Terminological inexactitudes & cosmetic claims – not just adjectives

Terminological inexactitudes & cosmetic claims  – not just adjectives

Theresa Callaghan PhD,  CEO Callaghan Consulting International, Hamburg, Germany


Cosmetics have much to look forward to in this new decade, yet at the same time our industry needs to reflect on where it sees itself in such a demanding consumer world, full of confusion and ‘fairy stories’. As we find ourselves nearing the middle of the first year of the ‘20s, will they be ‘roaring’ in the same way as the ‘20s of the 20th century? As a claims development specialist and skin scientist, it is clear the consumer will continue to drive for ‘truth’ from marketing, from ‘speed demons’ (non-compliant brands), and from risk takers when it comes to the claims narrative. To be honest, all consumers, which includes us, are pushing for further transparency right across the board  — our work cut out for us!


If we, as an industry, are to counter consumer ‘toxicologists’ and consumer ‘skin experts’ surrounding our products, well-thought out pro-activeness as a collective rather than as an industry full of competitors, is the key route for success. Analogous to beaches covered in plastic waste, industry fragmentation became so severe during the 2010s, that it gave birth to a tsunami of misinformation, and ‘drowned-out’ common sense. We owe it to ourselves and the continued betterment and evolution of the industry, to put the consumer, press, and social media, straight, once and for all. ‘Sense-about-science’ needs to be a champion for 2020 and the decade ahead. As an industry we focus on the average consumer, yet those consumers who are not-so-average are making a noise. Perhaps it is time to address them too in order to avoid the continued growth of the ‘pseudo-toxicologist’ and similar ‘experts’? With most consumers obtaining their cosmetic product information from ‘questionable’ sources, it is important that they are able to discern between fact and fiction so as to obtain a better grasp of the products they need for healthy, beautiful skin. They should also be more informed when choosing and purchasing cosmetic products, and be more informed when judging what they read in the press and on the internet and social media. Despite what some people think, advertising can’t make you buy something you don’t need!


Communicating facts is always a challenge for experts whatever the industry or field of research they occupy. The average consumer is more than happy to trust climate and environmental scientists, with some of them being considered cool and hip despite their age. So where are our scientists? We have excellent credible researchers and experts, so why do we only hear from them (mostly) in B2B communications, rather than being ‘out there’ with the public? Serious beauty journalists are excited to speak to scientists — not PR managers or ‘spokespersons’ — they want the facts not the ‘pretty bits’ (which are a given). Another point to consider is that as an industry, despite our ‘family atmosphere’ we are in fact competitors, and so perhaps there is a reluctance for scientists to speak out since it goes against their company ‘politics’ and as we know, ‘image’ in our industry, rightly or wrongly, is everything?


Whether we are on board or resisting the challenge, product trends for 2020 will continue to centre around Sustainability — not necessarily through natural and organic products — despite anticipated growth, but also in terms of ethics, resources, people, and obvious overt consumerism. Will we see a reduction in consumption or in consumer waste? Whatever the marketing ‘trend’ sustainability will encompass all aspects of cosmetics. With a focus on sustainability the numbers of new ingredients is likely to be less, but with an increase in research and development into what we already have on offer. This will be impacted by the claims legislation. Furthermore, consumers may well search for products with locally produced ingredients, and demand transparency in terms of, e.g., ‘how many tons of CO2 produced this lipstick,’ written on the packaging. All of these claims will require legislative compliance. I am also of the belief that consumers will move away from products feeding their vanity and focus on their individual real skin needs in order to cut down on waste. The fashion industry is moving in this direction driven by the consumer — we will not be immune.


In terms of ethical trends, those who own an effective but honest and truthful narrative, when it comes to product claims (i.e., fully complaint), will be the winners. In claims development, whatever the trends of 2020, if the industry cannot be in control of the narrative in a transparent and informative honest manner, we may come to the point where regulatory control will no longer be in our hands. Either it will be in the hands of law makers, or it will be in the hands of consumers and their social media accounts. The latter doesn’t bear thinking about!


Communicating with consumers is, indeed, a challenge, and will continue to be so unless we can we crack the social media narrative. Why do we have these problems with communication? The biggest problem humans today have with communication is that we do not listen (or even read) to understand . We listen/read to reply! Too much emphasis is placed on ‘perceiving’ what is read, rather than reading to ‘weigh and consider.’ We need to make up our own minds individually, rather than as a ‘collective’. If we consider this issue in the context of cosmetic advertising it highlights the need for the cosmetic industry to ensure that claim messages and stories attached to their products are fully understood and not misconstrued in any way. At the same time, a course of effective proactivity and dialogue with consumers, journalists, and social media should be found to ensure the integrity of products is not lost or demeaned either deliberately or inadvertently. When the cosmetics industry communicates with the consumer, the communication at times arrives via a tangled web, and then the industry also has to assume the consumer reads what it is communicating. The benefit of effective communication is that it creates a good image, and as such, can build long-lasting relationships with consumers — and thus, brand loyalty


Development teams (and to be honest, not just in the cosmetics industry), have also found that while R&D transform the science (facts) into reality (e.g., can smooth out wrinkles), it is marketing which turns facts into dreams — focusing on for example, the insecurity that somehow wrinkles are not nice, and therefore, should be smoothed out. Thus feeding off a consumers pre-existing insecurity that they are becoming old. Moreover, by providing products to smooth out wrinkles (despite consumer desire for them), have they now identified the point where this insecurity becomes vanity and thus drives sales, or was the vanity of the consumer there in the first place but only exhibited as insecurity? Should marketing transform these facts from R&D to address a real consumer need? How vain are we as consumers?


Since 2013 we have consistently failed to effectively control the consumers narrative, especially when it comes to correcting ‘fake’ news. In my view, this is primarily due to those brands who will not, or do not comply with cosmetic claims legislation, guilty of terminological inexactitudes — basically lying about their products. Also, those brands who themselves make up negative stories about ingredients due to ignorance, lack of proper consumer insight, and failure (out of fear?) to challenge the consumer with correct facts. They then perpetuate these ‘stories’, because that’s what the industry is good at — ‘me-too’ claims were a disaster waiting to happen and now we have to clean up the mess. They fail to understand that non-compliance with just one out of six EU Claims Criteria means they are non-compliant with all of them since they are inextricably linked. This lays waste any so-called ‘ethical’ claim they may have, for example, attached to their product. Like speeding cars on a motorway, they think that because everyone else is doing it, they can do so themselves, and they hide amongst those around them — especially in the internet jungle. With only so many police to control them, it will be either the consumer or industry insiders waiting at the motorway exit with the speedometer. My advice is to drive safely in 2020, and avoid forest fires!


As consumers ourselves, our industry’s responsibility is therefore a big one in relation to effectively communicating truthful, believable cosmetic claims. We need to be ahead of the curve and ensure journalists, bloggers, amateurs, influencers etc, keep to the facts, fact check their sources, and prevent misinterpretation of those facts. Finally, we need some collective creative disruption when it comes to communication!


Note: Some of this article is adapted from excerpts of Dr. Theresa Callaghans book “Help! Im Covered In Adjectives: Cosmetics Claims & The Consumer” available from Amazon (paperback and e-formats), and from SOFW (booth A56). Theresa also gives the annual Claims Development Workshop for In Cosmetics which is now in its 6th year.

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