Woke | Woke category has led the way brands respond to social change
Personal care brands help shift cultural perceptions
Over a decade ago a humble soap brand ran a series of ads featuring women of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes well before diversity became a buzz word, and certainly before it became a business imperative. Fast forward a few years and another personal care brand, Always, launched #likeagirl heralding a new age of marketing, inviting other brands to support female empowerment in a meaningful way.
Beauty, which sits firmly in the personal care category, has always had the confidence to go beyond the cosmetic, whether it was Estée Lauder bringing breast cancer support to the forefront, MAC having the courage to fight the stigma of AIDs, or Body Shop opposing animal testing way before veganism was a thing.
Even though personal care products are relatively inexpensive and typically disposable, this is the category that has historically been on the cutting edge of using brand marketing to lead the way towards social change. While other sectors are just waking up and jumping on the bandwagon through provocative advertising and bold proclamations, personal care has always been “woke” to the power of brands as harbingers of change and continues to lead the way.
Today, Dove, that once-humble soap brand, stays true to its mission of diverse representation—most recently through a partnership with Getty Images to launch the world’s largest stock photo library created by women and non-binary individuals. Other beauty brands are waking up to the fact that cis-gender women aren’t the only ones using their products. L’Oréal and Cover Girl are working with male beauty vloggers, and the industry is increasingly serving the transgender community—whether through “Bold Beauty” classes at Sephora or products such as makeup brand Jecca proudly declaring that #makeuphasnogender.
While many personal care communications campaigns champion diversity, Rhianna’s Fenty changed the game by creating a truly inclusive line of beauty products. Far more than an Instagram darling, Fenty sales are thriving and the business was named a Genius Company by Time Magazine. Rhianna has successfully reset the industry standard—making makeup for all skin tones a mandate rather than a marketing ploy.
The personal care category has made great strides in challenging assumptions around beauty, but it is slower in its efforts to redefine parenthood. Dove Baby started the conversation with a non-judgmental and honest portrayal of parenthood, while Pampers went big in 2019 with a Superbowl ad featuring John Legend changing diapers. Although I don’t want to canonize men for sharing the load, this is an intentional shift to demonstrate that changing roles for women in the world require a reallocation of responsibilities at home.
While discussing society’s changing expectations of men, it is fitting to mention Gillette’s recent campaign challenging every man to “be the best a man can be”—by leaving negative stereotypically male behaviors behind. The Gillette ad was surprisingly divisive, but it started an important conversation around the changing role of masculinity that I expect the personal care category to continue to drive forward in the coming year.
Personal care isn’t a sleeping princess newly awakened by the kiss of an activist prince—the category has long been “woke” to the opportunity to challenge perceptions and change behaviors. While other sectors pride themselves on responding to culture, personal care has always had the bravery to try and change it.