The most in-demand thing in beauty right now isn’t a product — it’s transparency.
Transparency is information-sharing by a brand to differentiate itself within the market and cultivate trust with consumers. The type of information shared varies in nature depending on the brand — a clean brand is likely to practice ingredient transparency while a brand that prides itself on affordability is apt to share its pricing philosophy. Some brands openly share information about every aspect of their business.
What’s consistent, though, is the motivation to share: Consumers, particularly Gen Zers, want to know as much information as possible about the products they’re buying and the companies they’re patronizing, and their demands have beauty brands talking.
“This demand of customers wanting to be seen, heard and valued as one of the most important stakeholders of the business is increasing,” said Liah Yoo, the YouTube influencer and founder of the skin care brand Krave Beauty. “Approaching the customer with respect as a human, not as a customer, I don’t see that as a trend, but I do think that is a generational shift.”
Beauty marketing and communications strategies used to be based on “fear-mongering” or “key ingredient stories,” as companies “used to hold more information” than consumers,” Yoo said.
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“Now, that power dynamic has shifted: Consumers have more or unlimited access to information,” she said. “When this is the case, the role of marketing and communications should evolve from purely selling and promoting products to sharing your learnings as a brand.”
Yoo did just that — shared Krave’s learnings — late last year when she sent out a 16-page PDF to more than 100,000 people who subscribe to the company’s newsletter. The report covered topics such as the racial makeup of Krave’s employee and customer bases, its progress to offset carbon emissions, its efforts to try new packaging materials, its donations and the fact that its business grew 250 percent in 2020 despite not launching a single product.
On New Year’s Eve, Yoo held a stakeholder meeting via Zoom, inviting customers to virtually tune in and review Krave’s 2020 highs and lows. The event was scheduled to last 90 minutes, but ran two hours overtime as 350 people tuned in and asked questions.
“People found it, I guess, refreshing,” Yoo said.
Krave’s comprehensive report was a rare, exceptional moment of transparency in the beauty industry. Yoo, for her part, admitted she “set the bar high.” But perhaps radical transparency is the new norm.
For Annie Jackson, cofounder of clean beauty retailer Credo, the “table stakes to be a brand” have risen over the past few years, with brand founders facing added pressure from consumers.
“The secret sauce of who we choose to be at Credo is not like my old life as a merchant — does [the product] fill a void, was [it] efficacious, did it smell great?” Jackson said. “Now, the bar is so much higher. The transparency and values that a brand founder has, does that align with me? Are they forthcoming and do they have a point of view when big issues arise in our country? They have to pass a sniff test in addition to having really high standards, in addition to having an awesome product.”
Credo’s customers are most interested in information about the sustainability practices of the brands it carries, Jackson said. That trend towards sustainability transparency is sweeping the beauty industry at large.
According to Mintel data compiled by Lauren Goodsitt, senior global beauty analyst, and Clare Hennigan, senior beauty analyst, 64 percent of consumers based in the U.S. said they would like to see more innovative sustainability ideas from big beauty brands. Since the pandemic, 14 percent of U.S. consumers said they have become more interested in the ethical practices of the brands they use, citing COVID-19 as an impetus.
Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and ingredient transparency have become key factors in consumers’ purchasing decisions. Nearly 15 percent of adults who use beauty products have stopped buying from a brand in the past year because of a lack of diversity in the brand’s workforce, according to Mintel.
Nearly 30 percent of adults who use beauty and personal care products said they are now paying more attention to ingredient sourcing than they were a year ago, Mintel reported. Questions about product efficacy and potential health risks, as well as a desire for eco-friendly ingredients, are reasons why adults are researching product ingredients.
Knowledge is, after all, power.
“Based on how the world has evolved in these last 18 months, transparency has become more important for us,” said Barbara De Laere, Aveda’s global brand president. “Our consumers are extremely passionate about safety of our formulas, efficacy. That’s why we have made the deliberate choice to be clear on every single product on our website, to show what is in there and what is not from an ingredient perspective.”
Aveda’s online ingredient glossary is driving high engagement and conversion on the brand’s website. According to De Laere, consumers spend an average of 15 minutes — five times higher than any other section of the website — sifting through the glossary’s 102 ingredients, a number that will soon increase to 150. Nearly 50 of the ingredients already listed are shop-able, and conversion for the glossary is about 11 percent, or two times higher than what Aveda normally sees.
“[Consumers] truly use [the glossary] as a source of knowledge and guidance,” De Laere said. “They’re doing quite some investigative work on what is in the product, and we’re seeing that translate in conversion. [The glossary] absolutely creates trust.”
Come fall, Aveda will unveil a partnership with Wholechain, a company that uses blockchain technology to make food and agricultural supply chains traceable. Wholechain will employ blockchain to Aveda’s Madagascan vanilla ingredient supply chain, making the process available for the public to track, beginning with the farms in Madagascar and ending with Aveda’s manufacturing facility.
“COVID-19 exacerbated people’s awareness of supply chain,” said Jayson Berryhill, Wholechain’s cofounder. “You wouldn’t necessarily have thought that would translate to things like a greater consumer awareness of responsible sourcing, but it seems that it did.”
The quest for transparency has impacted the influencer realm — unsurprisingly, as social media has been a hotbed for the topic to thrive. Mintel reported that 10 percent of adults who use beauty products said they have called out a beauty brand on social media for lacking diversity.
