Nat­u­ral hair niche grow­ing

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Makeda Easter

Miko Branch was deep asleep when her sis­ter Titi woke her up to cel­e­brate. Af­ter months of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in the kitchen of their Brook­lyn brown­stone kitchen, she had fi­nally per­fected the con­coc­tion that would come to be known as Curly Pud­ding.

It was a major dis­cov­ery — well worth the early morn­ing wake-up call — be­cause in 2003 there were very few hair prod­ucts for black women with kinky, curly or wavy hair.

“There was noth­ing like [Curly Pud­ding] in the early 2000s,” Miko Branch said. “It was re­ally trans­for­ma­tive.”

The prod­uct line they would go on to de­velop, Miss Jessie’s, was one of the pioneering brands in the nat­u­ral hair in­dus­try, a on­ce­grass-roots seg­ment of the beauty world that’s now a hot­bed for in­vest­ment.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, th­ese com­pa­nies catered to and were run largely by a small com­mu­nity of black women em­brac­ing their nat­u­ral hair. But with 71% of black adults in the U.S. wear­ing their hair nat­u­rally at least once in 2016, ac­cord­ing to re­search firm Min­tel, nat­u­ral hair has now hit the main­stream. And with black con­sumers spend­ing an es­ti­mated $2.56 bil­lion on hair care prod­ucts in 2016, it’s no sur­prise oth­ers are ea­ger to edge into the mar­ket.

In­vest­ment from beauty in­dus­try gi­ants has helped nat­u­ral hair prod­ucts move from spe­cialty stores to the shelves of major re­tail­ers such as Tar­get, Wal-Mart and CVS — mak­ing it eas­ier for cus­tomers to get their hands on what were once niche prod­ucts.

But it’s also forc­ing in­de­pen­dent black-owned com­pa­nies to com­pete with cor­po­ra­tions that long ig­nored the nat­u­ral hair mar­ket, re­sult­ing in some­times un­com­fort­able changes for cus­tomers and busi­ness own­ers alike.

For black women, hair is more than a style — it’s some­thing tan­gled up in his­tory, politics and race.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion against black hair can be traced to slav­ery, when slave own­ers gave pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to those with “good hair” — a term still used today to de­scribe black hair that more closely re­sem­bles Euro­pean hair tex­tures. To bet­ter as­sim­i­late and achieve a higher sta­tus in so­ci­ety, black peo­ple de­vel­oped tech­niques to straighten their hair.

It wasn’t until the civil rights move­ment that black peo­ple be­gan to re­claim their nat­u­ral hair in droves. How­ever, by the 1990s prod­uct of­fer­ings for those sport­ing nat­u­ral hair re­mained sparse.

“Back then re­tail­ers weren’t bring­ing in nat­u­ral brands,” said Riche­lieu Den­nis, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Sun­dial Brands, best known for its SheaMois­ture line. “They were fo­cused on serv­ing only women with re­laxed hair.”

Black hair, which can grow out in­stead of down, can range from loose waves to tightly packed coils. Be­cause of the hairs’ curl pat­tern, nat­u­ral hair prod­ucts must ad­dress unique needs, such as in­her­ent dry­ness, to pro­mote healthy hair.

With few of­fer­ings from major beauty brands, those who wanted to care for nat­u­ral hair took mat­ters into their own hands, cre­at­ing prod­ucts for black cus­tomers and an av­enue for black en­trepreneur­ship.

Liberian-born Den­nis part­nered with his col­lege room­mate and mother to make hair and skin prod­ucts in­spired by fam­ily recipes in 1991. A decade af­ter open­ing her first sa­lon, Jane Carter launched the Jane Carter So­lu­tion prod­uct line in 1992. Carol’s Daugh­ter was born out of a Brook­lyn kitchen in 1993. Curls, founded in Elk Grove, Calif., and KinkyCurly, of Los Angeles, de­buted in 2002 and 2003, re­spec­tively. The Branch sis­ters started Miss Jessie’s in 2004.

Gen­er­a­tions of be­ing told in school, work, me­dia and even in­side the black com­mu­nity that nat­u­ral hair was un­ac­cept­able had last­ing ef­fects. But for black women go­ing against the grain in the 1990s and early 2000s, on­line fo­rums such as Nat­u­ral­ and Napp­tural­ helped foster a sense of pride while spread­ing the word about nascent busi­nesses, said Shel­ley Davis, founder of Kinky-Curly. See­ing other black women em­brace their hair on YouTube, Face­book and In­sta­gram in­spired many to take the plunge.

