a person cleansing their skin in the mirror representing authenticity in media imagery

Avoiding Wokewashing in Beauty & Personal Care

April 1, 2021

Following on from our recent article on how we can help you find and activate your Purpose, we heard that brand owners and managers fear being tarred with the dreaded “wokewashing” brush. We wanted to offer some support and guidance and so, starting with beauty & personal care, here are some tips to help your brand glow.

ICYMI: Unilever recently announced that they would be eliminating the word ‘normal’ from all of its Beauty & Personal Care product packaging and advertising as part of their Positive Beauty vision. This initiative is aimed at challenging narrow beauty ideals, “helping to end discrimination and advocating for a more inclusive vision of beauty.”

We thought we’d put this to our Qualidate people, asking them how they feel about brands using ‘normal’ on beauty and skincare products and, surprise surprise, only 14% of respondents feel that ‘normal’ applies to them, suggesting that the term feels out of date and difficult to relate to. This fits with the wider conversation that has emerged around what ‘beauty’ means today, with traditional beauty ‘norms’ being eschewed in favour of a more accepting and inclusive version of beauty.

“That’s much better – no one really has normal skin! There’s no such thing. I’m glad they are removing it as it gives you a complex that what you have differs from the norm.” (Female, 25-34)

When it comes to the beauty and skincare industry, problems of diversity and inclusion are not new. Indeed, Unilever-owned brand Dove has already been part of campaigning for ‘Real Beauty’ for over a decade, through initiatives like diversity-celebrating product packaging, and their 2019 #ShowUs mission to collate stock images, that reflect a more inclusive vision of beauty.

So, given that diversity and inclusion in the beauty industry has been part of the cultural psyche for such a long time, why is it still generating so much conversation in 2021?

Quite simply, there’s still more for brands to do if they want to hit the mark.

Even this latest Positive Beauty move from Unilever, though generally well-received by our Qualidate sample, isn’t felt to go far enough in working towards being more inclusive. As our article points out, not all Purpose has to be driven by making the world a better place, but making sure it lives across everything your brand does is key.

Our Qualidate findings back this up too, with people saying that a more inclusive product range, ethical production, more diverse advertising talent and a diverse workforce all form part of “walking the walk” on diversity and inclusion.

“It’s a really good start. Being inclusive doesn’t mean making one product for all; rather by making sure their ranges include something for everyone; and investing as much in each.” (Female, 25-34)

With the beauty industry focusing on appearance, it echoes a growing conversation within the community, that true diversity and inclusion needs to reach beyond token representation in advertising. As Chelsea Riggs, president of haircare brand Amika, notes: “Most brands do a diversity campaign so that they don’t get lit on fire, and that’s it but you have to be very proactive and pointed in saying that you’re here for this audience — and then show them how.”

This extends not only to one element of your campaign but all of it – from the Influencers you choose to work with as people become increasingly cynical of their authenticity, to the suppliers & agency partners you choose to work with.

So, how can beauty and skincare brands avoid ‘woke-washing’ when stepping up their efforts on diversity and inclusion?

  1. Co-creation

Cosmetics brand Kohl Kreatives markets their motor-disability-inclusive makeup brushes as “products that everyone wants to, and can, use”.

Through co-creation and direct engagement with marginalised communities, Kohl tries to offer a chance for “those who have been excluded to feed into the norm”, whilst avoiding the trap of creating products that look like cold, sterile medical aids. They also contribute to their Kohls Kares charity too.

Photo: Kohl Kreatives Flex Collection


✅ Helps develop a true understanding of the nuanced needs and experiences of different audiences

❌ Helps avoid… biases and stereotypes that can leave products and campaigns feeling tokenistic, and lacking in resonance

  1. Finding synergy with brand and purpose

In creating her makeup line Fenty Beauty, Rihanna drew on her own experience and knowledge that “foundation is one of those areas in the beauty industry that has a big void for women at extreme ends of the shade spectrum”. As a result, Fenty has offered 40 shades of foundation since launch. While not the first brand to offer such a wide range, it is an example of a multinational-backed brand (with LVMH) acting with purpose and making inclusivity a priority.

Clearly a success, it is no wonder that , are gaining prominence with people of colour, taking share away from brands that don’t apply the same principles.

Photo: Fenty Beauty shade finder

Finding synergy with brand and purpose:

Helps developauthenticity, by having a clear understanding of why diversity and inclusion are important in the context of the specific brand / product

❌ Helps avoid… being generic or superficial, which makes people feel like the brand are just ‘going through the motions’ of being supportive

  1. Investing in R&D

While it is reported that innovation has declined in the sector as a result of the move away from animal testing, it clearly isn’t the case when the likes of Kat Von D’s KVD Vegan Beauty are delivering items that are not only better for the environment but also work as well, if not, better than their more established competition. One of the biggest reasons people shun organic or vegan products is that they don’t think they will work as well as what they use now or will not apply the same…so there’s an exciting opportunity to tell a new story about a natural ingredient, rooted in efficacy and a brilliant result.

When developing her eponymous haircare line for women with afro and curly hair, Charlotte Mensah focused on “diversity within the actual creation of the beauty products as well as the platforms they’re sold on.” Moving away from the oil du jour coconut oil, which is high in saturated fatty acids, Charlotte instead formulated her products with manketti oil: high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, which make it a more effective hydrator.

While people may not know what they need or want, you can certainly keep their needs, and desires for a cleaner, healthier product that works for them and the world, firmly in mind as you brief your R&D partners.

Photo: Charlotte Mensah manketti hair oil

Investing in R&D:

Helps developproducts that are created with the needs of the target audience in mind, rather than as an afterthought

❌ Helps avoidcreating products that don’t serve their intended audience. This ultimately risks feeling like an attempt to profit from appearing to be progressive, without actually doing the work


If you want to know more about our work in beauty & personal care, purpose, innovation, or to hear more about Qualidate, just get in touch.


By Ellie Gale, Firefish UK

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