When you pass someone on the street, there’s no way to know their pristine curls came from a pink, ceramic hair tool adorned with the iconic Barbie “B.” And just by looking at someone in a restaurant, you can’t tell that their red lipstick is the exact shade of Mickey Mouse’s shorts. But, there’s a chance that it is.
Licensed cosmetics and hair products are trendier than ever. Unlike pop culture-inspired T-shirts, jewelry, or bags, they don’t display an obvious homage when fans use or wear them. Yet, some intricate eyeshadow palettes and sculpted makeup brushes have become collectibles that are as highly sought-after as action figures or prop replicas.
Collaborations with influencers and celebrities may seem like the more natural licensing fit for the beauty space, but cosmetic companies have found mainstream success by tapping into pop culture. Beauty merch makers, including — but certainly not limited to — HipDot, Urban Decay, ColourPop, Ulta Beauty, Pat McGrath, Hally, CHI, and Bésame Cosmetics, have partnered with popular shows, movies, and even food brands to create licensed collections for fans. And while each of these companies brings a distinctive approach to beauty licensing, one constant rings true: It’s so much more than putting an image on a box.
Creating a successful licensed beauty collection starts with finding the right partnership, according to Lisa Marie Garcia, president of innovation at CHI. The haircare brand launched a collection of Barbie-branded hair styling tools in 2020, followed by a Malibu Barbie 50th-anniversary collection last year, with more Barbie items on the way this summer.
Garcia, who has worked on multiple licensed collections, calls the ongoing Barbie collaboration a dream. “Some [licenses] work and some don’t,” she says. “It all depends on the partnership, and Barbie has been the successful one.” She credits this success in part to how easy Barbie brand owner Mattel is to work with. But also, she says Barbie makes sense for the CHI brand. “If you’re a hairdresser or a girl, what’s the first thing you did?” Garcia says. ”You played with Barbie — her hair and her clothes. So it is a natural fit.”
Another hair-focused brand that’s a bit newer to licensing is Hally, which offers ammonia-free, at-home hair dye. Shortly after Hally launched last year, Disney reached out about collaborating for the Disney and Pixar movie Turning Red. Hally Founder and CEO Kathryn Winokur thought the partnership was an authentic match. “Before-and-afters are critically important for marketing hair color,” she explains. “What made Turning Red such a great fit is that Mei’s hair does [magically] poof to become bright red!”
Of course, finding that partner is only the start of a lengthy, complex product development process. Throughout, these hair care and cosmetics companies must consider both the fans and larger beauty trends in every single detail.
As a retailer and a manufacturer, Ulta Beauty understands both of these factors. “Our recent Ulta Beauty Collection collaborations, including Gilmore Girls and Disney and Pixar, were like love letters to fans of those franchises. We wanted to evoke a nostalgic feeling with throwbacks that are beloved. … We [also] want to ensure the colors from the artwork are season-appropriate, trend-forward, and that they can be translated to the packaging or shade options seamlessly. It’s a very thoughtful process from start to finish with our guests’ needs and wants top of mind,” says a representative from the company.
For HipDot CEO and Co-Founder Jeff Sellinger, the most important element is telling a strong story. He seeks out brands with “cult-like followings” to find this storytelling potential. ”We’re trying to create memorable, elevated experiences,” he says. “Every aspect — from product selection to the color stories, design, and scents, down to the tactile experience and shade names — are shaped to tell the story.”
HipDot’s licensing partners have included Nickelodeon for SpongeBob SquarePants and Rugrats, Reese’s, Hasbro Games, Tapatío, and more. And some of those storytelling details that make the collections extra special? A coffin-shaped collector’s box for its Addam’s Family collection, a peanut-butter scent in the Reese’s lip balms, and even a special ingredient in the Tapatio collection to create a lip-tingling effect.
Bésame Cosmetics, too, pays particular attention to detail when crafting its licensed collections. Founder Gabriela Hernandez says the team does extensive research to find colors that directly match the character, show, or person they are showcasing, instead of simply taking inspiration from them. Bésame tends to focus on more historical-based collections — including Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Marvel’s Agent Carter — and Hernandez always aims to make the collections feel authentic to the era during which the show or movie takes place. She will find and use exact colors: the shade of Snow White’s gown in the original film, for example, or an ink color the Disney animators used.
