Growing Pains: In Extending a Hand to New Audiences, Shea Moisture Rubs its Base the Wrong Way

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Shea Moisture is the latest company to feel the public’s wrath after what was a hurtful marketing mishap. For those who missed it, Shea Moisture released a piece of video content on its social channels as a part of a campaign to “Stop Hair Hate”. The ad features a black woman with curly hair and a lighter hue, followed by white women with different shades of hair. Each sharing their struggles with hair.

Black people, especially Black women did not receive the ad well. At face value the ad shows a company with deep roots in the Black community trying its hand at growth by capturing a general market audience at the expense of its most loyal customers. The brand unintentionally equated the dilemmas that many white women face with their hair–which are typically cosmetic in nature–with the complex hair journeys of Black women that are laced with political and cultural implications.

For many, the ad communicated the following:

  • We are looking to grow by going mainstream;
  • To do so we must appear safe, not too Black; so we used a Black woman with lighter skin complexion and hair that is acceptably exotic by western beauty standards; and gave white women a platform to share their hair struggles;
  • White women, although their hair is generally promoted as the aspirational standard of beauty face hair hate too;
  • Thanks for getting us here, but it’s just business so you’ll understand.

The ad seemed to be the latest example of any combination of the following:

  • The co-opting of Black culture and products by the general market;
  • The latest group to leverage the loyalty and support of Black women only to abandon them as they move to a more prosperous future; and
  • Black people prioritizing profits over their own people.

In short, the ad was triggering. It was also unexpected. Very few people would expect such a tone-deaf message from a brand like Shea Moisture. Shea Moisture was born of the hair hate it diminished in this ad. CEO Dennis Richelieu and his business partner, Nyema Tubman, started Sundial Brands (Shea Moisture’s parent company) to address the gross disparity of beauty products for women of color. Sundial Brands traces its roots back to Sierra Leone, where Richelieu’s grandmother sold shea butter at a local market. Today, Sundial Brands is a certified B Corp company with a Fair for Life social and fair trade certification. The company also leverages its supply chain to create economic opportunities for people in the markets where they source their products.

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In 25 years, Sundial Brands went from selling products on the streets of New York City to a global brand. The brand prides itself on authenticity, innovation, and eco-friendly products for America’s most undeserved consumers, Black women. Black ownership is also a badge of honor as few global brands can cite members of the African diaspora as a part of their ownership. Their growth has been almost exclusively due to Black women, many of whom now feel betrayed.

People expressed their disappointment across social channels. Many reactions containing vows to boycott Shea Moisture in the future. As expected, Shea Moisture was the butt of many jokes on Twitter. There were also a few calls to diversify their staff.

A few thoughts below:

The anger is justified.

A brand like Shea Moisture should have known better. Many of their customers understand the need for companies to grow and expand, but it shouldn’t have to be at their expense. A bold step like this should have been carefully reviewed and tactfully executed. Further, a look a previous marketing efforts like the one below make this situation even more baffling. Ironically, this ad addresses the very issue they botched in their latest campaign.

The Response

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Sundial Brands has handled this relatively well thus far. Unlike United and Pepsi, they immediately fessed up. Their CEO has opened himself up to several outlets: TVOne, the Breakfast Club, and Fast Company to name a few. In addition to explaining his understanding of the problem, Richelieu has done a decent job being transparent about their intentions and telling lesser-known parts of their story. How they handle this long-term will be a true test, but so far, they have done well.

