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Published February 8, 2018
Published February 8, 2018
Photo: Tachina Lee via Unsplash

When it comes to beauty, skincare, and wellness, some might say that we’ve evolved into a more inclusive culture where we should be able to say that “skin is skin” (just like we appreciate that “love is love”). After all, apart from the amount of melanin that determines our wide variety of complexions, skin, for the most part, is just skin. However, when it comes to multicultural consumers, what smart brands should know is that the experiences and the opinions that drive their shopping habits are more than skin deep.

A History of Marginalization

Unlike the hair care segment of the “ethnic” beauty business, which had pioneers like Madame CJ Walker creating brands and grooming techniques as far back as the turn of the 19th century, skincare for the multicultural audience is a much younger and less evolved market. From the 1910s until recently, skincare brands targeting black and brown consumers did little more for this customer than treat her skin as if it were a problem to be fixed.

Advertising, packaging, and product ingredients were aimed at lightening, masking, and stripping away the natural properties of dark skin. Even worse, “ethnic beauty” product messaging was blatantly demeaning with slogans that promoted social hierarchy based on complexion: “Brighten your skin, brighten your life.” “Life is a whirl for the girl with a clear, bright, Nadinola-light complexion.” “Remove that mask of dull, dark skin and give romance a chance.” Appallingly, many of these messages are still promoted globally throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and other places where colonialized ideas about the superiority of “fairness” live on.

With over a century of such negative commercial messaging, many consumers of color internalized self-loathing ideas and experienced the damaging effects of such harmful products and untruthful misconceptions about the care of their skin. So, the history of skincare, for this audience, is unique.

This customer’s journey in the world of beauty has been a continuous search-and-find mission which has oftentimes resulted in disappointment and misinformation. This explains why far more multicultural folks stick with very simple skincare (like soap and water) and sometimes forgo valuable basics like moisturizers and sunscreens. Their reasons range from not knowing which moisturizers or sunscreens to use, to believing that their skin is too oily to need moisturizer or too dark to need sun protection.

What is unique here is this consumer’s #trust and her values. While high-tech ingredients have dominated the general market for several years, consumers of color have historically been more responsive to what is familiar and #natural, ingredients like aloe vera and coconut oil. Many grew up on brands that their mothers, grandmothers, and friends used like Ivory, Nivea, Palmers, Vaseline, and Ambi. The difficulty here is that Grandma used “pure” soap not knowing that it was dehydrating. Friends might have suggested alcohol-based astringents or abrasive scrubs to prevent acne without being aware of their harsh effects. Mom unknowingly swore by petroleum jelly or cold cream without knowing that they were comedogenic and she may have been “toning” her complexion using dangerous #hydroquinone-based skin lighteners.

For these reasons and more, one of the most important keys to connecting with this consumer, whether their tried-and-true ideas are well informed or not, is empathy. Putting “care” back in skincare is the first step in effectively reaching multicultural audiences with formulations, development, and marketing that resonate with their desires and sensitivities.

The Multicultural Consumer Is Not a Monolith

One size does NOT fit all! Cultural #relevancy in branding is crucial. A smart brand meets their consumers where they are. The brand must be both a teacher AND a #champion. This means that the brand must not only be informed about their own products, but they must understand their consumer’s concerns and the impact and effect that their products have on that specific consumer.

Along with understanding his/her point of view, it’s a must for brands to also care about their consumer’s well-being. When it comes to ingredients and product safety, people of color have been neglected by the cosmetics industry. A 2016 study compiled by the Environmental Wellness Group (EWG) determined that only 25% of personal care products targeting people of color fall into the ideal target range for product safety vs 40% of products targeting the general market! The most hazardous products included skin lightening agents which have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive damage, and cancer.

Ethics matter! While products that bleach and strip the skin might yield high profits around the world, countless people of color have suffered physically and emotionally from unsafe ingredients and the damaging ideology of colorism. What is both a smarter and more ethical business proposition is engaging the multicultural consumer with options that promote the healthy care of their skin honestly and transparently. It’s a simple philosophy … Do No Harm!

How Smart Brands Can Get It Right

A sound strategic approach to multicultural product development is addressing this audience’s core concerns: hyperpigmentation, dehydration, dark under-eye circles, acne, and oiliness in ways that are safe, natural, and healthy. Addressing these issues with effective products that resonate with the customer establishes trust, builds loyalty, and generates word-of-mouth endorsements that translate into sales.

What’s also significant in developing products and campaigns for this target market is the understanding that messaging matters! Given this consumer’s experience, she/he may be largely self-educated about skincare, trusting #peer influences over commercial information about ingredients, product usage, safety, and efficacy. Today, social media platforms such as YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, and Instagram have given rise to social influencers who are now the newest and most significant voices of expertise for this generation.

Socially savvy and culturally relevant digital insights are a MUST for reaching today’s multiculturals. Not only are social influencers the gatekeepers of trends and information, but multicultural audiences over-index in their use of mobile technology. For that reason, even the slightest social media faux pas can prove very costly for marketers. Shea Moisture upset their core audience and got dragged on Black Twitter right before its acquisition by Unilever in 2017. The brand had a reputation for its strong focus on African-American women, who were not happy when the brand’s newest video campaign targeted a more inclusive audience by featuring several non-black actresses. While building a broader audience before selling a brand makes corporate sense, maintaining brand loyalty is an art that requires staying in step with your consumer base.

Branding tone-deafness can be a costly mistake that is not just bad for publicity, but bad for business. Dove’s recent experience with this social faux pas involved a campaign intended to promote #diversity. It featured women of various races morphing into one another. While the ad was intended to be about unity, a single screenshot of the video caused an uproar by creating the appearance of the black model as the “before” image and the white model as the “after.” While the image was taken out of context and Dove apologized publicly, the story went viral within hours, demonstrating the power of social media to either make or break a brand or product’s reputation.

Technology matters! When done right, technology becomes a brand’s best friend. Effectively utilizing social media by actively engaging with consumers is a must in an era where customers are now partners. They are brand #ambassadors, storytellers, and important resources for crowdsourcing firsthand data. In today’s social media-sphere everyone wants to be included, but they also demand #personalization and #authenticity. Targeted and innovative use of technology also gives brands expanded opportunities in the e-commerce space. Niche brands can now easily #disrupt the traditional personal care market and win with a strong online presence like they’ve never been able to before.

The final key concept for coming out on top with the multicultural consumer is understanding that #niche is the new General Market! According to Kline, by 2050, 50% of the US population alone will be multicultural. Kline also reported that in 2014, ethnic personal care experienced a 3.7% annual increase vs a 2.8% annual increase in the general market personal care category.

Based on that, marketing to the “general population” takes on a whole new meaning in this culturally diverse and evolving marketplace. Net-net, the time to build great brands with a diverse future is now and empathy, trust, and transparency are the keys. Don’t let your brand or organization leave valuable multicultural market opportunities on the table.


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