Cosmetic brand transparency - More marketing fluff?

The other day a reporter contacted me about a story related to a new brand that was highlighting their clinical results right on the front of their packaging. The reporter was impressed with this bold move and wanted to hear what a cosmetic scientist thought of it. I’m always happy to talk to reporters because I want to help them get the story right. There are way too many “fake experts” quoted in the media leading to the publication of lots of nonsense.

What gets used

While we talked for nearly an hour here is what they used

“When I look at [the efficacy panel] numbers, I have to ask myself, ‘What does this mean to consumers?’” said Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and founder of the cosmetic chemist resource website Chemists Corner. “Are you going to notice it? Does that have an impact to you?”

Certainly that represented one of the things I said, but there was a lot that they didn’t use. That’s fine and what you should expect if you’re ever getting quoted for stories.

Truth in advertising

But the entire slant of the story and the product launch made me think about beauty product testing, transparency and what is really true. Now, many people believe that the beauty industry is filled with lies. This is wrong, at least when it comes to advertising. In fact, in the US (and around the world) it is illegal to lie about your products. The way it’s policed is both through the FTC, but also through the magazines, newspapers, radio and television stations that run the ads. They can be held accountable for broadcasting any lies so they make you prove what you say. Therefore, what you see advertised about beauty products is usually true, especially from large corporations. Little companies can get away with lying a bit more easily than big companies.

Transparency in advertising

This story reminds me of one of the latest trends in the cosmetic industry: Transparency. All the clean beauty products are falling over themselves to tell everyone just how transparent they are. The new company claims to be transparent by showing all their testing data. Another company is claiming transparency by showing their formulas on the front of their bottles. Other companies prove their transparency by showing all added ingredients, their supplier information, safety data sheets and more.

Why it’s a marketing gimmick

Of course, the way I see it all this transparency is a marketing gimmick. Companies are providing more information than ever which has lead to a more misinformed consumer. Here’s why more information and transparency may not actually be better for consumers.

Information overload

One trick that works on most everyone is to overload people with information. P&G, Unilever and all the other big companies have been participating in a website where you can go and look up every ingredient in their formulas. Really. They provide more information than they can fit on their package. But how many people really go and look at this?  And how many people that do are really more informed? For most people, they’ll hear about the website maybe check it out one time and never go back. Meanwhile all these companies get to talk about how transparent they’re being. They are, no doubt, but does it really make a difference? To me, this is like those 50 page user agreements you sign to use your iPhone. Lots of words that no body reads.

Numbers don’t tell the real story

Another trick about numbers is that they don’t tell the real story. When a company makes a claim like 50% more moisturizing, what does that really mean to a consumer? The claim is meant to quantify how much a product will help but if a consumer can’t tell a real difference between 50 or 40%, what have they really learned.  In fact, in my experience consumers often can’t even tell a difference between 80 and 20%. Especially when it comes to skin products. The numbers allow companies to imply that there is a measurable difference between their product and a competitor’s. But if you really tested consumers most wouldn’t be able to tell any difference.

Misleading with numbers

And numbers can be misleading. SPF 100 is not twice as effective as SPF 50 even though many consumers might believe that. SPF is a logarithmic scale so the larger the number, the closer they actually are. Another trick is when companies compare their product performance to an untreated control. You can get large differences but those differences wouldn’t be there if they were compared to other competitive products. Fructis might make hair 10 times stronger but so would most other hair conditioners if you followed their same testing protocol.  Here more information just misleads the consumer even though the company isn’t lying.

File drawer effect

One final thing to consider is the file drawer effect.  This happens in scientific publishing but it also happens in claims testing. When a company runs a test they will often ignore tests that don’t support what they want to claim, and accept tests that show the “right” data. It’s sad as a scientist that this type of thing is done but never forget being a scientist in industry is not about doing science. You don’t seek the truth nearly as often as seeking to find what you can prove.

As a formulator, you will frequently be asked by your marketing people to come up with numerical claims and ways to support those claims. It does provide a great opportunity to get creative. The tests you design and the ways you prove claims require you to be quite clever. But at the end of the day, your products are still doing the same things that all the other skin and hair care products on the market are doing.

Try not to fall for your own marketing.

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