Soft Services branding by Decade.

Welcome to Form Factor, our column exploring the intersection of packaging, branding, and culture.

When skincare brand Soft Services launched in 2021, it did so with an unorthodox approach to beauty packaging. Founded by Glossier alums Annie Kreighbaum and Rebecca Zhou, the line of “body care” products traded the approach of perfectly-uniform-brand for creating an assortment of unique bottles, tubes, and boxes that all happened to look really good next to each other. “Each product is a hero, and I think from there, our concept was like, “Okay, so each product is a mini brand,” says Grace Robinson-Leo, co-founder and creative director of New York-based branding agency Decade, which developed Soft Services’ brand identity and packaging. 

So while the Clearing Clay comes in an off-white tube emblazoned with a squat orange S (sulfur is the active ingredient), the Star Wars alien-blue Buffing Bar has a paper wrapper and comes inside a gray carton accented by a “plump humanoid with smooth skin, riding a slippery dolphin.” Each has a distinct visual identity that ties into the greater Soft Services world. This concept stemmed from a larger idea that Robinson-Leo and her colleagues think about a lot in terms of branding: What’s the level of consistency that’s actually needed and why? 

“We’re in this moment with branding where there were so many touch points with brands that it was confusing,” and for a time, she says, hyper-uniformity acted as a solution. “That was the rise of DTC, like everything that Glossier does matches, and that felt extremely fresh in its day. As we’ve become more visually literate and these brands have so many visual touchpoints in the world, they’re making content all the time, it actually feels very boring when a brand is super consistent now.” By contrast, each element of the Soft Services packaging suite was designed to appeal to a unique customer, Robinson-Leo says, and “make them feel excited about that one product even if that’s the only thing they’re getting.” That simultaneously targeted but broad approach seems to be working—the brand has garnered awards from both men’s publications like Esquire and GQ, and from Refinery29 and Byrdie, whose audience skews female. 

“As we’ve become more visually literate, it actually feels very boring when a brand is super consistent now.”

The packaging for each Soft Services product is designed to complement, not match.

In the near-decade since Korean beauty products became a major national export and created a generation of skincare hobbyists, the global market of those looking to slough, tone and moisturize their way towards more perfect skin has expanded. Perhaps the smartest move among new beauty brands today is their willingness to appeal to the wide block of people between adolescence and middle age who see tending to the surface of their face and bodies as an opportunity for indulgence rather than just a problem to be solved. Also smart: brands seeing themselves as one part of a consumer’s constellation of self-care instead of as a multi-step, multi-product provider. As with other consumer products like apparel and food, skincare has become a more inclusive category—both in terms of gender, age and overall orientation towards consumers—less top-down expertise and more common interest in a thing that happens to be purchasable. 

Soft Services’ atypical approach to packaging speaks to the profile of the modern, post-Glossier beauty consumer: someone who doesn’t really care about identifying with a brand much as they care about finding products that work. Packaging design that mirrors the values of a brand as opposed to those of its presumed ideal customer attracts the largest possible market of end users. In other words, the more gender-neutral a product looks, the more people will feel welcome to buy it. “A through line we see from brands we’re excited about is that good design is not really gendered,” says Decade’s Rob Matthews, also a co-founder and creative director. “Good design wins through in the sense that people become fans of things that feel exciting to them in that time and culture.” And today what’s exciting to consumers is the realization that the distinction between products for women versus those for men is mostly a matter of marketing. The changing look of beauty products in particular, a category that’s been gendered for decades, represents a shift not just in branding but in culture more broadly. 

Margin’s packaging is designed to be a blank slate.

The distinction between products for women versus those for men is mostly a matter of marketing.

“It’s very clear to me that a lot of the work that’s been done in the design space has been done with the customer that spends the most on beauty in mind,” says Drew Stevens, founder of Margin, a newly launched, skincare brand out of Toronto whose formulas—and visual identity, created by Los Angeles based designer Sam Jayne, also a partner in the business—are male-leaning unisex. “Over the last twenty years that’s been like, a very prototypical, high-net-worth female customer or a Henry-style female customer.” (Henry is an acronym “for high earners, not rich yet.” It’s a marketing term that rose alongside early DTC brands.) 

Margin launched this past month with a single product: The Active Moisturizer. Unlike the charcoal and cobalt blue visual cues used by most offerings geared towards men, Margin’s first product is spare—the bottle is off-white plastic, sans serif, with a chrome pump and no ingredient percentages listed. Stevens sees Margin as selling an immersive feeling akin to that of luxury fashion, from unboxing to the “spark of indulgence” that comes with each application. 

Instead of appealing to the “lowest common denominator,” as Stevens argues most men’s skincare products do (“I say the grooming industry, but really it’s a beauty product”), Margin appeals to something like the highest common denominator. It fills the gap for consumers who are willing to spend more for something that feels like it was made to satisfy a desire they didn’t realize they had. The bottle comes in a paper box encased in an outer sleeve with photography by Pat O’Rourke. It’s the first in a series of artistic collaborations Stevens has planned, a strategy he borrows from fashion, citing Balenciaga and brand Stüssy as inspirations. “Most consumers want something more than just a commodity,” Stevens says, “they want an experience. And in that case, you need to do more.” Or less, depending on how you look at it.