Diversity can disappoint

Shortly after this broke, a screenshot of several white employees with marketing in their title surfaced online with calls for the brand to diversify its staff. The image is misleading. From Richelieu’s statement on the Breakfast Club, the employees currently serving as scapegoats had nothing to do with the ad. Diversity alone is not the solution. Sundial Brands has a diverse staff. Anyone can go on LinkedIn, search for the Sundial Brands employer page, and click on “See all 137 employees”. We haven’t talked about this much, because most of the mishaps in multicultural marketing come from companies that lack diversity. But, how could a brand like Shea Moisture miss the mark? Those of us outside of Sundial Brands can only speculate. However, we have to accept that even a diverse staff can be blind to their collective biases. They can also fail to anticipate how their audience will receive a message from a piece of content. Hiring a diverse staff is not enough. Diversity is important, but it’s not the silver bullet. Teams need to have difficult conversations and people need to ask tough questions. As someone who does not always appreciate hierarchies in marketing and in organizations, getting necessary approval is important. There is a chance that someone more senior may have asked the questions that could have prevented such poor execution. It also goes to show that no marketing team–regardless of its diversity–can afford to ignore insights.

Growth is good

There is nothing wrong with Shea Moisture’s desire to grow. Many general market brands have won over Black customers. Black-owned companies should have the opportunity to attract audiences outside of the Black community. Often Black-owned companies hit a growth ceiling. Within the Black community, there is often a perception that supporting Black businesses means compromising on design, quality, service, or prestige–although this is changing as it is becoming more fashionable to support Black businesses on the rise. Outside of the Black community, there is a perception that Black-owned businesses are too niche to expand and that the Black market is too small to be profitable to investors–despite the numerous studies that have touted the purchasing power of Black America. These perceptions are deeply rooted and often hidden in the subconscious of customers and investors alike. As a result, Black-owned businesses forgo expansion; sell to bigger companies and lose their authenticity; or shut down all together. Sundial Brands and Shea Moisture have overcome many of these hurdles. Growth is necessary for innovation just as innovation is necessary for growth. Some want Shea Moisture to stay within the Black community, however, if Shea Moisture can succeed in the general market without losing its core customer, it would be one of the first Black businesses to do so. This would open many doors for Black entrepreneurs and it would provide a blueprint for others to follow.

Boycotts are not always the answer.

I am not a Black woman. I can probably count the number of times I’ve used Shea Moisture products on one hand and I don’t have the same emotional connection to the brand. I also recognize that people have the right to boycott Shea Moisture. However, we should be able to hold our companies accountable without abandoning them all together. Yes, their latest marketing effort was hurtful, but they responded appropriately. Historically, communities used boycotts to drive action. In the digital age, we have more options than just boycotts. The negative press alone is enough to compel brands to course correct. Companies are always accountable to the market. Before, it took several quarters of financial statements to see the market’s response. Now social media is a leading indicator of how the market feels about your products and your brand. Consumers can hold brands accountable with little fear of recourse. Brands, have no choice but to respond. In this case, we did just that. The people spoke, the brand responded, and now the brand must act.

Finally, we must remember that humans run companies. People are far from perfect which means no brand is perfect. Like humans, companies will make mistakes. In Silicon Valley, startup culture embraces the mantra “fail fast”. The mantra is meant to encourage teams to boldly face challenges head on, without fear of failure; it also positions failures as crucial learning opportunities that founders can leverage for a strong rebound. Unfortunately, these values don’t always translate well to Black and other non-white audiences. Ethnic minorities often have little room for failure and face outsized pressure to succeed. The unreasonably small margin for error leaves many firms risk-averse. Shea Moisture should have the same opportunity to fail and recover. In a Facebook post addressing the controversy, a former classmate and now fellow marketing strategist, Asia Stewart reminds us: “there really aren’t any case studies on how to transition from an ethnic beauty brand to a mainstream and global company. SM [Shea Moisture] really is the first and currently trailblazing through the beauty industry. As a trailblazer entering uncharted territory, Shea Moisture will make mistakes. What’s important is that they learn from these mistakes and apply these lessons as the move forward. If they play their cards right, they might be able to accomplish what many of their predecessors—a majority of whom sold to larger brands that didn’t have the savvy to navigate Black consumers—failed to do, stay true to their roots, and expand into new territory.

 

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