“It’s al­ways been a com­mu­nity — peo­ple shar­ing and com­plain­ing and con­sol­ing — that has evolved with dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies,” Davis said.

As more women went nat­u­ral, home­grown nat­u­ral hair op­er­a­tions reaped the ben­e­fits. Sales in­creased and op­er­a­tions ex­panded. Sun­dial Brands, which started as a street-vend­ing op­er­a­tion, moved to mass re­tail­ers in 2007 and is now worth an es­ti­mated $700 mil­lion.

“For so long we haven’t had a lot of op­tions, we’ve been sold mis­in­for­ma­tion, and now the tide has changed,” Davis said.

Mean­while, multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions were left cater­ing to a dy­ing trend: re­lax­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Min­tel, black spend­ing on re­lax­ers fell 30.8% be­tween 2011 and 2016. By 2020, it’s es­ti­mated that re­lax­ers will plum­met to the small­est seg­ment of the mar­ket.

The hair care in­dus­try is sat­u­rated, said Toya Mitchell, a mul­ti­cul­tural an­a­lyst at Min­tel, with sham­poos and con­di­tion­ers ex­pe­ri­enc­ing soft sales. “Com­pa­nies look­ing for growth are look­ing for con­sumers that are the lowhang­ing fruit,” she said.

Adding nat­u­ral hair prod­ucts is an ob­vi­ous way for big beauty cor­po­ra­tions to tap into the more than 24 mil­lion black women in the U.S — a mar­ket many had pre­vi­ously over­looked.

This has led some multi­na­tional beauty brands to build their own nat­u­ral hair lines. Cantu, de­vel­oped by AB Brands in 2004, was sold to PDC Brands in 2015. L’Oreal un­veiled Au Nat­u­rale in 2013. Pan­tene launched a nat­u­ral hair line in Jan­uary de­vel­oped by a team of black sci­en­tists.

Major beauty com­pa­nies also be­gan in­vest­ing in and ac­quir­ing black-owned nat­u­ral hair brands.

Carol’s Daugh­ter was sold to L’Oreal in 2014. Namaste Lab­o­ra­to­ries, known for its Or­ganic Root Stim­u­la­tor line, was sold to In­dian well­ness com­pany Dabur for $100 mil­lion in 2010. Bain Cap­i­tal, an in­vest­ment firm co-founded by one­time pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mitt Rom­ney, has a mi­nor­ity stake in Sun­dial. (Den­nis de­clined to dis­cuss the size of Bain’s stake).

This funding has helped nat­u­ral hair com­pa­nies ex­pand. With L’Oreal’s ac­qui­si­tion, Carol’s Daugh­ter reached more than 30,000 stores na­tion­wide. Mitchell es­ti­mates that Carol’s Daugh­ter and SheaMois­ture are aim­ing for 45,000 re­tail out­lets.

De­spite their in­creas­ing in­flu­ence in the mar­ket, major beauty brands ac­knowl­edge it will be an up­hill bat­tle to win over black cus­tomers who feel the in­dus­try has ne­glected their needs.

“We un­der­stand that many have the per­cep­tion that Pan­tene is not a brand for women with nat­u­ral hair,” Jodi Allen, vice pres­i­dent of hair care for North Amer­ica at Proc­ter & Gam­ble, said in an email.

Such sen­ti­ment hasn’t stopped Pan­tene, Dove and Garnier Fruc­tis from launch­ing “very overt cam­paigns to black women try­ing to bring them into the fold,” Mitchell said.

The in­ter­est and cap­i­tal from big beauty has up­sides and down­sides, said Kash­mir Thomp­son, founder of Del­ish Condish, a small nat­u­ral hair prod­uct line. “I have mixed feel­ings be­cause it al­most seems kind of cul­ture-vul­tur­ish,” she said. But “a part of me feels like it’s about time. I don’t re­ally want to shun it be­cause we should’ve been part of th­ese big­ger brands.”

Yet the chang­ing in­dus­try has some cus­tomers fear­ing they’re the ones who are be­ing shunned.

The in­flux of money — and com­pe­ti­tion — has led some in the nat­u­ral hair in­dus­try to pri­or­i­tize the most tra­di­tional of busi­ness goals: growth. With black women mak­ing up about 7.5% of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion, one way to grow sales in the in­creas­ingly crowded nat­u­ral hair sec­tor is to reach new de­mo­graph­ics of shop­pers.

