On SheaMoisture and whitewashing natural-hair-care marketing

So…SheaMoisture released this online video, and many of the brand’s black women customers aren’t having it.

I think few people are begrudging SheaMoisture for seeking to expand its customer base. But it’s interesting to me that making this product appealing to the “mainstream” (read: white women) means lessening the presence of black folks in its advertising. (Carol’s Daughter, apparently, has undergone a similar phenomenon.) It’s a pretty tired trope at this point: gain a following among black consumers but abandon them once you seek to make it big, so to speak.

On a broader level, as a business journalist, I’m interested in two things:

  1. I think on some level there has been a move away from racial demographic-based marketing. Now it’s about psychographics and more specific affinity-based segments, from what I’m seeing. There’s some rationale for that: the customer profile for, say, a Luster’s Pink buyer probably looks quite different from the profile for a SheaMoisture buyer. (For one, the latter is more expensive.)
  2. The notion that Afrocentric spaces cannot be inclusive ones is quite odd to me, especially given the extraordinary influence of hip-hop culture. (There’s lots to say about business influence, co-opting, etc., but I think it’s very fair to say the culture is primarily driven by black folks.) Yet this idea persists in so many arenas, from this ad, which claims inclusivity yet doesn’t feature any dark-skinned or kinky-haired women, to criticism of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in which it’s claimed that the emphasis on black lives is somehow an affront to non-black people.

I’ve spoken to several other natural-hair-care* entrepreneurs, most of whom are black women. Several of them discussed their initial surprise when they saw that women of other races and ethnicities were flocking to their products. Most described their marketing approach as driven by social media and user-generated content (e.g. customers sharing photos of their hair and videos of their styling tips), hence representing their customer base by default. All acknowledged the personal origins of their companies (i.e. they began making hair products for their own hair needs) and their predominantly black and female customer bases, while noting their desire to welcome customers outside that group.

Indeed, achieving sales growth usually means tapping into new markets, yet any business must be careful not to alienate its core customers while doing so. The SheaMoisture kerfuffle demonstrates (once again) that black customers won’t tolerate perceived exploitation for the sake of racial solidarity. But why even flirt with such a marketing hazard? Reaching a broad customer base, in 2017, should not require erasing blackness.

*That label in itself is murky, given that now there’s another segment of “natural” hair products, i.e. juices and berries, that aren’t necessarily marketed to black women!

Update: SheaMoisture has issued an apology and removed the original video from its social media accounts.