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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The pitfalls of purpose

Kathrin Rodriguez-Bruessau asks is your ‘brand purpose’ as important as your marketing team says it is?

Health and beauty companies, like those in other sectors, have been keen to promote their ‘brand purpose’ credentials in recent years. Marketers have ascribed social causes to brands, showing support for social justice issues like climate change, LGBTQ+ rights or diversity and inclusion.

For example, Dove’s Real Beauty campaigns focus on inclusivity while MAC Cosmetics created a charity to support those with HIV/AIDS.

Some of these campaigns have been remarkably successful. However, there is evidence that many consumers are less concerned about social purpose than the advertising and branding industry thinks they are – at least when it comes to overtly promoting social or political issues in their advertising.

And despite a lot of claims in the marketing press, there is also little scientific evidence to support the theory that brands with social purpose are growing faster than those without.

What people actually want

We recently carried out a survey of 2,000 UK consumers, which found two-thirds (68 percent) are actually uneasy or unsure about health and beauty brands teaching and promoting ‘woke’ causes.

An overwhelming 78 percent of respondents also had no or only a vague idea what ‘brand purpose’ even means. It seems that 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.

According to many, the first step is to just get the basics right and be a decent corporate citizen. Our research found that what most people (58 percent) want is for health & beauty brands to ‘pay their taxes, treat people fairly, respect the environment and not use it as a PR opportunity’.

Don’t be fake

In addition, we found that nearly half of UK consumers (41 percent) agree that the amount of ‘green-washing’ and ‘woke-washing’ in the health & beauty sector (brands faking their sustainability credentials or their interest in social issues like Black Lives Matter) is becoming noticeable.

A quarter (26 percent) think those brands come across as inauthentic as a result, while one in seven (14 percent) deliberately avoid the brands they see as behaving this way.

It’s become clear that trying to be more than a simple, ethical business actually carries risks. Several healthcare and beauty brands have got in trouble for perceived woke-washing and superficial attempts at brand activism. Just look at the reaction to Gillette’s 2019 ad focusing on #MeToo and toxic masculinity.

Brands need to be mindful not to force diversity representation or social awareness or being green to a point where it feels over the top. This creates a downside for the brand as much as it can cause damage to the cause itself by trivialising the issue or alienating parts of the population.

If you do it, do it right

That’s not to say health and beauty brands shouldn’t promote social purpose at all. But if they decide it’s the right path, they must consider how it’s reflected in their ads and whether the chosen cause is a good, credible fit for their brand.

Beauty brands are having trouble convincing consumers that their sustainability messaging is genuine

It’s important to back that purpose up with real action, with proportionate support to what they spend on advertising it. They should also take the time to check their company’s past and current code of conduct across all their procedures – including a quick check on any brand ambassadors.

But most of all, remember that people are getting much smarter at identifying what’s real and what’s not – and are clearly irritated by inauthentic-looking claims. A bold brand purpose is no replacement for ‘the basics’ of overall ethical corporate values and procedures. Being a good citizen first is what counts.


Kathrin Rodriguez-Bruessau
Kathrin Rodriguez-Bruessau
Kathrin Rodriguez-Bruessau, Head of Brand Strategy, The Pull Agency. Kathrin leads brand strategy initiatives for Pull, a creative agency specialising in the health and beauty sectors. Her extensive career within FMCG marketing spans innovation, communication and commercialisation for iconic brands such as Colgate, Sanex, Palmolive, Glade and Toilet Duck to name a few.

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