Brand Activism in the Beauty and Personal care Industry: an interview with the ICOR Prize winner and her thesis’ director

Many companies in the beauty and personal care sector have engaged in brand activism and support a variety of social or environmental causes. But how does this really impact consumers perceptions of the brand and their intentions to buy the product? These are two of the questions that Aurélia GORRET (a student at IÉSEG) looked to answer in the framework of her Master’s thesis*, which recently won the ICOR Prize. We spoke to Aurélia and her thesis director, Vassilis DALAKAS**, about the findings of this research.


Can you explain why and how you chose to study this topic? And why it is such an important topic for the Beauty/Care Industry?

Aurélia: Like the vast majority of young women of my generation, I have been and still am a witness to the profound transformations shaping the beauty and personal care industries. And as such, I am the privileged target of the marketing strategies of most of these brands. Over the years, I have become aware of the increasing attention paid to the diversity in product offering, composition, and the environmental impact of these industries. Passionate about this sector and fascinated by the power it has on our life, I also follow with attention the way in which brands manage these issues and are becoming real socio-political actors.

My Master thesis was more than a regular step in my scholarship, I wanted to turn it into a valuable link between my student and professional life, hoping that one day I will participate in this transformation for a more inclusive beauty, respectful of diversity, of our body and of the planet.

Vassilis: I had done some research work on brand activism, including advising a couple of IÉSEG thesis projects on this topic before but nothing specifically within the Beauty/Care Industry. When Aurélia reached out to me with her proposal I remember how impressed I was with how well-prepared and thoughtful she was about this issue. I was impressed by her strong motivation and passion about this topic, so I happily agreed to be her advisor having already at the time a good sense she would do an excellent job in her thesis.

Personally, I was very intrigued by the topic because while research is becoming increasingly focused on consumers’ responses to the brand itself when the brand engages in such actions, this project also brings attention to the effects of brand activism on the issue itself and how brands may promote their brand activism efforts to truly have a positive effect on the issues they take a stance on.

Can you please summarize the main findings of your work?

Aurélia: This research revealed two major findings. First, the level of commitment of companies to social issues such as inclusivity and body positivity plays an important role in the consumer’s evaluation of the brand. There seems to be a threshold of involvement or authenticity that determines our attitude but also our purchase intention. Consumers are now demanding concrete initiatives which pushes brands to invest and not just simple communication on these issues.

Secondly, we noticed a difference in the perception of the two issues at the heart of this study. When it comes to inclusivity, a company that takes a sufficiently strong stand in favor of this topic will be better perceived by the consumer and will benefit from a higher purchase intention. Such beneficial results were not observed for campaigns advocating body positivity. There is still a very strong connection in some people’s minds, between some body types and an unhealthy lifestyle (meaning people do not consider other potential causes for being overweight). This leads to a difference in the perception results between inclusivity and body positivity.

Can you explain how this work might have applications for managers working in this sector?

Aurélia: Working in this industry for now almost a year and a half (for example through my internships) has convinced me even more of the necessity for all stakeholders to not only be interested by those issues, but to learn how to deal with and communicate on them in the clearest and most effective way.

The validity of this research is increased by the omnipresence of social and environmental issues not only in the cosmetics industry but in all business sectors. For firms to avoid being harmed by their own position or simply to be lost in the crowd of corporate social responsibility messages, they need to make a sincere effort symbolized by concrete and meaningful investments. In a more concrete way, it could be interesting for some companies to get closer to reference entities on the subjects addressed, such as non-profit organizations, militant figures or scientific institutions. This global and sincere approach will allow this type of collaboration to specify the elements of language related to the defended cause while highlighting a cause, claims and stakeholders.

Vassilis: Given how companies are increasingly engaged in brand activism and support for causes, this work has strong practical applications. It is noteworthy that brand support for causes may not be universally accepted by consumers as something positive because sometimes such issues may be divisive. The findings of Aurélia’s work highlighted this reality, making it especially important for managers to recognize they need to understand about how their target market feels in regard to the specific issues they consider supporting instead of assuming all support will be viewed equally positive. Also, it is important to recognize that a brand’s support for such issues may help in terms of awareness or support for the issue without necessarily helping the brand directly. For brands that truly care about the issues, this is an important practical takeaway to keep in mind.


*« Brand Activism in the Beauty and Personal care Industry : Intersectional perspectives on inclusivity and body positivism » (supervised by Vassilis DALAKAS ).

**Vassilis DALAKAS is a visiting professor at IÉSEG and marketing professor at  California State University San Marcos