Should Trade Publications Receive Free Products From Beauty Brands?
In 2017, the now-defunct publication Racked measured the amount of beauty and fashion swag it received from brands during a 6-month period. It calculated that its editors accumulated nearly 3,000 items, including 2,350 beauty products, worth almost $96,000.
Racked tallied good reasons for its editors getting free products. The items can deepen their understanding of merchandise and the brands that create it, provide details that can be shared with readers and assist with future projects.
However, there are plenty of potential drawbacks to free products. Journalists may feel they have to write about a brand that sends them something gratis, leading to biased or inaccurate reporting. Then, there’s the matter of the environmental impact of all that stuff, and the dilemma that not paying for a product may undermine comprehension of the value it provides for the price.
Beauty Independent has been mulling over the ethics of free products since our birth almost six years ago. We don’t review products, and it’s not necessarily critical for us to try them prior to publishing an article on them. In addition, we understand that cash-strapped indie brands have limited budgets for sampling. We never want any brand to conclude we won’t cover them if we aren’t gifted products from them.
As we refine our stance on receiving free products, we decided to turn to members of our community for their thoughts on a policy that would make sense for a trade publication like Beauty Independent. So, for the latest edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we asked 12 beauty brand founders, executives and publicists: Do you believe a trade publication should take free products from brands? What should the gifting policy be?
- Colleen Mathis Founder and CEO, Absolute R Relations
It is part of the job! I 100% believe that trade editors should be given free products, it's part of the industry. As a PR pro with nearly 20 years under my belt and the owner of a beauty PR agency in NYC, giving editors of all and any magnitude samples, whether it be trade or consumer, is part of the job and expected.
Our job as PR professionals is to give journalists samples of products so they can accurately report on them, which we make sure the brand allocates a certain amount for the year. This is just the cost of doing business in PR.
From a journalistic approach, we expect the editors to give their authentic opinion on products of all sorts.
- Kathy Pape Founder, Pape PR
I absolutely think trade publications should take free products from brands. It's really important that readers trust editors have used and endorsed the products they are writing about.
Editors can't be expected to spend their own money on samples, so we are happy to send. It's also a great way for them to discover new indie brands they may not have heard of before.
- Sophia Chabbott Founder, Testament Beauty
As a former trade and consumer editor, I think it’s important to see, touch and feel products before writing about them.
As an indie skincare brand, we put everything into our products, from the formulas to the packaging, so we’re thrilled to share samples with editors, whether they write for trade or consumer publications
- Paayal Mahajan Founder, Essential Body Couture Skincare
Back in 2019, I did a slew of desksides in New York and gave a lot of product to beauty editors and writers across the board. It was a very expensive process for me. I am not a mass producer.
As a couture brand, where I personally blend every product, and no more than 100 units, plus the cost of raw materials, packaging, etc., everything adds up. When you aren’t mass, every cost is high. Add to that the cost incurred for each meeting. I had to do the same thing in India when I launched here.
I know this is a long-accepted, assumed practice in the beauty business. Brands are expected to provide free products to beauty writers and editors in the hope that the products will be liked and garner a feature or mention at minimum.
The flip side is all the product that simply languishes on beauty writers and editors’ desks. Sustainability what?! I’ve seen it firsthand. My heart bled for the founders and brands. So much product ends up in bins or in random rotation in the office—or just lost.
The worst part is there is no guarantee that your product even got tested or tried. So, you can keep trying to follow up and at best you’ll get an, “I’ll get back to you.” Now, to be clear, BI didn’t do this, but major publications sure as hell have.
I believe strongly that indie brands deserve a fair shot. And they deserve respect from beauty writers and editors. We pour our hearts and souls into our brands and products. If a beauty writer or editor is curious about a brand, loves the brand story/ingredients, anything that strikes their fancy, let them pay. It doesn’t have to be full price. Let it be a discounted price set solely for beauty writers and editors, but let them pay.
Because when you pay: 1). You will respect the brand/product. It doesn’t mean you have to like it. 2). If you don’t like it, you are not obligated to write about it, and it takes the weirdness right out of the equation. 3). Indie brands will not feel like they were just subjected to favoritism or ignored or lost. Frankly, they will feel respected and valued for their craft and business.
4). It creates an even playing field for everyone. 5). Maybe even set a price: For $39.99, you can send us two products. Will it even begin to cover costs for some of us? No. Will it demonstrate that publications respect us as business people and are not dehumanizing us? Absolutely.
This game of free gifting between publications and influencers is shady. There is no other way to say it. Customers catch on so fast. They can smell favoritism and favors from a mile away. Ultimately, getting mentioned for a gifted product—that thank you story—it’s a blip in the overly saturated world of influencer marketing. Let’s be real. Beauty writers and editors are influencers in their own right, and not everyone is ethical.
Frankly, I don’t gift anything anymore unless I feel like it. I suppose I just stopped caring for the game after playing it in the first two years. It’s not worth it, especially because each time I have been featured, won an award or been endorsed, it was because of the quality of my product, my story and my values.
