April 5, 2023
An AI Read On Barnes & Noble’s Latest Chapter
7 MIN READ

The rise in candy from around the world reflects people's growing adventurous palates and the role of social media in introducing new foods globally.

History has significantly influenced what various cultures consider beautiful. Major economic and political events, along with shifts in the cultural zeitgeist, have all played a crucial part in shaping ideal beauty standards.

For instance, colonialism radically shifted beauty ideals in many Asian and African countries. Features that didn’t fit with Eurocentric beauty ideals, like deeper skin tones, smaller eye shapes and textured hair, were deemed undesirable, introducing a social hierarchy that is still being unraveled today.

In modern society, the rise of the Internet and social media has been a transformative force in shaping beauty standards. Asian beauty techniques and products have spread to the West and entered the mainstream, while Western influencer and celebrity culture has permeated globally. The conversation around beauty has become increasingly diverse and inclusive, celebrating a wider range of features and styles.

These evolving perspectives on beauty have led to the emergence of new practices, which are prominently reflected in modern advertising. Using our AI-powered Ad Evaluation App, we analyzed beauty advertisements from the 1990s and 2000s by the same brands across five different markets - the US, China, India, Japan, and Brazil. Our goal was to observe their transformation over time and identify any movements between these markets.

Brazil

Previous Archetypes and Values: Sensual, Intimate, Passionate

New Archetypes and Values: Sensual, Intimate, Passionate, Inspiration, Glamorous

Brazil boasts one of the world’s most diverse cultures, but its beauty standards haven't always reflected that. L’Oreal’s earlier ads featured a light-skinned American model, which is not representative of the country's diversity. While the preferences for glamour and sensuality have remained central, modern ads now showcase a nuanced version of beauty, highlighting different ethnicities and genders. This bolder approach contrasts with the seemingly self-effacing ad of the past, redefining and embracing what beauty looks like in Brazil.

China

Previous Archetypes and Values: Supportive, Down-to-Earth

New Archetypes and Values:  Strong, Brave, Determined

Estee Lauder's 2002 ad in China features Caucasian model Hilary Rhoda as the ambassador, dubbed in Mandarin. This ad may have been a reflection of the period's idealization of foreign beauty and a lack of strong Chinese identity in the beauty industry at the time. More than two decades later, the 2024 ad we analyzed showcases Zhang Weili, a professional MMA fighter, training in a boxing ring. This shift indicates a move away from the consumption of imported beauty standards towards the creation of a homegrown ideal. The new standard of beauty emphasizes strength and health, qualities that Chinese consumers admire and aspire to, and see in themselves.

India

Previous Archetypes and Values:  Powerful, Charismatic, Visionary

New Archetype and Values: Playful, Carefree, Fun-Loving, Glamorous

The two L’Oreal India advertisements featuring long-time brand ambassador Aishwarya Rai illustrate a shift in marketing strategy over the last decade. In the earlier ad, Aishwarya embodies the quintessential beautiful Indian woman, dressed-up and perfectly coiffed. This portrayal emphasizes an idealized and somewhat unattainable standard of beauty.The updated ad presents a more casual and relatable image of the actress, which suggests an attitudinal shift among Indian consumers. While she remains glamorous, the ad focuses on portraying her in a more accessible light, thus positioning her as someone who wants to help other women feel beautiful too.

Japan

Previous Archetypes and Values: Innocent, Humble, Optimistic

New Archetypes and Values: Warm, Compassionate, Generous, Nurturing, Inspirational

Shiseido's ads reflect the evolving reality of Japanese women over the past 30 years. The 1992 ad depicts a woman at home, where women typically spent most of their time. The modern ad, however, shows Japanese celebrity Hiromi Nagasaku in various aspects of her life—at work and with her family—showcasing the joy she feels. She appears more confident and assertive, reflecting contemporary Japanese views on beauty. In the past, beauty was associated with cleanliness, but now it encompasses a woman living her life fully and enjoying every moment, illustrating that beauty comes from within rather than just external appearances.

