There’s a face serum I really like, but I just saw the brand post about a political cause that doesn’t align with my values. I’m thinking of not purchasing from them again, but I’m also curious about why brands and founders do these public posts if they know it might lose them customers. What do you think I should do? —Anon.
To answer the easier part of your question: If a company supports causes that don’t align with your values, you can absolutely stop buying its products. And if you’re worried about finding a replacement serum, don’t be (as much as beauty brands would like you to believe otherwise, the majority of skin-care products aren’t unique; with an open mind and some sampling, you’ll be able to find something comparable). But I get the sense that you’re uncomfortable with the fact that the brand took a stance at all — and you’re trying to understand why they did. You’re not alone.
About six in ten Americans say they think it’s inappropriate for companies to take a stand on political, social, or cultural issues, according to a recent CNBC poll. But younger shoppers tend to believe they should, and values-based shopping is becoming the norm. In fact, 85 percent of shoppers want a brand’s values to align with their own, and 75 percent reported parting ways with a brand over a conflict in values, according to Harris Poll’s research commissioned by Google Cloud.
As you noticed, a brand’s social accounts will often give you some idea of its political leanings. Cluey, a website and browser extension that helps consumers find brands that align with their values, is another way to learn more. And you may want to dig deeper in your research: It’s possible that a company’s investors or executives support causes you don’t necessarily believe in. Does that bother you? If so, the list of brands you buy from will get even smaller. Just have a little grace for yourself as you contemplate all this and adjust your shopping habits — and have some grace for other people who are doing the same. Your values may change over time, and you don’t have to set any hard rules for yourself right now. Another great thing about being a private citizen? You don’t have to publicize your purchase decisions or why you make them — unless you want to, of course.
Businesses don’t necessarily have that same freedom. And this gets into the trickier part of your question: Why do brands post about social or political causes? I spoke to a few marketing and public-relations executives, and the consensus was that many companies no longer have a choice. They’ll get called out for trying to play both sides of an issue, and they’ll also get called out for silence. For example, in June 2022, days after the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion, beauty-industry watchdog Instagram account @esteelaundry posted, “Many beauty brands are supporting the fight for abortion rights. Which companies have not taken a stance after the overturning of #roevwade?”
“Brand neutrality is a thing of the past. There’s really only one option: Pick a stance, and stick with it,” says R Public Relations founder Emily Bergh Reynolds, who has a certificate in crisis communications from the Public Relations Society of America. As you noted, the downside is that a brand will probably lose some customers. But, says Reynolds, the upside is that they “may secure even more loyalty from consumers and attract new audiences who agree with their positions on social and political issues.”
I don’t know what the company that makes your serum posted about, but my guess is that its executives did not come to the decision lightly. They also had to distill a complicated topic into a post, and — understatement of the century here — the complexities of many political and social causes are lost on social media. (I’m not saying this should change your position in any way; I’m just trying to help you make sense of their decision.)
As I contemplate your question, I keep coming back to something Karissa Bodnar, the CEO of Thrive Causemetics, told me on my podcast a few years ago. I asked her a question that touches on some of the issues you bring up now: What happens if your company supports a charity or cause that offends part of your customer base? Her response was, “There are certain social issues that some people deem political, like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ rights. I don’t think those are political issues. I think that those are human-rights issues. And I think for me, personally, it’s important to take a stand in that moment. Do I always know what to say? Absolutely not. Am I perfect? No. Have we made mistakes? Yes. But am I going to do my best to stand up for causes and initiatives that I believe in? Absolutely.” As values-based consumerism becomes the norm, I think we’re going to see more brands and their executives opening up to consumers and being transparent about their values and the choices they make — and that’s a good thing.
Sure, there are plenty of problems with capitalism, but to some extent, the companies most likely to succeed will be the ones that give customers what they want. And the fact that you’re thinking about where and how to spend your money means you are, in some small way, making an impact on how beauty brands do business.