My customers pay with their hard-earned money. For me, that is all the validation and exposure that truly matters. They pay for product they value, they give me honest testimonials, and those carry a lot of weight.
Beauty writers and editors play an important role in the industry, but the tide is shifting. And it is easy to spot the conscientious writers and editors from the ones who play the old game. There is no way for me to mince my words on this. Just as brands adapt to trends and changes, it is time for beauty publications, editors, writers to step up and adapt.
- Nikita Charuza Founder and CEO, Squigs Beauty
Being a fashion and beauty editor for over a decade, I know the importance of what sending out samples can do for a brand. It gives the brand a major opportunity to get in front of the eyes of a whole new consumer base, gets people to actually test out their products, and tells their readers about it.
Personally, as an editor, I only ever request a product if I am genuinely interested in trying it out and I know we have an upcoming story that it would be a fit for.
There's also the issue of reducing our carbon footprints as a consumer and the issue of space since most of us are working remotely at home and not everyone has access to the traditional beauty closet, which I know is a major issue for a lot of editors as well.
As a brand owner with Squigs Beauty, I so appreciate when editors take the same approach as me, and they're transparent in stating if they are interested in trying out the products for upcoming stories. It truly does matter a lot, especially when as a small business each and every single piece of inventory counts.
I think the gifting policy should be, if the editor is truly interested in the brand and learning more about the brand's story/mission, and testing them out, it makes sense to gift.
- Nadia Porter Founder, Koope
First and foremost, any time I can get a potential new person of interest excited about my brand, whether it’s a friend, editor, investor, buyer…anyone at all, I welcome the opportunity. I want everyone to be able to try our product and fall in love with it.
If a writer is reporting on my brand in a factual manner, as tends to be the case for trade media, I still want them to be able to touch and feel the packaging and product. We put so much consideration and resources into our brand and product experience, I personally feel this is an essential part of the factual elements of a brand.
At Koope, we offer a rotating art program, where we spotlight a new artist's work on our packaging every quarter. You don’t know what artist will be featured on the box and how that will inspire or make you feel until you have the product in hand. That’s something you can’t experience on our website.
But I also understand and sympathize with editors who might receive an overwhelming amount of new launches. I love the idea of some kind of charity or cause component where unused products, still in their packaging, are donated.
- Bayly Ledes President and CEO, Fashion Fragrances & Cosmetics Ltd.
Trade editors absolutely should receive products from brands. They have to have a critical understanding of everything about a product, that includes marketing, development, ad spend and business projections.
Is there a delivery system that makes it unique? Is the packaging innovative in some way? What was the thought process for the formulator/perfumer?
A trade editor has to dig deep into a lot of areas that consumer editors and influencers don't necessarily look at, but, at the end of the day, they also need to experience a product. Trade editors need a chance to try the products they are asked to write about.
- Deanna Avi Madigan Co-Founder, Team Bespoke
We believe that gifting products to editors is so important for them to be able to experience a brand, product or service firsthand, lending the most authentic voice and recommendation to their readers, ultimately building an ongoing trust.
With that, there is a formula around this in best efforts to not waste time, money and to be more sustainable. Leaning into our relationships with editors and commerce teams, we are able to ensure a gifted item will actually be relevant to what is planned in the editorial calendar or is a part of their discovery categories so products are not sitting unused.
We also respect when editors tell us the timing isn't right for them to receive gifting. It is so appreciated because we can then focus on other key partners that we are aligned with on timing!
- Priyanka Ganjoo Founder, Kulfi Beauty
Beauty is a very tactile industry, and product experience is important in the business of beauty. A publication would need a substantial budget to be able to purchase products from every brand it reports about. As long as gifting is intentional on both sides, I think it’s OK for trade publications to receive products or samples for free to test.
- Julia Labaton President, RED PR
Trade journalists should absolutely be given product samples by a brand to try in the same way that consumer editors would be. While trades are writing from a business perspective, the journalist should still have the opportunity to see if products stand up to their claims and simply to be knowledgeable about the market. Could an auto trade magazine review a car if they don’t test drive it?
- Heather Smith Founder, BareLuxe Skincare
If the intent is to publish a review or recommendation, then I think it’s important that someone has actually seen and tried the product out. As a consumer, I’d be uncomfortable buying something that was recommended to me as “Top 10” or “Best of…” and finding out that nobody had actually tried it.
However, as a brand, it’s important to acknowledge that not all endorsements need hands-on testing. If the intent is to publish articles about a brand or line as a whole, then using assets that already exist seems fine.
What I wonder about most are the huge, glamorous and extravagant PR gifts that are sent to editors and freelancers. I feel like they put smaller, indie brands at a disadvantage, and the purpose of those types of gifts really have nothing to do with testing the product itself.
I like the idea of having a policy along the lines of, "Please don’t send unsolicited samples or PR packages. If a product sample is required, we will let you know."
If you have a question you’d like Beauty Independent to ask public relations professionals, beauty entrepreneurs and executives, please send it to email@example.com.