Dr. Camille Howard-Verović, a dermatologist who joined TikTok during the pandemic, said her 150,000 followers want her to share her opinions about a brand or particular product, while keeping up-to-date on the latest news — read: controversies — involving any brand she might choose to post about.
“They expect me to know who and what a brand is about,” Howard-Verović said. “The audience expects you to [take] a stand on a company and the reasons why you do or do not support the company. It’s not only ‘do you like a product,’ [it’s] do you like the company? What does the company stand for?”
According to Mintel, 32 percent of adults who follow beauty and lifestyle influencers are more likely to trust information from influencers versus beauty brands. Mintel reported that 45 percent of adults who follow beauty and lifestyle influencers want to see more beauty brands supporting political or social causes.
Howard-Verović, who is also the founder of hair care brand Girl + Hair, said ingredient transparency is a popular point of discussion among her followers.
“Everyone’s really interested in how you’re formulating your products, why you chose certain ingredients and the effectiveness of ingredients,” she said. “That overarching theme of transparency is huge — social transparency and scientific and clinical transparency.”
With Girl + Hair, she aims to be transparent about ingredients, the formulation process and any supply chain struggles she might have.
“There’s power to having a voice behind a brand,” she said. “When I have cap issues, I’m like, ‘Guys, I have cap issues, this is the reason.’ I think my customers appreciate that.”
For Charlotte Palermino, cofounder of Dieux Skin, it’s less a matter of transparency and more a matter of accountability.
“Nothing’s ever going to be 100 percent transparent,” she said. “We like to say accountable because accountable is holding ourselves to a higher standard, keeping us in check.”
Palermino often posts about misinformation in the clean beauty community in an effort to set the record straight and prevent baseless thinking — parents burning their children’s skin via sun exposure, for example — from spreading.
“We want consumers to understand what goes into beauty so that you can make an informed decision,” she said. “If consumers can’t understand their skin care, that’s a problem. We explain it in a way that they understand, otherwise they’re going to go down these routes of clean beauty, that everything is killing them and their children, and they throw everything out. For us, it’s about getting people to understand there’s nuance to everything.”
On Dieux’s website is a page dedicated to price transparency for its Forever Eye Mask. The page lists the factors that determined the mask’s final pricing — packaging, warehousing, payment processing, free shipping and a markup of 1.6 times — of $25.
“The standard in beauty is to squeeze people. That’s part of the reason why we want to show you our costs,” Palermino said. “We can’t charge $6 for a serum because our formula costs between $7 and $8, depending on which factory we’re using. However, we’re going to charge as fair a price as humanly possible.”
The response to Dieux’s price transparency has been positive, with customers saying the eye mask is “a well-priced product,” according to Palermino.
“For some brands, if they actually shared their pricing, it would be problematic,” she said. “If you are a luxury brand, it’s going to be hard for you to justify your price. If you’re starting to get into the over-100-dollar-mark, you better have some strong clinical data. A lot of luxury brands do not, but that’s not why they’re selling, and to be quite frank, I don’t think their audience cares.”
Perhaps the most visceral type of transparency to emerge during the COVID-19 pandemic is that of diversity, equity and inclusion. The week after the murder of George Floyd, Keyonna Smith, a beauty professional with a background in accounting and finance, was in Target’s feminine care aisle deciding to purchase from one of two brands.
“I was on both of their websites, combing through to see if they donated, did they make a statement,” Smith said. “I ended up purchasing both brands because both were doing amazing in different spaces.”
Smith is one of three cofounders of Undertones, a BIPOC women-founded organization that reviews companies via its own rating system that is based on more than 50 values related to equity, agency, transparency, accountability and community. Smith and cofounders Anjelica Kempis and Yohanna Andom, as well as their modest team of volunteers, sift through companies’ websites and social media accounts, often referencing Sharon Chuter’s Pull Up for Change campaign, for any information they can find.
Undertones has reviewed more than 100 brands since it was founded in 2020.
“Sometimes companies will be transparent, most of the time they’re ambiguous to make their numbers look better,” Kempis said. “It requires being critical about every single piece of communication.”
Smith, Kempis and Andom have not yet reached out to beauty brands directly for information, but on social media, they are seeing engagement from what they call “ally brands.”
“The brands may not be owned by a person of color or someone who identifies as LGBTQIA, but they’ve taken meaningful steps to work toward helping these communities of color or have a beneficial impact of some sort,” Andom said.
Undertones’ cofounders are considering adding sustainability efforts — and the nuances involved — as a factor within their rating system, though DE&I efforts remain top of mind.
“What I have seen is that a lot of brands have increased representation on social media but not necessarily in their product assortments,” Smith said. “You can keep putting people of color in your ads but you’re not making products that are for these people, so the customers are not going to come. It’s performative in nature and taking the easy way out.”
For Andom, promises made by beauty brands in 2020, when the fervor for social justice was a mainstream topic of conversation, have yet to materialize. Undertones aims to continue the momentum behind the movement.
“There haven’t been meaningful changes as far as hiring practices go,” Andom said. “There are reports coming out that say a lot of the money that was pledged towards communities of color haven’t actually reached people of color. Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of what was promised hasn’t been delivered on. It remains to be seen if it will be at all.”