Debate: are too many brands in the beauty industry woke-washing?

It’s a big question to unpack but are beauty brands now trying to be “too woke”? With new research revealing that 68% of UK consumers are uneasy about health and beauty brands promoting “woke” causes, debate is now rife about whether companies in the industry should think twice before throwing themselves behind a good cause that’s gaining traction. 

Data by The Pull Agency, which surveyed 2,000 consumers, found that one in four (25%) think “greenwashing” and “woke-washing” – brands faking their sustainability credentials or their interest in social issues like Black Lives Matter – make brands inauthentic, and a further 41% say the amount of greenwashing and woke-washing in the sector is now becoming noticeable.

One in seven respondents even said they deliberately avoid health and beauty brands they see as behaving this way, highlighting an uneasiness felt with some messaging, which could impact buying behaviour. 

It seems that consumers want health and beauty brands to take their corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously first, rather than adopting the in-vogue focus on brand purpose – 58% stated that want brands to be good, ethical corporate citizens first, to “pay their taxes, treat people fairly, respect the environment and not use it as a PR opportunity”.

Kathrin Rodriguez-Bruessau, head of brand strategy at The Pull Agency, commented: “While the marketing world would have us believe that a grandiose brand social purpose is paramount, consumers don’t seem to care as much or really understand the concept.

“Trying to be more than an ethical business actually carries risks. Several healthcare and beauty brands have got in trouble for perceived woke-washing and superficial attempts at brand activism. People are getting much smarter at identifying what’s real and what’s not, and [are] clearly irritated by inauthentic looking claims.”

But what does the wider industry make of this debate? Andrew Tenzer, director of market insight and brand strategy at newspaper company Reach, who was a speaker on The Pull Agency’s “Are beauty brands too woke?” panel, which discussed the data, commented: “Advertising and marketing is one of the most elitist professions in the UK. We need to accept the fact that we are not like the people we are trying to reach and target. 

“There needs to be a lot more critical thinking and a lot less straight-line interpretation of data. For instance, of course people care about sustainability but that doesn’t mean that people are going to buy brands based on that messaging. The truth is, behaviour doesn’t necessarily always follow attitude.”

There’s also a bit of a gender divide when it comes to social causes – women (41%) are nearly twice as likely to be in favour of brands promoting social causes than men (22%), the report found, while more men (20%) than women (14%) find social purpose ads “preachy”. 

Why is the discussion on beauty brands being “too woke” coming up now?

One of the root causes of this issue is the somewhat interchangeable use of brand and social purpose in the health and beauty industry, which is seemingly blurring the understanding of what each term means – only 22% of UK consumers in the study were familiar with the term “brand purpose”, while 37% said they’ve heard of it but admitted they didn’t really know what it involved.

It’s also not that consumers are against social purpose – after all, 32% think health and beauty brands should use advertising to promote and teach social causes – it’s just that one in five are not sure all causes are equally worthy for brands to promote. For example, some social causes promoted have no direct relation to a brand’s core function or purpose. 

“Your brand purpose has to fit in with your founding story; you can’t just wake up one day and think ‘I’m going to go for that cause’," explains Trish Daswaney, who was also on The Pull Agency’s panel and is the founder of Kohl Kreatives, which creates motor disability-support make-up brushes. 

“When it comes to social status and creating an awareness for a community, you’ve got to think about who is at the other end – does it link to the person creating it and does it link to the people that it’s there for? If it doesn’t then it will go straight over their heads. The other common misconception is if I support a cause I’m going to make loads of money, and the truth is, you’re not.”

This misconception is something consumers are worried about, according to the survey, with some stating they viewed social purpose backed by brands cautiously because “I worry about their motivation for doing so” and “I think it is cynical for brands to leverage social causes to make money”. 

How can beauty brands support a social cause authentically?

However, if a brand does promote a social cause, then to do it successfully it needs to be true to the company’s core values, the data shows – with consideration about how it’s reflected in adverts and the consumer viewpoint rather than following what others are choosing as their brand purpose. 

Panellist Lauren Murrell, chief executive and co-founder of plant-based skincare brand By Sarah London, believes her company got it right because sustainability was at the heart of the brand when it launched. “For us, our brand purpose is our social purpose – it’s so much intertwined that there isn’t really one without the other. We’ve invested a lot of time with the B Corporation, and we’ve now achieved that gold-standard certification in sustainability,” she says. 

“It’s not easy to become a B Corp as they look under the hood of your business, at every aspect of your supply chain, and there’s only a handful of B Corp beauty businesses worldwide, so we are really walking the talk. We believe in our values and [to be successful in a social purpose] you need to look at your founding values to guide your choices.” 

So, what social causes do consumers want brands to support? More than half (58%) want to see support for climate change, 56% want support for female body positivity, and 52% want brands to back diversity and inclusion. 

Which beauty brands have supported a social cause well?

Brands cited by respondents as backing social purposes well included Dove with its Real Beauty campaign. Originally launched in 2004, the brand made a social cause its own – body confidence and body positivity are now so well linked with the company. Dove chose a cause that resonated well with it because, as a healthcare brand, it made sense for them to show women of different ages and body shapes comfortable in their bodies. 

The brand has also been successful because it’s stuck with the campaign for nearly 20 years and has backed the cause up with lots of projects in the background, such as supporting charities and running its own social experiments. 

The other key brand noted in the report as doing a social cause well was L’Oréal. It was one of the first beauty brands to feature women in its adverts that were age-appropriate to the products they were promoting – for example, not featuring a 20-year-old woman for an anti-ageing cream. 

Consumers also like and resonate with the slogan “because you’re worth it” as it shifts the focus from other people defining whether you’re beautiful or not to ‘I’m doing this because I want to feel good in my own skin’ and this product can do that for me. 

However, an example of a campaign that didn’t land well is razor company Gillette’s “The best men can be” in 2019, which referenced bullying, the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity. The advert, in which the company said it wants men to hold each other “accountable”, split opinion online.  

Although social purpose as a strategic choice can have its positives, it can also have a downside. Social purpose can enrich as much as distract, and it seems from this data that it can be right for some brands but not for others. 

I guess it’s about weighing up whether there may be a more compelling story for a brand to tell in its advertising than jumping on a social cause?

What do you make of this debate? Tell us your thoughts below.