Absence marketing: the rise of the non-ingredient

I've had a thing against sulfates for a while now. I'm not exactly sure what my problem is - but I know they're bad, like washing oil stains off your garage floor bad...or something? The kinda bad you don't want to wash your hair with, I know that much. I've long gone for the 'natural' options with my hair and skin care, hunting out little incense-steeped boutiques full of crunchy-types in harem trousers, forgoing the latest skin-perfecting, hair-polishing technology in hopes of dodging the dodgy chemicals lurking in pretty bottles lined up at the local salon.

But it's hard, you know. As much as I'd like this rosehip oil to be enough; this tea tree, this calendula; sometimes 'effortlessly beautiful boho babe' seems a little outside my wheelhouse. 

I have complex needs. I have little patience. A girl's gotta get some results.

It was as if L'Oreal read my mind.

Lo, a sulfate-free range of shampoo and conditioner in a mainstream pharmacy! What is this trickery!

Maybe a little bit of that chemical goodness L'Oreal runs the world with, but look ma, no sulfates! That's good, right? I was sold, just with those two little words, the absence of a subset of ingredients, despite the 'anti-frizz', 'silky-smooth' and 'volume-enhancing' sisters on the shelf, sulfate-free was all I could ever ask for!


My long-standing, vague wariness of sulfates was pushed over the edge into obsessive avoidance thanks to one of the biggest cosmetics brands in the world forgoing a shiny sales pitch to promote a lack of ingredients, and I am nothing if not a consumer. Onto the bandwagon, shall we?

Things have escalated since.

Every week I receive a Gluten-free (don't judge, the intolerance is real!) My Food Bag delivery; my toner is alcohol-free, my body wash is soap-free, my moisturiser is oil-free; even my dishwashing liquid is cruelty-free. I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW THEY MADE ANIMALS USE DISH SOAP. 

Avoidance en vogue

Try and tell me you have nothing in your house that's free-from something. Kiwis, especially, love a bit of active avoidance. Take a stroll through the supermarket and you'll find an absence of all the ingredients you could ever want to not have. We've all decided we want more from the products we consume and use on our bodies, and by that we mean less - we want less. 

Ice-cream without cream, chicken without chicken, soap without soap; you want it, you can get it. Avoiding stuff has gone mainstream - Marie Claire found twelve different sulfate-free shampoos worth trying, and Self magazine will tell you about several products that can help you go shampoo-free entirely, whether you asked for it or not.

And this is no passing fad - this is big business. The global market for natural personal care products is worth $82bn, with the US natural and organic beauty market alone forecast to hit $13 billion by next year, and according to Fast Company:

"Brands with a natural and/or botanically derived clinical orientation now represent the largest combined share of prestige skin care sales."

But with big dollars come the big corporations looking to cash in.

Natural products have gone from piddly health food shops, to mainstream supermarkets, and now mega manufacturers like Hershey's, Kellogg's and Campbell Soup (oh, and um, L'Oreal) are jumping in to compete for those conscious consumer dollars, trying out new products with minimal ingredients and removing artificial flavours and colours. 

Aaaand with the big corps comes distrust from the new wave of savvy, hyper-conscious consumers who assume the worst and accept only the best, so they're heading back to where they came from - their local Farmer's market, or ya know, one of those quinoa-encrusted hippy holes in the wall...that aren't quite what they used to be. Whole Foods, anyone?

So there are those of us that are woke enough to check labels, demand only the highest quality natural-ish of the naturalist - and then there is the average person, in an average supermarket just trying to be healthy, just trying to get by in this crazy, crazy world.

They see the packaging.

All natural it says. Organic. No artificial flavours, or colours. Sulfate-free. Herbal extracts. Essential oils. Read the taglines on a few bottles of moisturiser and you'll feel like you've done half an hour of hatha yoga. 

But hold the phone. We got receipts.

'Almost half of of snack food products labelled 'natural' are considered unhealthy'

'Buyer beware: 'Natural' body care products skimp on natural ingredients'

'Food labels may be designed to fool'

'Consumers being misled by labelling on 'organic' beauty products, report shows'

'All the ways food companies try to convince you their packaged products are natural'

So how does a properly legitimate all natural brand win back jaded customers and win over the most woke?

I'm going to use a real-life example to illustrate these ideas - a purchase I made a couple of days ago of 'Naturally by Trisha Warrior Balm'.

