Missed opportunity: Why is the beauty industry still failing women of colour?

The makeup industry has made strides to become more inclusive and cater for women of all skin tones, but more still needs to be done and failing to act now could have serious consequences.

The makeup industry is embracing diversity. Whether it’s premium or budget, brands are on a mission to ensure they have foundation shades to cater to a diverse range of skin tones.

However, lurking beneath the surface of this celebration is a not-so-secret story of isolation and racism, with black women and those with darker skin tones systematically left out of beauty in advertising, product innovation and recruitment for decades.

The lack of options for women of colour is what caused Florence Adepoju to create her own makeup company, MDM Flow, in 2015. While working on a major beauty brand’s makeup counter she found there were limited options for dark-skinned women like herself.

In response, she started creating her own makeup in a home-made lab at the bottom of her garden. “I felt like either I create something or I am just going to constantly be working for or selling products that aren’t suitable for all women.”

Since then, MDM Flow has gone from strength to strength: products are stocked globally, including at Boots and House of Fraser in the UK, and products are often sold out online.

However, that hasn’t always been the case – when starting out Adepoju says she struggled to convince people that women of colour weren’t a niche category. She explains: “It was so hard. People didn’t understand the potential of what I was creating – especially as I was small.

“I spoke to buyers who said, ‘Our customers have not complained that this is even a problem’ and I’d say, ‘You’re customers are definitely complaining because I’ve worked on the shop floor’.”

Why now?

Over the past four years, major brands including Rimmel, Dior and CoverGirl have all expanded their foundation ranges to cater for darker skin tones. This has no doubt been sparked by the rise of Fenty Beauty, which has offered 40 shades since it was launched by popstar Rihanna and beauty multinational LVMH in 2017.

It its first month Fenty reportedly earned $72m of earned media and was consistently sold out in stores, showing there is certainly a market for it.

Although Fenty is not the first brand to launch such an array of shades – smaller brands like Black Opal Beauty have been catering for darker skin tones for decades  – it took the backing of a major global company and a celebrity to highlight the huge opportunity makeup brands had been missing. And while many brands have been extending their offer to include darker shades this suggests dark-skinned women are an afterthought.

Diversity cannot start and finish with an advert or a social media post in order for it to resonate with the customer

Maddie Saunders, brand leader for Lush Makeup

However, figures have been highlighting the untapped market for some time. In the US, a Nielsen study found black women spend nine times more on beauty and haircare than white women. Despite this marketers have failed to spot the clear gap meaning they are now scrambling to keep up with the new industry benchmark of 40 shades set by Fenty.

Maddie Saunders, brand leader for Lush Makeup, says it was “non-negotiable” that its foundation would have 40 shades from the outset.

“We knew we had to at least be able to deliver against that benchmark in order to properly serve our customers and people who don’t already buy with Lush,” she explains.

Social media has been another key factor in challenging brands to become more diverse. Consumers now have a more direct channel to raise criticisms with brands which might previously have never reached the top.

Larger brands like Estée Lauder, for example, now have social listening hubs, to keep up with consumer tastes and gather feedback from underrepresented groups.

Saunders adds: “Instagram has a huge amount of to answer for in terms of the visibility of consumer groups.”

READ MORE: How Estée Lauder is rethinking consumer engagement to drive innovation

The problem with ‘diverse’ advertising

Saunders says that “a self-fulfilling prophecy” has caused beauty marketers to delay improving inclusivity. This is because darker shades haven’t been offered so brands don’t realise there’s an issue, or because the darker shades available in-store haven’t been up to standard or advertised appropriately. Consumers then don’t buy, so sales aren’t considered satisfactory and brands therefore don’t invest in better R&D and marketing as they don’t think there’s a market for it.

Adepoju echoes this frustration: “[Brands are] criticised for not having a diverse enough range, so they bring out three or four more shades, but they don’t do any marketing around it and the products haven’t been [properly] formulated for the customer group. Then they pull those lines saying, ‘Oh it hasn’t been successful’ and actually nothing was really done to ensure it was put in front of the intended market and was created to a satisfactory level.”

The key, says Saunders, is not to silo marketing channels when it comes to inclusivity. “It cannot start and finish with an advert or a social media post in order for it to resonate with the customer. To do good for the customer and brand it has to be an active choice that you make in all of your marketing channels and your recruitment,” she explains.

One area that Lush has been rigorous with is testing. The brand’s in-house product developer initially created 37 shades. Lush then used focus groups with staff members to iron out gaps.
This testing also ensured the foundation provided the same quality no matter the shade. Brands can’t just change pigmentation to cater to darker skin tones, the formulation needs to be tweaked. For example, as shades get deeper Lush had to remove titanium dioxide in order to prevent ashiness.

Saunders says it’s “foolish” to base product development on data alone and urges marketers to look at anecdotal evidence.

She explains: “Having staff members tell us what worked and didn’t was invaluable. We cannot represent [diversity] accurately [as white people]. We can absolutely do our best to fight for what we know and we feel is the right thing to do for our customers. But to have that experience within the team it brings a different viewpoint to our marketing “

There is something really dehumanising about calling [products] chocolate, caramel, mocha and coffee while all the lighter shades are porcelain or ivory.

