Meagan Kelly and Lauren Clarke



She’s All That: Exploring Lipstick Theory, the Beauty Industry, and the Purchasing Power of Women

Whether it’s from a personal, professional, or economic viewpoint, the achievements of women often go overlooked in favour of our male counterparts. Take sports for example. Male athletes will simply be referred to as “the greatest athlete of all time,” but female athletes are “the greatest woman athlete”—even if their accomplishments are more notable. It feels as though there’s always an asterisk for the accomplishments of women, trying to find a way to diminish our success.

But to do so is to simply ignore facts. Ignore prominence. Ignore power. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captured it perfectly, when she said “any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick.”

The history and impact of Lipstick Theory

Red lipstick signifies more than just a style choice or bold statement. It’s an indicator of economic change. There are stats that specifically connect an uptick of sales in lipstick to an impending recession. In 2022, Forbes noted that as a recession was threatening, the sale of lipstick and “other lip makeup” grew 48% year-over-year in the first quarter. That’s twice as fast as any other beauty products. In 2023, the analytic firm Circana reported an 18% increase in Canadian beauty sales—again, even as the country was on the verge of recession. 

This is what’s known as the Lipstick Effect, or Lipstick Theory. 

Originally brought forward in 1998 by Juliet Schor in her book, The Overspent American, the theory is that during times of economic hardship, “[women] are looking for affordable luxury, the thrill of buying in an expensive department store.” Plus, they’re more likely to buy higher-end brands for beauty items they’ll be seen using in public, while the at-home items are an area where they can save. They’ll buy a high-end tube of lipstick, knowing it’ll be applied at work, bars, restaurants, etc., and in turn buy lower-end products they’ll use at home, like moisturizer, face wash, and serums. 

This can carry over more broadly, suggesting as money becomes tight, people are more willing to splurge on a “little treat” that makes them feel special rather than a big-ticket item. But at its core, it’s a fascinating look at how the beauty industry—a space predominantly held by women—can be used to predict, navigate, and analyze the overall economic market. 

Understanding the purchasing power of women

While the beauty industry might be the most well-researched area of how and when they spend, women have extreme purchasing power in other areas. When the 50 Shades of Grey book series was released in 2012, it couldn’t stay on the shelves. Neither could the adult toys associated with the content. The purchases directly related to the growing popularity of the books actually helped bring Britain out of recession by 1%. Three books. That’s all it took to create the biggest market stimulant of the time. 

While that may be a funny example to use, the overall message is clear. The purchasing power and spending habits of women are extremely valuable indicators of economic health, and can lead to noticeable changes.

Need more convincing? Here are some stats: 

It’s not “just lipstick.”

The ugly truth of the beauty industry

If we’re looking towards the beauty industry as an economic indicator, then we need to fully understand what the beauty industry brings, and look a little more closely at why women feel obligated to keep up with beauty trends even in times of financial crisis. While it would be nice to believe every cosmetic purchase is born out of a love for one’s self and a desire to express creativity through makeup, societal pressures would point to that not being the case. 

Between the “#NoMakeup” movement being a constant undercurrent, and the latest boom of “Sephora Kids” taking over, there’s not only contradicting messaging being pushed on women, but also extreme pressures to be up to date with the latest trends—or else. 

Does no makeup really mean no makeup?

One of the most prominent showings of beauty industry contradictions is the #NoMakeup movement, which has been around for years now. The premise is that women choosing to wear no makeup are embracing their natural beauty, signaling to society or to themselves that they’re comfortable and confident in their own natural skin.

Going truly no-makeup involves little to no beauty work. It’s liberating in that it literally frees up your time and money. But this new #NoMakeup movement does the opposite. Unrealistic dermatology appointments, expensive serums and acids—to name a few—costing way more, ironically, than just applying the makeup you’re now supposed to reject. 

Alicia Keys famously announced she was going makeup free in 2016, saying her decision to go bare-faced was to combat her own superficial feelings towards beauty and the constant pressures to live up to other peoples’ expectations of her. She no longer wanted to cover up, and instead wanted to be her authentic self. Alicia Keys’ no-makeup routine was reported to have cost $455 which included “ice work to tighten the skin” and grated cucumber face masks (and much, much more).

Does this mean “no-makeup beauty” is just an extensive skincare routine that makes your skin more perfect, so you don’t need makeup? And doesn’t that undermine the entire purpose of the movement? Not to mention that most serums, creams, and treatments make the movement more daunting to those who can’t afford these types of luxuries. Is it gently and subtly signaling that the sort of beauty that is available to the masses, is therefore not beauty at all? The sort of expensive, behind-the-scenes upkeep needed to achieve this new, idealized no-makeup is now the new height of beauty? 

Rosanna Smith, a lead author of a research study that examined the relationship between the rise of the #NoMakeup movement from 2009 to 2016 and its correlation with makeup sales in the United States, said the #NoMakeup movement actually exacerbates a key tension that women have to manage. 

“I don’t know how much natural beauty movements actually help women,” Smith said. 

So the issue isn’t make-up. It’s the beauty industry and the system it operates under, and the rhetoric that keeps women in a constant state of questioning their worth through the lens of beauty. 

Makeup, no makeup, makeup, no makeup. It does two things: it keeps women buying whatever the latest product or regime is to meet the standard society dictates, and it keeps women competing against each other—continuing the giant wheel of oppression that puts women’s physical appearance at the forefront of their worth.

The role of brand in society 

There is a valid argument for makeup as a form of self expression, and basic grooming as self care and necessary for your health and functioning. But the large majority of beauty standards are about oppression and power, and we are participating in our own oppression by adhering to the standards without question. 

Brands play an important role in dictating a fair amount of the social narrative surrounding beauty. If consumers choose brands that are a direct reflection of their own set of beliefs, isn’t there a phenomenal opportunity for brands to speak up and engage consumers on a different set of values? 

In today’s society brands should draw attention to these cultural issues in a bid to promote more equality and inclusivity, and empower women rather than continue to divide and oppress. It’s up to brands to step into something of substance and adopt a rhetoric that says “buy our products, or don’t buy our products, just don’t buy into the feeling you have to.” And moreover, it’s up to the people buying those products to sit back and ask “why”?

Harnessing this knowledge as an industry

The importance of Lipstick Theory is two-fold. First, it’s a fascinating look into spending as a whole and how purchasing decisions can be driven by a desire for luxury while experiencing an economic downturn. But it’s also an eye-opening view into how we as branding and marketing professionals should be embracing the female audience even when the product or service isn’t specifically targeted at women. The product may not be for them, but the purchase is statistically likely to cross their purview, so don’t discount decision-making power they hold. 

These are some things to consider:

  • Invest in research about the challenges your female audience may be facing. The easiest way to pose a solution is to understand the problem.
  • Identify how you can make their lives easier or more efficient. As the person in charge of household spending, not to mention many other responsibilities, getting time back can be a large swaying factor.
  • Appeal to the unique experiences of being a woman without pandering. Don’t try and force something, be authentic.
  • Include women in the process throughout your entire ideation, development, and deployment process. It’s extremely evident when an advertisement for women is created by men.
  • Avoid societal stereotypes. Anecdotally, advertisements where Mom is the buzzkill while Dad is the fun parent read tone-deaf and jurassic.
  • Respect not only their time, but their intelligence. Belittling, condescension, and assumptions of inferiority aren’t going to take you far. 

And for the love of God, don’t make everything pink.