Your ingredient list is your biggest asset

Yeah, I look at ingredients. I haven't always - and a lot of people don't, trusting the headlines on the front of the bottle or box, convinced by the emblazoned benefits alone.

Not today, compadre.

I turned over the small pot in my hands to find nine ingredients listed; all easily pronounceable and recognisable. My tepid curiosity turned into a pre-purchase flush - it wouldn't take much to tip me over the edge from here.

Consumers are moving past the point of 'sulphate-free', 'dairy-free' and '99% organic' promises on packaging - we've been overloaded and burned by dishonest advertising, and the tide is turning for a focus what you do have, not what you don't.


You don't need to waste inches on what you don't have

My little pot of Warrior Balm doesn't mention a thing about what's not in there - probably because there wasn't enough room on the label, but maybe because there was no need; the ingredient list speaks for itself, at the same size font as the product benefits and care instructions.

What's not in it? Nasty crap obviously, but it just so happens I'm smart enough to figure that out on my own. 

What does your customer want to see?

In just a few words, the text on the Warrior Balm label does a lot of heavy lifting. 'Antiseptic', 'promotes' and 'minimises' set the scene for a powerful product, leading into a list of issues the balm might improve. As I scanned through the list of ailments, I was surprised to find the name of the exact autoimmune condition I suffer from. How did they know!?

By listing specific ailments, the label goes beyond promising broad benefits and speaks directly to individual sufferers, making it almost impossible for them to put the jar back on the shelf. Speak on your customers' wants and needs, their concerns and discomforts and your product will all but sell itself.

Price denotes quality - don't sell yourself short

I paid $25.50 for a 65gm pot of this stuff. I idled for a moment over the amount, but I couldn't justify not buying something that ticked so many boxes. In the end, the cost justified itself - only the highest quality ingredients can demand a high price, right?

A personal touch evokes an emotional response

'Made by Kiwi hands, naturally' my wee jar says, and I believe it - with the best before date and batch number handwritten on the label. I believed for a moment that someone had made this for me, 'Trisha' - a good witch hovering over her cauldron creating a magical potion that just might cure what ails me. I could imagine Trisha carefully putting this product together, a small kindness offered to the world, and people like me.

Surely that's half the reason LUSH employees 'slap a sticker on every product they make...[with] a picture of their face...the date the product was made and when it's best used by'.

Fight the good fight

LUSH is a major supporter of charities that support conservation and animal protection, but they also go so far as to practice what they preach - minimising food waste in the manufacturing process of their products and never testing their products on animals.

And it just so happens that their 'cause marketing' efforts are part of why the brand is as ubiquitous as it is today. LUSH is often lauded for their clever, yet still incredibly genuine approach.

"Having set the tone as a cause-champion, the company has been able to integrate many other issues worth fighting for into their mission and messaging – simultaneously educating and engaging their audiences." - NewsCred
"The Lush program differs greatly from other corporate charitable initiatives, which tend to be marketing or PR driven: Lush donates the entire purchase price of its item to its causes, versus a percentage; the Charity Pot is an ongoing program, versus a temporary or one-off event timed around the holidays; Lush focuses on supporting small grassroots organizations that, as Charitable Giving Manager Tricia Stevens puts it, are “non-sexy causes that may not get funding any other way,” versus the charity-of-the-moment or the latest cause celebre." - Salesforce

Not only does LUSH throw money at a problem, but the brand encourages activism, involving itself and its staff in the fight. And with the growth of unrest across the globe (aka The World is Going to Hell), brands willing to back a cause can tap into the millennial-backed 'activism uprising'.

Natural personal care product brand Burts Bees launched a 'bring back the bees' campaign in 2016 aimed at raising awareness about the decline of the little yellow and black fuzzballs, while planting wildflower seeds in exchange for a selfie. Yes, you could say they're just trying to save the world - but they can't sell lip balm without honey now, can they?

Éclair Naturals, a brand launched last year, have hung their hat on cause marketing; taking aim at chemical-based beauty products in a series of awareness-led doco-style ad spots comparing body wash to antifreeze.

"Together we take a stand", they brandish across the screen, battle-scene strings heaving over the track.

And what kind of person would say no to that?


Want to read more about marketing natural/organic/free-from beauty and hair care products?

Check out these links:

What's driving the billion-dollar natural beauty movement? - Fast Company

Natural and organics: where are we now? - Beauty NZ Magazine

Social Nature raises $1m to promote natural products with influencer marketing - TechCrunch

Lush Cosmetics: marketing for a cause - NewsCred