Some nat­u­ral hair firms have started tar­get­ing a broader au­di­ence of mul­ti­cul­tural buy­ers to bet­ter com­pete with cor­po­rate gi­ants. But in do­ing so, they risk alien­at­ing their orig­i­nal cus­tomer base.

Be­fore its ac­qui­si­tion, Carol’s Daugh­ter sig­naled a tran­si­tion with a 2011 ad fea­tur­ing singer Solange and mul­tira­cial mod­els Cassie and Selita Ebanks. “What we’re do­ing now is mov­ing into a polyeth­nic space,” in­vestor Steve Stoute told Women’s Wear Daily when the cam­paign was launched.

For some, the ad marked a step away from a move­ment for black women. “It seems like Carol’s Daugh­ter did what many com­pa­nies tend to do — fea­ture only lighter-skinned women of color, be­cause they’re con­sid­ered more palat­able to main­stream so­ci­ety,” wrote blog Brown Sugar Beauti.

Founder Lisa Price says she knew Carol’s Daugh­ter had the po­ten­tial to reach a larger de­mo­graphic than its orig­i­nal largely black and fe­male cus­tomer base when she re­al­ized the prod­ucts work for a wide range of hair and skin types.

“We will con­tinue ad­dress­ing di­verse beauty needs and fea­tur­ing African Amer­i­can women, and all types of women in our ad­ver­tis­ing — as our Carol’s Daugh­ter fam­ily has grown to in­clude real women from around the world,” Price said in an email.

SheaMois­ture faced sim­i­lar back­lash for an ad in April. The ad, part of a cam­paign with dozens of short videos, fea­tured sev­eral white women talk­ing about the hair-re­lated strug­gles they’ve faced — like hav­ing red hair. Crit­ics said it min­i­mized the life­time of dis­crim­i­na­tion black women face over their hair, af­fect­ing their em­ploy­ment prospects, me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tions and self-es­teem, among other fac­tors.

The blow­back was swift and fierce.

“The rea­son peo­ple felt up­set is be­cause you feel so close to this brand that you’ve seen grow and you’ve helped build and you’ve spread the word about,” said Pa­trice Grell Yur­sik, cre­ator of black beauty web­site Afro­bella. “To see them mak­ing decisions that make you feel ex­cluded and that they’re in­ten­tion­ally try­ing to move on from you as a con­sumer is hurt­ful.”

Den­nis said the ad did not go through Sun­dial’s typ­i­cal process. “We un­der­stand that we as a brand have tran­scended a brand and we are part of our cul­tural iden­tity and there’s a re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with that.”

When asked if they are shift­ing to a mul­ti­cul­tural au­di­ence, some brands point to hair type in­stead of race. “From the be­gin­ning, my sis­ter and I were stay­ing fo­cused on tex­ture,” Branch said. “It’s not un­com­mon for a Jewish woman to have the same afro tex­ture as a woman with African de­scent.”

“I’m black,” Davis said. “I made [Kinky-Curly] for my hair type and as time went on, other eth­nic­i­ties and other de­mo­graph­ics have started to use the prod­uct, which is fine.”

Some cus­tomers are de­nounc­ing the shifts by brands such as SheaMois­ture and Carol’s Daugh­ter — com­pa­nies that helped kick­start the nat­u­ral hair move­ment — and pledg­ing their sup­port to small, in­de­pen­dent black-owned com­pa­nies.

“A lot of th­ese brands ... say they’re lis­ten­ing and in the same breath they try to de­fend what they do,” said Erin McLaugh­lin, a 20-yearold from Philadel­phia who went nat­u­ral two years ago.

There’s a rea­son those with nat­u­ral hair are con­cerned, Yur­sik said. Af­ter all, the move­ment emerged be­cause big beauty com­pa­nies were ig­nor­ing their wants and needs. Who’s to say that won’t hap­pen again?

“I want to see our black brands grow in a way that doesn’t re­sult in alien­at­ing us as a con­sumer base,” she said. “It’s some­thing we’ve seen be­fore.”

Christina House For The Times

IN­DE­PEN­DENT black-owned prod­uct mak­ers now have to com­pete with cor­po­ra­tions that long ig­nored the mar­ket. Above, nat­u­ral hair vblog­ger Bianca Alexa.

Christina House For The Times

IN­VEST­MENT from beauty in­dus­try gi­ants has helped nat­u­ral hair prod­ucts move from spe­cialty stores to the shelves of major re­tail­ers such as Tar­get, Wal­Mart and CVS. Above, Bur­bank res­i­dent Bianca Alexa is a nat­u­ral hair vblog­ger.

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