According to research by Global Web Index, 45% of beauty consumers look to reviews for online research purposes before buying a product.
What’s more, one in two beauty consumers say they’re motivated to buy products based on reviews from others.
It’s clear that beauty brands rely on online reviews – arguably more so than in other industries. This is largely due to the difficulty of proving the supposed benefits of skincare or beauty products. Essentially, consumers rely on others to tell them whether a product actually ‘does what it says on the tin’. Additionally, there’s a highly personal element to beauty which means that trust in reviews is vital. It can often be about the way a product makes a person feel as well as look – and nobody wants to base that investment on a lie.
Unfortunately, following on from high-profile scandals, there’s been increasing scepticism about the validity of online beauty reviews in the past couple of years. This leads us to ask the question: do beauty consumers still trust online reviews? More to the point, what can the industry do to sustain levels of trust, as well as combat the apparent decline?
The ripple effect
Last month, skincare brand Sunday Riley settled with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), following accusations that it had posted fake reviews on Sephora over a period of two years. The original complaint – made by a whistle-blower – was that the CEO herself, Sunday Riley, had encouraged employees to write fake positive reviews about the brand’s products.
The FTC confirmed this allegation. The settlement ordered that Sunday Riley must not post fake reviews again in future.
Naturally, this has led to criticism of the FTC, and the suggestion that the settlement will do nothing to deter other brands from going on to post fake reviews. What’s more, it’s been suggested that it has further damaged the validity of online reviews in general, particularly within the beauty industry.
— Sarah Conley (@imsarahconley) October 16, 2018
In a statement, FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra said: “This settlement sends the wrong message to the marketplace. Dishonest firms may come to conclude that posting fake reviews is a viable strategy, given the proposed outcome here. Honest firms, who are the biggest victims of this fraud, may be wondering if they are losing out by following the law. Consumers may come to lack confidence that reviews are truthful.”
Indeed, as Chopra suggests, if consumers start to distrust reviews based on the Sunday Riley case, it could lead to a ripple effect, in turn damaging even the most honest and up-front brands.
Quantity and quality
So why are people posting fake reviews in the first place? As well as the impact positive reviews can have on consumers, it also seems to be a case of keeping up with competitors. In such a crowded marketplace, reviews are something that can help to differentiate a brand and its products, as consumers buy into the collective hype.
As well as the importance of generating positive reviews, beauty brands are also becoming aware that quantity matters. This is much the same in every industry, and is based on the psychology of why and how consumers consider reviews.
According to research by Psychological Science, consumers ‘tend to favour a product that has more reviews, even when it has the same low rating as an alternative product’. This means that having a large number of reviews is not a reliable indicator of a product’s quality, but consumers might think or assume that it is.
This has increased the pressure on beauty brands, particularly on third-party sites like Sephora or Feel Unique where reviews can sometimes be sparse (yet just as important).
Sunday Riley is a rather straightforward case, but it does bring up the question of whether brands are partaking in subtler (and still permitted) tactics to generate reviews.
One example is review curation, whereby brands only accept the most positive reviews to appear on their own websites. This means that product pages will only reflect the image that brand wants to promote – not act as a true reflection of customer feedback.
Incentivisation is another tactic, whereby brands deliberately target past or current customers – often loyalty scheme members – and encourage them to leave positive reviews, perhaps in exchange for freebies or discounts. While this is largely accepted, it does bring up the question of bias, as consumers are far less likely to leave any negative feedback if they’ve been gifted or rewarded for doing so.
It doesn’t always have to be brands targeting consumers, either. Third-party companies like Influenster can do this on the brand’s behalf, while consumers can also apply to receive products to test of their own accord.
The haircare line that captivated Japan is now available at @SEPHORA & some of our lucky Influensters got to test these ⭐ ultra-luxurious products with our Shu Uemura VoxBox! Get the scoop on this VoxBox below! #shuartofhairUSA! https://t.co/eeVOvGSCnJ pic.twitter.com/8KlZmqEJaH
— Influenster (@Influenster) November 10, 2019
The issue of incentivisation becomes even more blurry when it comes to brand ambassadors. These people should theoretically have a vested interest or appreciation for the brand first and foremost – not merely as a result of a brand incentivising them to. However, even if they do, it can become skewed, with brands upping rewards or increasingly asking for reviews (and in turn ambassadors being happy to comply).
Of course, another and far more wide-spread grey area is the world of influencers, which in many cases are paid for promoting products. This is not the same as online reviews in the traditional sense, but the saturation of sponsored content now means that the lines between authenticity and fakery are becoming increasingly blurry. How do consumers ever know what is authentic, and what is not?
Sixty-three percent of reviews for beauty products on Amazon are fake. This is according to Fakespot, a company that analyses reviews with the aim of uncovering suspicious patterns and incentivised reviews. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these third-party companies are becoming increasingly called-upon, largely when it comes to sites with thousands of products for sale (and the likelihood of fake reviews increases).
At the same time, beauty brands are also taking steps to ensure that fake reviews do not trickle in. This is an important thing to note, as brands can quite often be unaware or unable to stop fakes. According to Allure, Ulta Beauty’s method for prevention involves sending emails to confirm that people are ‘verified buyers’. Meanwhile, Sephora has an honour system that asks reviewers to indicate whether or not they received a free product.
This is all well and good, but of course it does not solve the problem of consumer trust. Brands do not usually disclose how they are trying to prevent fakes, meaning it is up to consumers to determine who to trust (or not). As a result, consumers are increasingly taking back control, turning to platforms where reviews are collated by trusted and impartial moderators.
The popularity of the Instagram channel, ‘Estee Laundry’ is one example. Described as an ‘anonymous beauty collective’, it began as a protest against internal bullying in the beauty industry. However, it has since evolved into a general beauty community, which involves honest and authentic reviews on products. With no links to ecommerce, consumers are reassured that comments and reviews are 100% authentic, with no real benefits for the brands mentioned (other than genuine appreciation).
View this post on Instagram
#ELCommunityReview: where YOU get to review trending products and share your opinions with the #BeautyCommunity. Each week we’ll post a trending product/brand, and if you’ve used that product/brand, share your experience in the comments below. Please share your honest opinion only after you’ve genuinely used the products yourself after an extended amount of time. ???? The trending brand this week is #OLAPLEX. The @OLAPLEX range goes for $28/£26 (30-250ml) for each full-size product. The hair care line, previously only available in salons, is known for their three-step process, which includes “a patented active ingredient that works on a molecular level to seek out broken bonds in the hair that are caused by chemical, thermal, and mechanical damage.” Some consumers swear by this hair treatment because of its ability to strengthen and repair damaged hair. Other consumers have complained that the treatment made their hair dry, brittle and frizzy. Have you tried Olaplex? Are their products worth the hype? Share your review below, if you’ve used this line. ???????? or ????????? ???? Ingredients (No. 3 Hair Perfector): Water (Aqua), Bis-Aminopropyl Diglycol Dimaleate, Propylene Glycol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Behentrimonium Methosulfate, Cetyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol, Glycerin, Hydroxyethyl Ethylcellulose Stearamidopropyl Dimethylamine, Quaternium-91, Sodium Benzoate, Cetrimonium Methosulfate Cetrimonium Chloride, Fragrance (Parfum), Polyquaternium-37, Tetrasodium EDTA, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Etidronic Acid, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Phytantriol, Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Panthenol, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate.
Fake reviews are likely to be a far deeper problem for the beauty industry than people realise. However, with consumers becoming increasingly aware of the issue (and holding beauty brands to account), those considering following in Sunday Riley’s footsteps might at least think twice.