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In a world that's all about return on investment, why would a major marketer invest in a global content hub that carries no branding and no e-commerce -- and happily showcases rival brands?
L'Oreal -- the world's third biggest marketer, with a $5.3 billion budget, according to the Ad Age Datacenter, has done just that.
The French beauty giant, best known for mass market campaigns featuring mainstream celebrities like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez, has created Fab Beauty, a stylish, low-key site that targets only the most dedicated and in-the-know beauty aficionados.
An Verhulst-Santos, president of the L'Oreal professional products division, explained, "We've always said our job is to launch brands and products, but also to promote and endorse the industry of beauty. It's an industry people relate to, and we are lucky that it's so inspiring and engaging."
The content of Fab (which stands for "flair, artistry, beauty" and launched quietly last summer) is driven by key beauty and fashion influencers who pinpoint trends and offer a pass to backstage beauty secrets, as well as exploring diverse cultures and beauty rituals from around the world.
L'Oreal is looking to Fab not for mass sales but to secure quality engagement. Ms. Verhulst-Santos said, "This is about neutrality, experience, and craft, not about a product destination -- we have other places to do that."
Dan Williams, a planner at Leo Burnett's luxury and lifestyle division, said, "Only confident brands can do this. It's a smart way to engage an audience when everyone else is pushing messages. And it's a good testing bed -- you can use the data to inform your brand and its products."
L'Oreal is not alone in seeking alternatives to the hard sell. LVMH's content hub, Nowness, is an ultra-cool, unbranded site that showcases established and emerging film-makers.
If you look hard enough at Fab, you can find the occasional, subtle mention of a L'Oreal product -- perhaps via a link to a blogger, or the mention of a brand spokesperson -- but you are just as likely to read about rival beauty brands Clarins or La Prairie. LVMH's Nowness also mentions the odd LVMH label, but it recently demonstrated its lack of bias by featuring a new Calvin Klein ad as its main story of the day.
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"Nowness is a place to go if you are into fashion and art," Mr. Williams said, "Louis Vuitton could be seen as a traditional prestige group, but this keeps it current and fresh, and embedded in a new creative class."
Other marketers are also leaning towards minimally-branded content. ASOS has become a content creator as well as a fashion brand, making podcasts about female entrepreneurs that make no mention of ASOS. And upmarket Australian skincare brand Aesop has created "The Fabulist," an online project featuring fiction and non-fiction writers which it describes as "a bi-monthly literary gesture."
Mr. Williams said, "It's easy to say you are a lifestyle brand, but if you put money into non-commercial products, you are proving it. L'Oreal has made a powerful, smart move -- it makes sense to grow the category and raise goodwill -- while ASOS is showing that it understands a young female audience and embedding itself in culture."
Fab launched last summer, and its audience is slowly growing. Social media figures are modest: Twitter 7,000, Instagram 729, and Facebook 137. But Fab's bounce rate is less than 25%, according to L'Oreal (which says the industry standard is 40% to 70%), and viewers, who come from 150 countries around the world, spend an average of more than two minutes per article on the site.
"We are still at the beginning of the adventure. For Fab, success is about having curated content that gradually brings in the audience and gets positive feedback. You can't build that in one year," Ms. Verhulst-Santos said.