Over the past few years, inclusivity has become an industry buzzword encompassing nontraditional and new markets—including LGBTQ+, Black, Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander—which have grown increasingly important for the beauty industry to target. Clearly the need for inclusivity in beauty has been there all along. So, why the sudden awakening to it? In a word, money. (Consider this: Black consumers account for $1.3 trillion in buying power, and the Black hair care industry alone reportedly represents a more than $2.5 billion market, according to CB Insights.)
But there’s also the issue of perception. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, there has been a call to beauty brands to do more than simply offer a wider selection of foundation shades or risk losing not just potential customers but existing ones.
Now, if the chance to earn more money has simply motivated brands to do what they should’ve been doing years ago, it’s a welcome correction, according to many. But as an agency that helps brands magnify their messages through content, we at Manifest know that just paying lip (or lipstick, as the case may be) service to diversity and inclusion is an ill-fated strategy in the end. Now is the time for brands to challenge themselves to grow in myriad ways, not just financially—and in doing so, contribute to a more egalitarian and, yes, profitable future for all.
Cosmopolitan’s first Black beauty director, Julee Wilson, has a unique perspective on how the industry can speak to a more diverse audience. She gave us her thoughts on who is getting it right—and where there’s still work to be done.
Here are five ways brands can act expansively now.
1. Don’t be afraid to be exclusive.
It may sound contradictory, but in trying to address everyone, sometimes a brand speaks to no one. A better strategy? Get granular. Case in point: One of Wilson’s first feature stories at Cosmopolitan was about the evening hair rituals of Black women. “I thought, this is a whole beauty ritual that women of color do on a nightly basis, which is largely ignored by the beauty industry,” she says. “I don’t know any mainstream publications that have celebrated this ritual, so I wanted to do a really beautiful piece about it—and if our non-BIPOC readers didn’t see themselves in it, they could just skip the page. Not every story is for everybody, right? And we have to be OK with that.” Not only was the piece’s publication a proud moment for Wilson, but it was also “an opportunity for the world to see that there are stories within different ethnic groups and cultures in the beauty space that need to be told.”
2. Think about your makeup.
Although many brands are seemingly doing the right thing in the court of public opinion—putting up black boxes on Instagram, for example, or showing underrepresented groups in their ads—real growth does not stem from performative action. “People can see right through that stuff,” Wilson says. “For me, the answer lies in what’s happening behind the scenes. For example, I love what Sharon Chuter did with Uoma Beauty: Pull Up or Shut Up. It’s like, what do your product developers look like? What does your executive board look like? Who is making decisions? Is it a whole bunch of white women and white men sitting behind a curtain saying, ‘Oh, God, they’re going to come for us if we don’t do X, Y and Z, so let’s do X, Y and Z,’ rather than having someone at the table?” In short, real inclusivity means not just projecting a woke image, but rather hiring and compensating experts in a particular community for their expertise.
3. Be proactive.
Wilson commends beauty retailers that have taken the 15 Percent Pledge, committing to devote a minimum of 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned brands. “Beauty retailers like Ulta Beauty have their foot on the pedal and are not letting up. They’re putting resources, monetarily and executively, toward diversity,” she says. Why is this type of representation so important? Because it ensures that BIPOC-owned businesses are seen. In a crowded media landscape, they may otherwise get lost.
4. Get political.
Being an ally in action is greater than being an ally in word. A prime example: Unilever, parent company of Dove (whose Campaign for Real Beauty was a pioneer in size inclusivity). “They have diverse executives who are really pushing the company’s agenda,” Wilson says. Not only did Unilever recently launch Melé, a skin care line for men and women of color, but it also entered the political arena, pushing for the passage of the Crown Act (to ensure that people could not be discriminated against in school and in the workplace for the way they wear their hair). “You want to talk about true allyship and nonperformative inclusivity? That’s it,” Wilson says.
5. Mind the gaps.
Wilson wants brands to keep pushing themselves and their offerings. “Walk around one weekend and count how many women you see with braids in their hair, like box braids and cornrows. Where is the braid spray from the major hair care brands? Those are huge opportunities,” Wilson says. Same with skin care. “Our biggest issue is hyperpigmentation. Not to say that our white counterparts don’t have hyperpigmentation, but that is our single biggest concern, not wrinkles. And then there’s the whole sunscreen conversation. We’re seeing that chemical sunscreens may not be that good for us, but where are the mineral sunscreens that help people of color protect their skin without looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost?”
Throughout our conversation, Wilson cited many beauty brands, both legacy and up-and-comers, that have taken the measures listed above—including all of the aforementioned brands as well as companies such as MAC Cosmetics, Pat McGrath Labs, Sienna Naturals and Black Girl Sunscreen. But there’s more work to be done.
“People want to be seen. People want to feel like you understand them, know about them and care about their stories,” Wilson says. Ultimately, the intersection between diversity and inclusion and content revolves around that last point. If companies continue to tell the same stories to the same people, they will risk not just becoming beauty Muzak (as I discussed in the first installment of the Itch’s beauty series), but they will miss out on attracting new and underserved markets and, let’s face it, cold hard cash.
So, if a beauty brand really wants to resonate with a diverse audience, it needs to look inward first, at its leadership, consultants, R&D and employees. Do they represent more than one point of view? Let’s not forget that even super-targeted products, like anti-aging serums, often have more than one type of user. Beauty brands also need to dig deeper and not be afraid to tell the lesser-known beauty stories (vitiligo anyone?). And, of course, they need to think bigger in their imagery and messaging (I know a company that can help with that). Then, and only then, will they be able to gain the perspective they need to adopt a more genuinely inclusive stance. And, well, sell more products.