USA

Previous Archetypes and Values: Expressive, Imaginative, Sensuality

New Archetypes and Values:  Playful, Fun-loving, Glamorous, Entertaining

Both Maybelline ads share a similar concept, creating a fantasy world that doesn't take itself too seriously. Beauty is meant to be fun, and the 2023 version feels like a modern update of the earlier ad's playful message. The latest ad features the unexpected pairing of Bretman Rock and Martha Stewart, and utilizes both their brand personas. This shift showcases a growing consumer desire for inclusivity and authenticity in advertising, challenging traditional notions of beauty and expanding the idea of who gets to wear makeup.

Our analysis of ads from these five markets reveals three key ways ideas have traveled, highlighting the shift from one-dimensional to multidimensional beauty. The meaning of this shift varies across cultures.

Many modern ads demonstrate a shift in the relationship and power dynamics between beauty brands and consumers. In the past, the beauty industry focused on highlighting imperfections and promoting unattainable standards that could only be achieved through their products. Today, consumers are more empowered and seek brands that affirm their beauty and support them in their journey to become the best version of themselves.

Markets Demostrating this Theme: USA. Brazil, Japan.

Modern beauty ads seem to share a common thread: beauty is about play and passion. It’s meant to be fun and accessible to everyone who wants to take part in it. It's believed that happiness and fulfillment in life radiate outwardly. When you feel content and satisfied, it enhances your external appearance.Brands need to promote the idea that their products are a means to explore, have fun, and express joy, reinforcing where true beauty comes from.

Markets Demostrating this Theme: USA, Brazil, China, Japan, India.

Seeing yourself on screen is more important than ever before. Consumers are demanding to see people who not only look like them but also reflect the unique interpretations of beauty in their respective countries. They want to see individuals who mirror their ideals and lifestyles and with whom they can emotionally connect.

The expectation is for brands to understand them on a far deeper level and cater to their beauty standards, rather than setting the standards for them.

Markets Demostrating this Theme: USA, Brazil, China, Japan.

Candy remains a favorite in ASMR eating videos due to its visual appeal and sound when chewed. Recently, popular candies with crunchy and sludgy sounds have become especially soothing.

Consumers' tastes now favor sharper, tangier flavors. Sour candy offers a refreshing contrast to sweetness and stimulates dopamine release. It is also believed to be a quick antidote for anxiety, as it distracts the brain from negative emotions and focuses it on the tingly sensation in the mouth.

Nostalgia has hit the candy market, with 90s and 00s favorites like Ring Pops, Airheads, and Nerds topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list, indicating consumers’ craving for childhood snacks.

Write to [email protected] to learn about AI-powered market research and the latest consumer trends.

As beauty standards become more inclusive and diverse, it is clear that consumers are driving a transformative shift in media and advertising, seeking representations that are authentic, empowering, and reflective of their true selves.

If you are interested to learn more, sign upfor our product newsletter or reach out to us at [email protected].

We’re launching an updated version of our ad evaluation tool that can analyse any creative formats, from concepts to storyboard, at our September event. Learn more about AI-volution 2024 here.

Brand Insights in 3 Sentences: Barnes & Noble has had a storied, somewhat tumultuous history, but a revival of book reading, new management, and an unexpected opportunity to take stock of their business has allowed the chain to stage a comeback. The company has revamped its strategy to cater to book lovers by creating a community both on and offline, empowering booksellers at their local stores and understanding what makes their consumers tick. The brand has placed product and reader first, a key element of its recent success.

Barnes & Noble has seen its fair share of ups and downs in the past century since it opened its doors at the Cooper Union Building in New York City. They famously became the first booksellers to introduce the megastore concept, selling books, magazines, and toys. They encouraged customers to get comfortable in their stores and created environments that allowed them to stay a while. Along the way, they also earned a villain reputation for strong-arming writers and publishers and threatening the existence of independent bookstores (whose conflict served as inspiration for the movie, You’ve Got Mail.)

