Lipstick, mascara, APIs: What’s the secret to L’Oreal’s beauty-tech transformation?
Matt A.V. Chaban
To become the world’s leading beauty-tech company, L’Oréal is using APIs to build an open, scalable, secure marketplace for beauty online and IRL
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You’ve wandered into a department store on the set of “Mad Men” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and dozens of smartly dressed women are at the ready, offering advice on just the right beauty products. Compare that to today, where unless you’re at a cosmetics boutique, odds are the best you can hope for is a YouTube how-to and some blog reviews, or maybe video-calling a friend as you dash into the local big box pharmacy or shop online for some new concealer or eye shadow.
Or, maybe you pull out your phone, hold it up to your face and get expert advice and a whole new look from an app running L’Oréal’s “ModiFace.”
Those recommendations aren’t just tailored to your complexion, but also factors like the weather, daily pollution levels, and biometrics. Such features, and more always being added, are courtesy of Modiface’s augmented-reality interface and cloud-based connections.
If this seems like some magic from Aphrodite’s clutch, as effortless as the smile of Mona Lisa or Marilyn Monroe—well, there is magic at play. It’s the magic of APIs.
It takes dozens of inputs from L’Oréal’s platform, as well as a host of partners, to not just bring a face to life on a smartphone but give it a je ne sais quoi digital of a little rouge or some eye shadow options. The camera is at work, in addition to health and geo information. First- and third-party data can help illuminate past preference. Products from L’Oréal could be available for one-click purchasing.
After all, the more options available on L’Oréal’s own platform, the more offerings the company can create. And it is APIs that make up the components of all these inputs, creating simple interfaces and exchanges for them to interact and be adapted by developers and strategists.
An API product like Modiface allows for virtual try-on and other features not only in L’Oréal’s apps but anyone who deploys it.
For L’Oréal’s future, APIs have become as integral as scents and shades. It’s how the company could set the goal of not only being the world’s largest cosmetics company—which it already is, achieving sales of 32.3 billion Euros ($36 billion) in 2021—but also wanting to be something even bigger.
“Everything can be summarized in one word: beauty-tech, the alliance of beauty and technology,” Thomas Spiegel, L’Oréal’s group chief architect and head of integration & beauty-tech factory, said. “We want to be the world’s beauty-tech leader, which means the technology is fully embedded within our business strategy. It means more services, more personalization, more data, more real-time, and a clear move to customer services both direct and indirect, and a fabulous experience online and off for all consumers.”
And it means more opportunities.
An API for any occasion
Spiegel and his team have taken a novel, if increasingly common, approach to build their beauty-tech business: not just building it for themselves. Like a group of friends getting ready for a night on the town, they know they’ll have the best time if they share resources, experience, expertise, products, and more. And the more people they invite to the API party, the bigger and better it can be.
At the same time, each member of the group has to prioritize their needs in certain cases or places. That’s where an API platform like Apigee, which L’Oréal first deployed in 2020, comes in. The service is both the tool for developer access and adaptation of the digital services L’Oréal and its partners create, as well as the control point for security, privacy, and any compliance concerns. Plus, there’s the benefit of analytics, rate setting, profit-sharing, and more crucial enterprise features can be integrated.
For Spiegel, it was a long journey that commenced in a short amount of time—only two years since engaging Apigee to the current state of play. Or maybe it’s better considered the state of pay.
“We moved from tech APIs that make sure we can share services within L’Oréal, to business APIs with certain capabilities, to today, with APIs-as-a-product,” Spiegel said. “This approach allows us to embed services within our products or lets partners do it, creating a monetization layer.”
Like other L’Oréal apps, the Biotherm Skin Age Scan taps a range of data via API plugins.
Look no further than the various app stores, where there are no fewer than 25 L’Oréal-branded apps available. These include everything from the Redken Style Station, where you can virtually “try-on” a new hairstyle or lipstick, to L’Oréal Access, aimed at the many professional stylists who use L’Oréal products, and other apps for those selling cosmetics. There’s even IoT, in the slender form of the YSL Rouge Sur Mesure, which mixes up what could be called smart lipstick.
One of the biggest apps of all, full of L’Oréal products, but not itself one—is Amazon. In 2019, Modiface was integrated into the Amazon shopping app to allow for virtual try-ons, and last year, a similar tool debuted on Instagram. Both are designed to help promote the sale of L’Oréal products, as well as gather additional data to support future personalization efforts, research and development, and sales.
“It’s really a mindset shift,” Julien Rateau, Google Cloud’s head of Business Application Platform for EMEA and L’Oréal’s lead partner on the project, said. “Going from being application-centered to everything you do is an API—the developer experience is better, the speed is better, both in build and deployment. It enhances so many things, above all being the integration and collaboration created across the marketplace.”
A secure, monetizable platform for more than just L’Oréal
While L’Oréal’s move to Apigee was not without its challenges, the greatest ones, as with most digital transformations, were more cultural than technical. Getting alignment for a vastly new way to run the business and develop products created its fair share of worries and resistance. However, once L’Oréal leadership began to see the efficiencies and opportunities an API-first approach could offer, the more excitement grew.
“With platforms like Apigee, we can expose and consume API products with partners, and eventually monetize them together,” Spiegel said. “Today, when we look at the new way we are considering services, especially around specific experiences—even, tomorrow, say, in the metaverse—once again, the API is becoming the product and allowing for all these new experiences to happen, and happen both at speed and scale.”
For L’Oréal’s future, APIs have become as integral as scents and shades.
The foundation of the API strategy may be grounded in new products, platforms, and monetization streams, yet thanks to its flexibility and simplicity, it is proving capable of impacting even more corners of the business.
For a global brand, and collection of brands, like L’Oréal, the company needs to be able to tailor its offerings, as well as its distribution, marketing, and technology, to various markets and jurisdictions. So it’s not just consumer tastes but freight systems and regulators' wishes that have to be accommodated—accommodations that can be made more easily with API integration and productization.
“Our work in China, for example, was both highly technical and regulatory, as the rules are very specific to China, but it works wonderfully because of the reach of the platform,” said Fabien Mace, a Google Cloud business applications platform manager working with L’Oréal.
Apigee is also a gateway for other crucial backend integrations, such as SAP’s ERP resource management applications, which help with managing finances, logistics, ordering, and more. With supply chains and sustainability concerns top of mind for both businesses and their customers, these connections can be as important as the physical products they support.
“Pooling the brainpower of external developers”
Because all these various workloads are exposed as APIs that are well defined and standardized, it's easier for partners ranging from manufacturing to sales and even marketing to understand things like the status of a product. And through Apigee, L’Oréal can more easily manage and orchestrate these systems.
“By exposing the APIs to third parties, and integrating the APIs of others, we can come up with all kinds of new and novel use cases,” Spiegel said. “It’s really about pooling the brainpower of external developers as much as ourselves, and being outside-in, instead of inside-out.”
In the 1970s, L’Oreal launched what’s considered one of the most famous advertising campaigns ever, “Because I’m worth it.” Five decades on, the tagline could easily be: “Because APIs are worth it.”