“For me, it has to be true to that character,” she says. “We actually want to be accurate and give people colors that are not only fashionable, but also relevant to that character and the period that that character was around.” While developing products for the company’s Iconic Women Series, which has featured Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, Hernandez went so far as to buy items from these pop culture icons’ estates.
It’s this kind of effort and detail that attracts fans to licensed beauty collections. Hernandez believes the collections are so popular because fans feel so attached to certain characters and brands, either from deep-rooted nostalgia or from a place of identity and connection.
“Every aspect — from product selection to the color stories, design, and scents, down to the tactile experience and shade names — are shaped to tell the story.”Jeff Sellinger, HipDot
One standout example Hernandez gives is Bésame’s 2018 Agent Carter collection. Because the Marvel show had a smaller licensing program, there weren’t many existing assets off of which to work. This gave Bésame a lot of creative control, so Hernandez and her team designed items that Peggy Carter herself would have owned, like a compact mirror and a passport-shaped eyeshadow palette. She says this resonated strongly with fans, even recalling how some women cried with joy when they saw the collection at a fan convention.
“You’re buying something that sat on her vanity,” Hernandez says. “You’re buying something that she wore. It’s a different type of connection to it. So we try to make things that seem personal to the character, and they are then personal to the consumer.”
While these collaborations certainly have a lot to offer to fans, they also bring value to the companies making them. For one thing, licensing can offer a chance for newness in a category that, as Garcia describes it, can be a bit stagnant. “You know, we’ve done so much with flat irons over the years. We’ve done every color, every pattern, everything you can imagine,” she says. “With Barbie, I think the licensing and the collaboration brings a whole new level of newness to brands. They allow us to refresh ourselves and tell different stories and bring other people along on the journey with us.”
Ulta Beauty also notes that collaborations are an opportunity to try unexpected pairings and more experimental colors or formulas.
These collections also tend to generate a lot of conversation on social media. Fans and influencers discuss the upcoming releases, which are often teased over a series of posts, and later share their unboxing experiences or the looks they create with a specific licensed collection. This not only builds a sense of community for fans, but also generates brand awareness for both companies.
“The opportunity to create a buzz and attention is massive when done well,” Sellinger says. “Marketing opportunities are very strong with collabs as there are influencers who already love the particular brands, and there are large pockets of potential buyers who can be targeted. The opportunity to create virality is very strong, which is a goal of everything we do.”
Garcia highlights the cross-generational social media buzz around CHI’s Barbie collection as a major upside for the brand, while Winokur says the Hally team has enjoyed seeing user-generated videos of mothers and daughters dying their hair together while watching Turning Red.
Of course, some of the buzz surrounding these pop culture-inspired beauty collections comes from their collectability. Most of these products are limited runs, thanks to time limits on their licensing deals. According to Hernandez, the licensing rights often last a year or two, and by the time the cosmetics company designs, manufactures, markets, and sells the collection, there isn’t enough time left to manufacture more. But she doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.
“The appeal of these products, I think, wanes over time,” she says. “So I think you have to catch it when people are excited about it and then have it go away, basically. If they took advantage of it, great. And if they didn’t, next time they will because they know it’s only there for a very short period of time.”
The limited availability, along with the personal connection to these collections, also presents an interesting situation for fans and collectors, since these products are beautiful and intricate. But also, by nature, most are designed to be used or used up.
Both Hernandez and Sellinger say that fans will often solve this problem by buying multiples from their collaborations: one to use and one to keep untouched. Hernandez says Bésame also intentionally designs its products to be collectible. “We really are invested in making them really special to the consumer. It becomes something that you not only wear, but also you keep,” she says.
“We very much view what we do as art and ourselves as artists,” Sellinger adds. “Collecting HipDot is a huge compliment and lets us know that our art is being appreciated.”
In the end, whether you decide to display your licensed makeup and hair products on a shelf, post them on social media to engage with like-minded fans, or incorporate them into a daily beauty routine, you’re engaging with something you love in a meaningful way. Even if someone on the street doesn’t know that your eyeshadow came from a palette shaped like an Ouija board, you do. And that’s what matters.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 13 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!