones that I’ve hung on to include NARS for lipstick and eyeshadow, Benefit for mascara, blush, and eyeliner, Makeup For Ever for liquid liner, and Laura Mercier for tinted moisturizers and primers) and then… couldn’t get jobs at those counters. In my time doing the department store circuit, I was hired as a “floater,” working primarily for the office administration of the beauty counters: when a brand had a special event, I would help prep by ordering supplies and filling out product reports on what was selling in what quantities, and then spend a few hours per shift on the floor. So I would often be put in the tricky spot of spending a few minutes talking to a customer before they asked the inevitable: “but which product do you use?”

A wiser manager told me she always just avoided the question by pointing out whatever product was the closest approximation, but I am a bad liar and I always felt like they could see it on my face. The thing is, I didn’t really ever buy anything because it was the best, or the best I could afford, and I don’t think I do today! As with all capitalist compromises, I base my purchases on a variety of factors that have little to do with the final product: the ingrained belief that, as a woman, I should look a certain way is one, and my personal aesthetic tendency towards minimalism, utilitarianism, and a sensitivity towards textures and smells is another. Aesop flatters the part of me that feels like skincare is an exclusive and pseudo-scientific endeavor that should smell good; NARS flatters the part of me that hates a cracked lip color or the perceptible smell of makeup. But neither brand is necessary, or even objectively better than any other! If I stopped using one or more product, I doubt even I would notice.

But my opinion, as a former makeup artist, holds weight I’ve never been fully comfortable with — though I love giving beauty advice, in all honesty I am just as trapped in the same brainwashing cycle as any other insecure person hoping to buy themselves better! I don’t know what makes a cosmetics product good, or necessary, or even just worth your hard-earned money; I certainly don’t know if what works for me will work for anyone else’s unique set of biological needs or suit their aesthetic preferences. Anyone who tells you otherwise… well, maybe they’re not lying, but they are profiting off a tendency to follow a leader — any leader — in lieu of examining our own patterns and choices.

I’m trying to save money right now, so I’ve let several elective products lapse: my favorite face mask is one (recommended by a beauty blogger) and an exorbitantly expensive concealer (recommended by a very beautiful friend) is another. So far… I’ve noticed no difference. But I guess I’m thinking about it a little more critically.