Is ageism in beauty hindering brand growth?

Think of a stereotypical beauty advert. What kind of images spring to mind?

Chances are you pictured someone young and impossibly slim with impeccable, golden skin, promoting some new formula for looking 21 forever.

It’s less likely that you thought of grey hair, “spider veins”, or wrinkles — if you did, the advert was probably about trying to prevent them more than embracing them.

It seems ageism in the beauty industry is still in style. Not only is this alienating an older audience of women, it’s hindering brand growth.

A “lost” audience

In our previous article on ageism in the beauty industry, we highlighted how women in the 43-58 age bracket are now spending less on beauty and skincare than Gen Z and Gen Alpha.

The question is, when there are so many different products on the market for older women to choose from, why are Gen X women spending less? And how can we encourage this demographic to spend more? After all, brands are looking to grow, and retailers need to sell.

To answer these questions in more detail, we recently teamed up with Sign Salad on a large-scale research project. We wanted to know more, so that we could advise our clients in the beauty space with up-to-date evidence that’s grounded in fact.

While Sign Salad focused on cultural analysis and semiotics (how cultural signs convey both intentional and unintentional meanings / feelings), Trinity McQueen explored shopper demographics and behaviour, giving us a unique insight into what’s really going on in the beauty space for Gen X women.

This is what we found…

Looking to the wider cultural context for clues

Brands are inseparable from the culture that surrounds them. Consumers don’t just take a brand at face value — they look at it through the lens of its competitors, the broader market, and widespread cultural values.

As such, before we can think about how beauty brands should be communicating with Gen X women, we first need to look at how these women are represented in wider culture — both within the mainstream and at the leading edge of culture.

We examined hours and hours of TV, films, books, blogs, podcasts and music, and we found that it’s at the very leading edge where Gen X women are challenging ageist expectations and stereotypes the most. They do this by using a number of different narratives, which we call ‘codes’.

One such emergent code was the idea of ‘Flourishing Futures’, which centres around embracing new opportunities with confidence and style. Rather than discussing their age in terms of “fading away” or a “shelf life”, these women see it simply as a continuation of their prime. Think of Michelle Yeoh’s speech at the 2023 Oscars, or Uninvisibility’s “Training for Midlife Women”, created for women who are “designing the second half of their lives”.

Understanding these wider cultural codes helps us to understand where the opportunities for brand growth in the beauty industry really lie.

Three areas where the beauty industry is struggling

As it stands, advertising in the beauty industry often perpetuates stereotypes, rather than sharing imagery and concepts that are truly reflective of its broader audience and leading-edge culture. We often see an unrealistic, polished example of the Gen X woman, like a former-olympian mother of three with a highly successful career and incredibly active social life — whose main concern is removing her wrinkles (naturally).

If that’s who you are, then that’s fine. But it’s hardly the reality for everyone else.

By targeting Gen X women and their apparent “fear” of ageing, today’s beauty campaigns are struggling to navigate three big issues…

  • The ‘fountain of fallacy’: For thousands of years, our culture has been obsessed with anti-ageing — a desperate search for a fountain of youth. In perpetuating the myth that ageing is something that needs to be “fixed”, the beauty industry profits at the expense of older women.
  • Gendered beauty standards: While male celebrities like George Clooney, Idris Elba and Pierce Brosnan are deemed “silver foxes”, female ageing is framed as “ugly”. The suggestion that female beauty fades over time is why older women only ever “look good for their age”.
  • The age & ethnicity gap: Inclusivity in the beauty industry is growing, but it’s concentrated on younger demographics. Meanwhile, older women of colour are often left out of the “diversity revolution”. To solve ageism in the beauty industry, all Gen X women need to feel included.

It’s time to redefine ageing for Gen X women

It’s clear that the beauty industry needs to move away from campaigns that are rooted in stereotypes, and instead communicate with Gen X women more authentically and respectfully. So, how exactly does it do that?

Well, just as there are emergent codes in our wider culture, there are also emergent codes within the beauty sector too — particularly when we look to smaller disruptor brands.

These emergent beauty codes offer fresh new ways of thinking about age. They normalise and destigmatise ageing, giving women the confidence to embrace their years and the visual changes that come with them. They have the power to bring Gen X women of all skin, hair and body types into the conversation, while creating products to suit diverse needs. They’re playful, fun and expressive, empowering women to experience the joys of bold experimentation at any age.

We identified 11 of these emergent beauty codes in total, and one in particular stood out…

Age positive beauty

One of our most compelling discoveries was the code of ‘Age Positive Beauty’, which is all about non-conformist attitudes towards stereotypical ideas and fears of ageing. The question is, how can beauty brands use this code to their advantage?

The good news is that there are countless visual and linguistic cues available to us. Sometimes, it’s as simple as using softer word choices like “ever-evolving” rather than “ageing”, or framing product benefits more positively to suggest that they will “boost” and “lift” rather than “erase” or “reduce”. It may be something bolder, like up-close visuals of wrinkles, textured skin, silver hair and other signs of ageing. It may be reframing ageing altogether, as a natural evolution (or “lifeing“, as Pamela Anderson prefers to call it).

Either way, if beauty brands can normalise and destigmatise ageing in their comms, then they will start to resonate once more with this once “lost” audience.

And if they can enhance these beauty codes by combining them with relevant cultural narratives, then who knows just how much they could grow.

Remember the ‘triangle of opportunity’

Speaking to this “lost” audience of Gen X women is one thing, but how can beauty brands ensure that they’ll choose their product when it comes to making a purchase?

This is where the ‘triangle of opportunity’ comes in. In other words, do your potential customers have the need, the desire, and the spending power to buy your product?

First, let’s talk the need. Do you confidently know the needs of your current and prospective customers? Why would they need you versus your competition?

The desire is all about emotion. Do they have the desire to purchase from your category? Would they be engaged by your advertising, or have a passion for your product?

Finally, spending power. Do they have the disposable income? Only when you know the answers to all three of these questions can you accurately predict the behaviour of your audience and create authentic stories for them.

And that’s how you turn an ‘invisible opportunity’ into a real one.

In conclusion…

Ageing isn’t something that needs to be “fixed.” It’s something that needs to be celebrated, and looked at through a newer, more positive lens.

There’s a whole audience out there waiting to be spoken to in the right way. But what constitutes that right way varies widely. In order to provide beauty products which actually make them feel beautiful, we have to understand the broad spectrum of Gen X women — their individual needs, goals, ambitions and drivers.

If beauty brands and retailers want to grow, they should aim to connect with Gen X women on a more authentic and relatable level. They have the desire, the need and the spending power.

An industry wide implementation of emergent beauty would not only result in boosted revenues, it would also mean more positive representation for all women… no matter what “side” of 40 they’re on.

Interested in how your brand can communicate more effectively with Gen X women? Get in touch with and