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The return of the beauty pop-up

From a newsstand to a drive-through coffee shop, beauty brand pop-ups made their comeback in 2021 with creative pandemic twists. 

In the second half of the year, branded pop-ups returned to U.S. cities en masse after a pandemic hiatus. But, with their emphasis on touchless digital experiences and unique outdoor locations, these weren’t the same pop-ups of the before times. And while the Omicron variant is causing Covid-19 cases to rapidly spike, brands’ plans to host similar IRL promotions in 2022 are currently still in swing. 

“As pop-ups are emerging, we see consumers wanting to interact and experience brands in different ways than the online ways that we’ve been channeled into for the last couple of years,” said Amy Bi, Deciem’s vp of brand. From December 3-19, the brand hosted its first pop-up of the pandemic, bringing a newsstand stocked with The Ordinary products to various high-foot-traffic streets in Los Angeles. As a part of the promotion, Deciem teamed up with positive news media company Good Good Good to create a branded newspaper.

While a few IRL promotions were held earlier in the year and in 2020, brands’ inquiries about pop-ups ramped up “over the summer,” said Nicole Falco, a partner at marketing firm TH Experiential Agency, which has created pop-ups for Sephora x Kohl’s, Olly, Harry’s and Benefit Cosmetics. 

Brands have been eager to get back to in-person promotions, especially as more shopping shifts back to offline.

“Most events and experiences have been digital during the pandemic, and we’ve actually seen some Zoom fatigue,” said Stephanie Payne, vp of communications for clean beauty brand Pacifica, which held its first pop-up during the pandemic in October. The brand brought a pastel-colored Airstream with giant fluffy rabbit ears to Melrose Place, offering visitors free cotton candy and trendy CBD beverages and selling some of its newly launched products.

Getting back to IRL promotions has been especially crucial for certain sample-heavy categories such as fragrance. ​​

“Given that scent is so central to what we do, creating a real-life experience for our customer is very important to our brand proposition,” said Matthew Herman, the co-founder of Boy Smells, which opened a pop-up shopping experience at the Platform shopping center in Los Angeles in November. The pop-up was originally slated to close in January, but the company has extended the stay to the end of February due to its popularity.

The pandemic has caused many brands to think outside the box with the format of their pop-ups, with the majority opting for outdoor spaces. 

“We’re seeing a lot of demand for outdoors and mobile tours,” said Falco.

“This virus is constantly changing, but we felt the safest way to engage our customer IRL was through an immersive pop-up experience that was outside. [That way] our guests could feel safe, comfortable and less restricted while still being able to test, try and buy,” said Payne.

Makeup and skin-care startup Freck held its first-ever pop-up in December, taking over Los Angeles-based drive-through coffee shop Full Service Coffee Company for the month. The coffee shop was decked out with Freck branding, and customers could purchase Freck beauty products while picking up coffee. The brand also commissioned a local artist to create an Instagrammable wall art mural.

“This was a very unusual way for a pop-up to return,” said Remi Brixton, co-founder and CEO of Freck Beauty. “People who don’t know the brand can get introduced to the brand, and it’s [open] all month so that people can enjoy it.” In addition, “the drive-through element is amazing, with Covid. If you want the experience but don’t want to get out of your car, that’s an option, too.”

On the luxury end of the beauty spectrum, promotions have been especially elaborate. On December 2, fragrance brand Maison Francis Kurkdjian opened a scented ice-skating experience at The Rink at Brookfield Place in New York that runs through January 16. And the December launch of Golf le Fleur, the new fashion and beauty brand by Tyler, the Creator, was marked with a social media-friendly, invite-only pop-up on a Malibu hilltop, complete with Rolls-Royces, macaroons and a coffee shop.

In addition to unique locations, outdoor spaces in prime shopping areas have been especially coveted. For example, L.A.’s The Grove shopping center has hosted pop-ups for Topicals and Byredo in recent months, while Deciem will have a Grove pop-up next year.

Mobility has also been an important theme, with brands opting for promotions on wheels that they can move around a city. Some of the earliest brands to get back into pop-ups hosted promotional food trucks this year. 

“This format generates excitement from brands because we can meet the customer where they are, in the streets, rather than [requiring] customers go to a specific location,” said Ryan Glick, founder of marketing agency Coffee n’ Clothes. The company has run food truck-style promotions for brands including Hero Cosmetics and Bulgari fragrance this year.

In addition, a completely touchless experience is a must for today’s pop-ups. 

In the past, “everything was touch, touch, touch, touch, touch. We have had brands come to us and say, ‘We don’t want to activate as we did in 2019,’” said Falco. 

In September, the Sephora x Kohl’s pop-up created by TH Experiential to celebrate the retailers’ new partnership was completely outdoors and contactless. It featured a “mobile-first” maze that 1,700 visitors completed, with eight different activities accessed via QR codes. Upon entrance, users received an app clip, where they would receive messages as they walked through the experience. Users who scanned the QR code and completed all the activities received a prize.“Making a physical event or a pop-up mobile-first allows you to message people throughout [their experience]. It also allows you to gamify it with QR codes, and allows [visitors] to scan to get photo ops, filters, Instagram filters and all of that great content,” said Falco.

Scanning a QR code at the Sephora X Kohl’s pop-up. (Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Sephora at Kohl’s)

As the virtual pop-up became a trend during the pandemic, brands have also added all-digital components to their IRL spaces. Armani Beauty’s November pop-up in Berlin was accompanied by a virtual replica for people still wary of visiting in person.

“[Armani was] very particular about it. They didn’t want to change anything. So it’s the same color, same size” as the in-person structure, said Noam Levavi, founder and CEO of Byond XR, which created the virtual version of the Armani Beauty pop-up.

Finally, as in pre-pandemic times, brands using pop-ups as testing grounds for their next permanent store locations is a trend. 

Boy Smells is “entertaining pop-ups and permanent locations in 2022,” said Herman.

“Pop-ups are a really nice way to test and learn, and get to know how consumers from those areas are responding to us and what they’re most interested in,” said Bi. “And then we can build on that as we further invest in those cities and in those areas.”

With the rapid spread of new Covid-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, brands are still forging ahead for 2022, for now. So far, TH Experiential has seen one beauty client delay its pop-up promotion for three weeks due to the variant. 

Other brands are going ahead, but with safety precautions in place. Pacifica plans to have multiple international pop-ups next year, including in Europe and the U.K. And Boy Smells has “upcoming launches in unexpected IRL formats this coming year,” said Herman. 

“When navigating this virus and its continuing changes, marketers must be nimble, be able to pivot quickly and always have a backup plan in your pocket,” said Payne.

The return of the beauty pop-up