The introduction of digital technologies to the industry, like e-books and online shopping, hit the chain hard. Their reluctance to adapt to an online bookstore meant they were quickly edged out by mega e-commerce retailers like Amazon. To add to their issues, smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices also offered unlimited digital content options, so book reading was also on a steep decline. In 2011, it became the last standing national bookstore chain in the United States.

After a decade of store closures, ownership changes, and seeing their stock dive, an unexpected boon occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. With everyone in isolation and stuck at home, print book sales rose by 8.2% in 2020 compared to the previous year. With their prolific, new(ish) CEO James Daunt at the helm, Barnes & Noble took the opportunity to temporarily close hundreds of outlets to take stock and revamp their stores and strategies. Their efforts paid off, with sales growing by 3% that year and a 14% increase in book sales compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Since then, the company has announced its plan to grow its fleet by opening 30 new retail stores this year and rolling out new initiatives. They’ve also had a bit of a comeback story with the public as a sort of underdog hero. Somehow, they’ve become that beloved neighborhood store to be protected from the corporate giants (aka Amazon.com).


Things are looking up for the company, and the brand has been working hard to keep the tide turning. Using our AI research tool, Sphere, we decided to take a look at their website and social media to see some of the steps Barnes & Noble has been taking to reinvent itself, both on and offline.

One of the company's first steps was to better understand their customers and the emerging generation on how they interact with books. While studies show that millennials remain the generation that reads the most, an increased desire to disconnect has fueled Gen Z’s love for reading. The books that they choose, however, look different from other generations that came before them.

A few defining characteristics of Gen Zs are nostalgia and authenticity. The act of reading books is nostalgic to them, and they seek stories that they can escape into, so genres like fantasy, romance, and comics are extremely popular. While their desire for authenticity has manifested in Gen Zs wanting to feel connected to, and represented within, the world around them. They are considered the most diverse generation we’ve ever seen, so they look for stories written by people like them or characters they can see themselves in.

A look at the Barnes & Noble social media platforms shows a genuine attempt to feature different types of authors and books and using hashtags like ‘diversifyyourbookshelves’, ‘yafantasy’ and ‘romance’, in order to ensure that their content is reaching their desired audience.

Reaching this generation also means that they have to be where they are. This means a strong presence on social media, which includes creating TikTok content. We have seen the power of #BookTok from our previous analysis of last year’s bestselling books, so becoming a part of this community is crucial to players in the book-selling industry.

Barnes & Noble does this by using popular sounds on the platform and Gen Z slang. An example would be the use of emojis like 😅and 🚩, which are two of their most frequently used. These emojis are popular for their use in different situations, with 😅meaning “I’m stressed, but I’m fine” and 🚩being used when someone is problematic or something might be a dealbreaker in a relationship. Jumping on these trends and learning their language is key to entertaining content for their viewers and keeping relevant.

Another aspect the company has worked on is to curate experiences for the consumer, and build a more personal relationship with them. While the physical act of reading is solitary, #BookTok has shown that readers are keen to discuss the books they’ve read with other people.

Barnes & Noble suggests monthly picks to its readers and lets writers take over their social media to host Q&A sessions and talk about their books. They even started an official podcast where authors talk in even further detail about the novels they wrote and the meanings behind them. The podcast format has become increasingly popular for its intimate nature and ability to allow people to multitask while listening. It doesn’t require one’s full attention, making it perfect for millennials and Gen Zs, two digital generations used to oversaturating themselves with entertainment.

They also recently launched a new paid membership program that includes 10% discounts in store and online, early access to special titles and events, and bigger lattes at their cafes. In conjunction, a free, lower-tier membership program is also being rolled out, where members can earn virtual stamps to be translated into credit. Loyalty programs give the company an opportunity to learn more about its customers and engage them more efficiently. It also helps to boost the brand image by building a sense of belonging and rewarding consumers for continually coming back.

