The old saying goes that the Chinese word for "crisis" (危机) is composed of two characters representing both "danger" and "opportunity." Though fallacious, this old trope could not better describe the manner in which cosmetics brand Urban Decay turned a self-created crisis into a public relations windfall.
About a month ago, Urban Decay announced that it would be breaking into China's cosmetics market. And why not? In 2011, China's cosmetic sales hit 110 billion yuan ($17.8 billion), a increase of nearly 19 percent over 2010. According to a 2012 report by Li & Fung Research Centre, during one month in 2011, Urban Decay's competitors Estée Lauder and Clinique saw sales increase by almost 10 percent alone.
Looking at all that money, what Urban Decay lost sight of was its core mission, amongst other things, was all about refusing to test on animals. (China, meanwhile, required animal testing to certify Urban Decay's products.) No surprise, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) lambasted the brand's "Decaying Principles":
"After years of touting its 'no animal testing' policy, Urban Decay has let down caring consumers everywhere. The company opted to start selling its products in China even though Chinese law requires that cosmetics companies pay for many of their products to be tested on animals in Chinese laboratories before they can be marketed in that country… Please let Urban Decay know that you won't buy its products until the company is 100 percent cruelty-free once again."
Soon after, a Boycott Urban Decay Facebook page and Change.org petition sparked a backlash, and the brand was in a full PR crisis. its response, as posted on Urban Decay's Animal Testing Policy section of its website under the headline, "UD Decides Not to Sell in China."
"After careful consideration of many issues, we have decided not to start selling Urban Decay products in China. While several factors were important in reaching this decision, ultimately we did not feel we could comply with current regulations in China and remain true to our core principles."
PETA immediately celebrated the decision, adding an update to its original, negative blog post, "Urban Decay Restored to Cruelty-Free List." But PETA wasn't done, and saw an opportunity to make an example of Urban Decay as part of Peta's fight against China's testing standards.
Three days after announcing that Urban Decay had backed off entering one of the world's fastest developing, most lucrative cosmetics markets, it awarded the brand the PETA Courage in Commerce Award." The organization noted, "While many companies have shed their cruelty-free policies as easily as last year's fashion for a share of the profits from China, Urban Decay officials have decided that the cost was too high."
Like Charlie Sheen getting his own TV series on the FX cable channel, some saw this as a reward for bad behavior. On the animal-and-animal-friendly-cosmetics-friendly blog My Beauty Bunny, commenter Jenny wrote, "[T]here are plenty of cruelty-free brands that deserve recognition and who have stayed true to their mission statements. While I’m certainly happy to hear UD is no longer planning to sell in China, they hardly deserve an award for 'Courage in Commerce'. Sadly, they have also lost their status as my favorite cosmetic brand."
It was not an uncommon sentiment. But some saw something more sinister. Why would a brand that at its core identified as anti-animal testing even consider going into China? Pierce Mattie PR blogger Shannon Nelson wondered:
"[W]hat is the most interesting to me is that days after renigging [sic] on selling in China, they launch their newest palette, Smoked (dubbed 'The biggest thing since Naked.') Were they capitalizing on all of the publicity that was generated in the last 2 weeks to push sales of Smoked? It just seems an odd coincidence that while everyone was buzzing about the brand, a new palette launches that is aimed to be as popular as their Naked palette."
That's one conspiracy theory, not entirely outside the realm of possibility. An Urban Decay PR rep told Brandchannel it was "not commenting further on the subject." Update: PETA provided the following statement:
Following discussions with PETA—and after receiving e-mails from thousands of PETA supporters—top cosmetics company Urban Decay has canceled previously announced plans to begin marketing its products in China, where cruel and deadly animal tests are currently required by the government. For staying true to its slogan—"We don't test on animals. How could anyone?"—at the cost of potential financial benefit, Urban Decay has been returned to PETA's list of cruelty-free cosmetics and will receive the group's Courage in Commerce Award.
"Urban Decay is a corporate champion in PETA's book for refusing to pay for animals to be harmed and killed for the sake of overseas profits," says PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. "The company's ethical decision also reveals the moral decay of other larger companies that have sold animals out for a market share in China."
Bold and edgy, Urban Decay's cosmetics products—many of which are specially marked with a purple pawprint to show that they are vegan—have long been a top choice for consumers who are as fashion-conscious as they are concerned about animal welfare.
Not all companies are as dedicated to being cruelty-free as Urban Decay is: Mary Kay, Avon, and Estée Lauder, which were on PETA's list of companies that don't test on animals for decades, recently began paying for poisoning tests on animals in order to market their products in China. But ethically minded companies like Urban Decay may not have long to wait before non-animal tests are accepted in China: Thanks to PETA-funded scientists, the Chinese government is now poised to accept its first-ever non-animal test for cosmetics ingredients."
PETA VP Kathy Guillermo elaborated with the following statement to brandchannel:
More than a dozen companies, including Avon, Mary Kay, Revlon and Estee Lauder have decided their cruelty-free pledge means nothing compared with the profits they anticipate from selling their products in China. Urban Decay, after talking with us, decided they would do the right thing—and by doing so, they show the moral decay of companies who no longer care that animals will die so that they can sell their products. We are thanking them for having the decency to say no.
Urban Decay may be playing the long game in China, too. By reestablishing its anti-animal testing promise it strengthens the brand's core promise. So when China does open beyond animal testing, Urban Decay could be better positioned than any brand.
The Li & Fung Centre report notes that over half of all respondents "said that they have bought green personal care products in 2011, most of which are products using plant ingredients and products that are natural and additive-free."
And in its post celebrating Urban Decay's retraction, PETA elaborates on the scientists it's funding in China that "PETA has jump-started the effort for acceptance of non-animal tests by awarding a grant to the Institute for In Vitro Sciences, which is working with scientists and regulatory bodies to replace animal tests in China."
Below, read Urban Decay's statement on its China reversal: