December 1, 2023

Beauty brands say they are making the world a better place, but consumers don’t believe it. What can they do to tackle this disconnect?

This article was originally published in the July issue of Cosmetics Business Trend Report

Consumer cynicism is at an all-time high, and the way that brands are marketing their efforts around social and environmental purpose is failing to hit the mark.

Figures from Havas Group’s 2021 Meaningful Brands report found that while 73% of surveyed consumers say brands must act now for the good of society and the planet, 71% don’t believe brands will deliver on their promises, causing accusations of what the report calls “CSR washing” – a failure of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that could further endanger brands if the expectation gap is not bridged.

Further data from The Pull Agency’s Is Your Brand Too Woke? report found that more than half (58%) of consumers believe that ‘woke-washing’ or ‘greenwashing’ – for example brands faking their sustainability credentials or their interest in social issues like Black Lives Matter – is happening in the health and beauty sector – with all generations viewing brands’ social engagement with strong scepticism.

And 69% of consumers are confused or don’t believe claims made by health and beauty brands about sustainability.

Indeed, just last month, L’Oréal, P&G and L’Occitane were accused of greenwashing by the Changing Markets Foundation over a selection of products they claim to be eco-friendly.

For example, the reusable and refillable aluminium bottle system that P&G uses for Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Herbal Essences and Aussie (in Europe) was criticised for each refill pouch containing only slightly more than a single bottle refill per purchase, with standard shampoo bottles being made of widely recyclable HDPE or PET plastic, while the flexible plastic of the pouch is not.

Mixed messages

Consumers have become cynical due to brand messaging that clashes with news reports over the state of the environment

Consumers have become cynical to brand messaging that clashes with news about the environment

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer of Havas Group, believes that it is the shift in brands moving from focusing classically around product and functional proof, to wanting to exhibit what they stand for and how they are ‘doing the right thing’ from an environmental, social justice or ethical position, that has created the disconnect.

“There is this weird tension happening at the moment where brands are coming out with these big purpose narratives, saying they’re making the world a better place, and yet consumers are getting an entirely different meta-narrative from the news and social, showing them that the reality is the world is not getting any better any time soon.”

As a result, consumers disbelieve these messages and become cynical about the brands that say them, says Sinnock. For example, several recent reports have highlighted the ongoing plastic problem facing the beauty industry.

The new Global Plastics Outlook: Policy Scenarios to 2060 report from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the amount of plastic waste circulating the globe will more than triple by 2060 – and two thirds of it will be mainly from short-lived items, such as beauty packaging.

And research earlier this year from The Plastic Soup Foundation found that nine in ten products from leading beauty and personal care brands including L’Oréal Paris, Nivea and Gillette have been found to contain microplastics – while at the same time politicians, academics and campaigners have called for a comprehensive restriction on microplastics across the EU.

A further issue, says Sinnock, is the long or distant targets set by corporates for their sustainability goals, when marketing itself was set up to deliver on instant gratification. “Consumers buy into a brand because they want instant gratification. So these tensions are happening too and companies are wrestling with that at the moment,” he says.

Sustainability slump

The proportion of consumers buying eco-friendly beauty products remains unchanged in recent years

The proportion of consumers buying eco-friendly beauty products remains unchanged in recent years

There are also signs that consumer scepticism over claims is having some impact on their purchases of sustainably-positioned beauty and personal care (BPC) products.

Samantha Dover, Mintel’s Category Director of BPC, has found in its research that: “Although consumer awareness of environmental issues is a cause of anxiety, the proportion buying eco-friendly BPC products has not changed significantly in recent years, despite continued growth in new product launches.

“Consumer confusion and cynicism around green claims underpin this, highlighting the need for universal industry standards and regulation around eco claims, particularly as many also defer eco responsibility to the big beauty brands.”

Mintel also found that 15% of BPC buyers who are not interested in refills think they are not cost-effective enough, echoing other research from The Pull Agency that says that 30% of consumers choose affordability, and proven results (34%), over sustainability (12%), and that only 19% of consumers would actually pay more for a sustainable health or beauty brand.

The cost of living crisis is only likely to make affordability an even bigger choice factor for many consumers. “When times are tough, sustainability is less on the agenda,” explains Matt Maxwell, Strategic Insight Director at Kantar. “If manufacturers charge more for a product that is sustainable, the consumer will revert back to one that isn’t. The manufacturer has to factor that in.”

“67% of consumers tried to have a positive impact on the environment through everyday actions”

Euromonitor International’s Voice of the Consumer: Lifestyles Survey

This doesn’t mean that consumers don’t care. On the contrary, data from Havas states that 90% of people say they want to make a difference through the brands or products they buy. And Euromonitor International’s Voice of the Consumer: Lifestyles Survey found that 67% tried to have a positive impact on the environment through their everyday actions in 2021.

Similarly, 46% of global consumers used sustainable packaging such as refillable, recyclable, biodegradable or compostable packaging in 2021.

“Instead of sustainability being a key differentiator for brands, it will become a hygiene factor, a base level of expectation from consumers,” explains The Pull Agency. “It is clear that beauty brands must not compromise quality or affordability just to tick the green box.”

Close the expectation gap

So how can beauty companies help consumers to choose more sustainable products? Sinnock believes that in terms of product, it’s about making sustainability more accessible.

“In reality, sustainability is a premium product, so the message has to be to democratise sustainable products to allow people to start building them into their lives. Getting innovation to cascade so it can trickle down really fast down to the mass market would make a really big difference.”

With consumers on the lookout for woke-washing and greenwashing, and sceptical of beauty companies that overinflate their social or environmental impact and credentials, there are also ways that they can start to close the ‘expectation gap’.

“I think a lot of communications are really assertive about the grandiose effect that brands or companies are having on the world to make it a better place, so I think businesses need to take a much more humble approach,” says Sinnock.

“I think businesses need to take a much more humble approach”

Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer, Havas Group

“Businesses need to manage consumers’ expectations a bit better, and with a bit more empathy and understanding. They can’t just come out and make huge promises and claims that they’re making the world a better place and then for that not to be a reality in people’s real lives. A dose of humility will go a very, very long way,” he adds.

Consumers want to do the right thing, but not to the detriment of quality, end results or affordability.

The Pull Agency

Avoid making bold claims that overstep the mark when talking about what your business is here to do. Think about how and where you appropriately talk about it, and the tone you take with it.
Mark Sinnock, Global Chief Strategy Officer, Havas Group

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