Sphere’s analysis shows that content created by Barnes & Noble signals creativity, affiliation and affection the most, which affirms that the brand’s intent is not just to introduce interesting books, but to gather book lovers together to read alongside each other and discuss ideas, just like a book club.

south_east

synthesizing vast data into actionable insights that reflect each market's unique cultural and economic backdrop

south_east

grasping the distinct consumer perspectives that these diverse regions offer

Curated digital profiles:

-Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok (US)

-Weibo and Douyin (China)

Pulled 400 million unique searches to estimate the growth of each segment

Used Quilt.AI’s Sphere language and image capabilities to categorise lifestyle areas into specific segments

Glamour Seekers

These consumers are confident, bold, and comfortable with modern masculinity. They also often turn to social media to express their personal style and interests.

Actionable Insight: Collaborate with high-profile fashion influencers to create vibrant, trend-setting campaigns that resonate with this segment's desire for attention and admiration.

Vanity Vanguards

Highly image-driven, these individuals often seek validation through their appearance and are likely to engage heavily with both grooming and fashion products.

Actionable Insight:Leverage digital marketing strategies that feature before-and-after visuals and testimonials that showcase the transformative power of the products

Conscious Icons

These men aim to be recognized as modern, open-minded, and sensitive – embodying the image of "the woke good guy" in today's society by actively participating in movements related to activism and gender equality.

Actionable Insight:Design marketing campaigns that highlight their participation in these movements, showcasing products that enable them to express and amplify their desired social identities.

Youthful Trendsetters

They value beauty while still maintaining traditional masculine ideals of what it means to be good-looking. These men also tend to seek out methods of maintaining their youthful appearances.

Actionable Insight:Market products that boost physical appeal and suit active lifestyles, and focus on dynamic marketing that highlights masculine elegance.

Trusted Patrons

Despite seeing gender in traditionally binary terms, these men aren’t afraid of behaving in more feminine manners. They own their uniqueness and tend to be deeply loyal to brands that affirm their identity.

Actionable Insight:Focusing on brand narratives that celebrate individuality and personal expression will better engage this segment. Brands can also offer personalized services to maintain their commitment.

Innovation Advocates

As consumers who value knowledge, they embrace technology and innovation that enhances their lives. Wanting to stay ahead of the curve, they prefer brands that offer cutting-edge solutions that reflect their own mentality.

Actionable Insight:Market products to this segment by emphasizing innovation, utility, and exclusivity. Brands can focus on how their products integrate the latest technology and engage these men through intelligent content that speaks to their curiosity.

Visuals illustrated are to bring concepts to life only.
Visuals illustrated are to bring concepts to life only.

Their relationship-building efforts aren’t just reserved for the virtual world though, they’ve also worked to create better in-store experiences and the right product offerings. They’ve given their stores a new look and tried to emulate the independent bookstore concept, by building relationships between customers and employees, offering novel recommendations, and a space for people to sit and gather for hours.

In order to do that, James Daunt decided on giving more autonomy to local store managers over the books they stock and how they are displayed, with his rationale being that only they would have the best understanding of their customers’ preferences. He also encourages managers to select books based on their own tastes, which then allows people to discover titles that they might not have otherwise found. It’s a clever move, since more engaged and empowered workers would likely mean better stores and customer service.

By leaning into their newfound lovable, neighborhood bookstore reputation, the company has won the hearts of communities and book lovers that are rallying around them and helping them to continue to thrive. The reading renaissance comes at a serendipitous time for Barnes & Noble, and they’ve seized the opportunity with both hands. We believe that as the company remains forward-thinking, malleable and aware of their customer, they’ll have a promising new chapter ahead.

Follow our page for more such insights. Write to [email protected] to learn about AI-powered market research and the latest consumer trends.

Visuals illustrated are to bring concepts to life only.
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