Niellah Arboine

Brands must also ensure they are using models that represent the audience they are trying to target.

According to a report conducted in 2016, just 22% of the models featured in ads in the UK and US were ethnic (black, Asian, Hispanic) while the rest (78%) were white.

Adepoju says: “Even when brands have got ranges for darker women you go on their Instagram page and it’s not seen. There is no presence for it. And even if they have black or Asian women on their page they are very light in complexion and very Western features.

“If a young person is watching my page I want her to feel like this is an industry where I can make my mark. Brands play a significant role in normalising it.”

She says this is why it’s important to repost real women trying her products on Instagram to ensure her fans aren’t getting a stylised version of what they should look like. Lush tends to use its own staff in marketing for the same reason and doesn’t touch up images.

Niellah Arboine, a freelance journalist, who has written about her own experiences finding makeup for her skin tone, agrees more needs to be done to eliminate discrimination within advertising. “There is still texture discrimination [in advertising] and you are seeing people with 3A and looser coiled textured hair compared to someone whose got 4C hair so I still think in those ways it is still pigeon-holing who these products can be used by even in the black community.”

One of her biggest bugbears is that despite brands creating a wider array of shades often just a few are available in-store. And even when the correct shade is available staff working on the counter are generally not trained to match foundation to darker skin tones. “If I do have someone to match [my skin tone to a foundation] they are not going to match me correctly so that’s even more off-putting. I didn’t get my first foundation until I was pretty old [19 or 20] because I was terrified.”

This is something Lush is acutely aware of. Saunders explains: “All of our staff go through the same training and colour-matching, and undertone training is one of the core principles.

“Makeup artists and consumer leaders have expressed how uncomfortable and disappointed it has made them feel in the past to have [a bad] experience and walk away with a product that doesn’t match them, or feel there is nothing for them, so we know how important [in-store experience] is.”

This is partly why direct-to-consumer brands can appeal to women of colour. Arboine says: “It’s less intimidating. You don’t have to go through that painful process [of staff not understanding you and] there are more ranges.”

The naming of beauty products is another thing brands must consider more carefully. It’s something Arboine says she has “a big problem with”.

“Lots of foundations and skin-based products for black and brown people often have names of food. There is something really dehumanising about calling [products] chocolate, caramel, mocha and coffee while all the lighter shades are porcelain or ivory, so even within the language we are using for makeup there is that inequality. Why are we food?”

She’s not alone in scrutinising product names. Fenty was forced to apologise last month for appropriating Asian culture after it named a highlighter ‘Geisha Chic’.

READ MORE: Why direct-to-consumer beauty brand Glossier is ripping up the marketing playbook

The benefit of creating more diverse teams

As is often mentioned when talking about diversity, if brands employ marketers who are as diverse as the audience they are trying to reach, many of these problems could be prevented.

Lush’s Saunders is keen to point out how diversity has helped her team. “It means we have people who can be involved in our shoots and in our product development and point out things we wouldn’t necessarily appreciate, like braiding being slightly off or a colour looking slightly orange.”

However, Lush does not currently have any women of colour within its senior leadership team on makeup, although there is a pipeline in place to foster talent. Saunder explains: “We have one woman of colour working on the team. We’re focused on supporting her development to take on bigger opportunities, as well as actively looking for more diverse candidates as we expand the team.”

She adds: “It won’t be for us (as white team members) to determine how well we do”.

While Lush is working on getting more people of colour in senior roles Saunders says it’s vital that companies foster an environment to give people of colour a voice.

“There are so many untapped opportunities because people [of colour] are systematically ignored from hiring, education and networking. You need to ensure people feel like they can correct you,” she says.

Adepoju echoes that there is “definitely a behind-the-scenes problem”. She recalls a conversation she had with a black brand manager from L’Oréal on her podcast, Flo Beauty Talk. When questioned on her foundation in a meeting she told colleagues she had to use a competitor brand as L’Oréal did not create a one in her shade.

“If she wasn’t in the room who would have been the person to advocate for dark-skinned women?” Adepoju asks.

“Your workforce needs to reflect your customer base and if you want all women to wear your products then you have to have all women in the boardroom, all women on the shop floor, all women in the lab. That’s how you get those diverse ranges out.”

It is also impossible to represent communities and identify their needs without fostering an environment where people of colour are not only present but feel they can speak up. If ignored, brands will be left scrambling as more dynamic challengers provide the inclusivity consumers demand.

“It has taken the beauty industry a long time to catch up with the fact those shades represent real people, real consumers,” highlights Saunders.

She is clear diversity isn’t hard: “If you are willing to put that work in, spend that money and use that resource on making those shades, it’s not challenging.“

Ultimately, Adepoju says the strides made are a “good step” but not enough. She concludes: “If a white woman can walk into a beauty store and choose from 200 different foundation colours and Asian women can walk in and only choose from 50 it’s still not fair. Until every single brand has a baseline suitable for everyone then I think the industry won’t be where it’s supposed to be.”

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