The 40-something woman wearing a pink shirt stared out from the back page of last month's New York Times with an intelligent sort of look. Fine lines encircled her mouth and strands of curly hair framed her face. She appeared to be standing in some sort of laboratory and the ad identified her as the 2012 North American laureate of the L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science.
A far cry from the cosmetic giant's usual advertisements featuring wrinkleless, seductive and straight-haired goddesses, the company for once did not seem interested in beauty but in brains. Its partnership with the United Nations claims to support women who move science forward and grants fellowships to promising female researchers boosting their careers.
Did L'Oréal change its strategy? Not exactly.
As much as the company worries about women in science, it cares a great deal more about the positive reflection of the awards on its brands. Studies show that NGOs inspire high levels of public trust among consumers, and corporations are quick to capitalize on their reputations in return for a generous fee. Corporate philanthropy promotes partnerships of mutual benefit, offering companies a taste of respectability by association. (I learned this firsthand while working at Procter & Gamble's beauty department in Brussels.)
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