Let’s talk about: ‘Normal’

Unilever recently announced that they will ban the expression ‘normal’ from beauty products to avoid people feeling excluded. 

According to Unilever, the decision is one of many steps to “challenge narrow beauty ideals”, and part of the collective effort to “end discrimination and advocating for a more inclusive vision of beauty”. 

The initiative came with a great degree of good intentions. And to give the brand credit, they have done some remarkable things in recent years to communicate this ‘Positive Beauty’ message, often very creatively in each market. 

The ‘Real Beauty’ campaign by Dove, for example, had woken up people’s perception of beauty giving people the confidence to enjoy a positive relationship with the way they look. ‘Real beauty’ is about fundamental cultural change. 

Some dermatologists argue that the idea of ‘normal skin’ is rare. Some even say that it doesn’t technically exist at all. However, banning expressions such as ‘normal’ to describe skin and hair type, in my opinion, is counterproductive. It’s true that ‘normal’ is a subjective word, not a descriptive one like ‘dry’ or ‘oily’. It isn’t a ‘clinical’ term either. The expression is product centric, and not consumer centric. It is not intended to discriminate, it emphasizes diversity. It acknowledges and recognises the possible different types of skin and hair conditions. It’s used as a guideline in the description of skincare products.

The sensitivity of such expressions varies in each market. In Italy, brands have been using expressions such as ‘normale’ to describe both hair and skin types with a balanced quality (or belonging to an average type.) In some countries, the expression had been adapted slightly differently. For example in China, brands normally use ‘中性’ (loosely translated as ‘neutral’) to differentiate among ‘oily’ and ‘dry’ types. It will be interesting to see how brands address this issue universally.

It’s increasingly important for brands to articulate well in all of their communications, from brand storytelling through to consumer activations, and from product packaging through to social/digital interactions. Brands need to be mindful not just on literal meanings of expressions but the attitudes they carry. Achieving positive image of ‘beauty’ needs a highly nuanced approach for each market, it takes more than just words and expressions to get the tone right.

Here’s an example of how ‘Positive Beauty’ is communicated in a specific market. Rather than pinpointing on specific words, it addresses the issue from a cultural point of view.