The changing face of the beauty business

Mainstream cosmetics brands are slowly doing an about face. Where they once neglected consumers of color with paltry shade ranges, between the mid ‘90s and early 2000s, they began to expand their color offerings and hire African-American, Asian and Latina spokesmodels.

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Mainstream cosmetics brands are slowly doing an about face. Where they once neglected consumers of color with paltry shade ranges, between the mid ‘90s and early 2000s, they began to expand their color offerings and hire African-American, Asian and Latina spokesmodels.

Revlon signed Halle Berry in 1996, Chinese model Valerie Chow in 1998, and at around the same time period, model Daisy Fuentes as their first Latina face for worldwide campaigns. In 1999, Maybelline decided to broaden their color palette with the most popular colors from their discontinued Shades of You line, which had been made for black skin tones.

In 2001, Queen Latifah signed on as a face of Cover Girl and now fronts the Queen Collection, while L’Oreal also targeted black women with their HIP High Intensity Pigments campaign in 2006 which featured Nigerian model Oluchi in addition to spokesmodel Beyonce Knowles. Just last month, Kerry Washington was announced as a face of Neutrogena.

Black brands jump on the bandwagon

Black-owned brands have sought to seize a bigger share of the consumer market too.

In 1973 Eunice and John Johnson, the entrepreneurs behind the Ebony and Jet magazine empire, started Fashion Fair Cosmetics reportedly in response to discovering that black models had to mix foundations to create the right shades for their skin colors.  Today, though imagery on its website features black women, the company’s messaging targets the larger group encompassing women of color.

More recently, African-American entrepreneur Melissa Butler founded The Lip Bar in 2011 with makeup offerings marketed towards women of all races.

Model-turned-cosmetics-mogul Iman always knew this day would come. Even though this trend of catering to several groups of women is picking up steam, she launched Iman Cosmetics in 1994. Iman Cosmetics specifically targets the spectrum of skin tones among black, Asian, Latina, Middle Eastern, and Native American women.

Multicultural thinking behind Iman’s line

Desiree Reid, Senior VP of Brand Development at Iman, tells the Grio they purposely don’t refer to their customers as “women of color” because it’s less about how they racially self-identify than it is about the shades and undertones of their skin.

Reid elaborates that, “An Indian or Asian woman who has darker skin tone doesn’t consider herself a woman of color. She considers herself an Asian woman with darker skin tone.”

Reid says Iman’s early vision gives the brand a competitive advantage — and 20-year head start in servicing this customer — even in the face of a crowding market.

“[Our competitors are] spending a lot of dollars to attract these women and drive them into the stores and a lot of the women are discovering us as a result of that,” she acknowledges. “The difference between us and them is that once you actually get the Iman product, [Iman] delivers on the promise.”

When the company mirrors consumers

Reid offers her own experience as an example. “I’m not the darkest skin tone, but I’m of a deep brown colored skin tone and I still can’t find a shade for myself in these brands that say they offer a wide range. So I still think we will deliver more on actually finding a product that suits your skin tone rather than just putting a face to say that we have a product.”

Ensuring their makeup works on the multi-racial staff at Iman is a priority, Reid says. “Part of what… keeps us being able to do it right is we never forget that we are still our own customers.”  The company knowledge that they’ve developed over the last 20 years makes it possible for Iman to present colors that at first glance would seem too loud or otherwise unflattering to dark skin, Reid believes.

The brand’s new LipAffair Palette contains a bright hot coral and a “kinky pink”— Fall 2013’s trending beauty colors — which might seem daunting to women with deep dark complexions, but she clarifies, “When we make a pink lipstick…[it’s] not a pink that’s done for a woman who’s skin is not of color.” She explains, “We make adjustments…we know there’s such an array of skin tones that we’re trying to capture.”

Black beauty: Still struggling for equality

But even as the beauty industry slowly expands, black girls still point to white and lighter skinned beauty as ideal. In 2010, CNN recreated the famous Doll Study to determine how children view the races. More than 70 years after the initial study, black children still preferred white or light skin.

A little black girl told reporter Anderson Cooper, “I don’t like the way brown looks because it looks nasty for some reason.” A little white boy pointed to a picture of a black boy as “ugly” and cited America’s racial history as the reason some people think “blacks are ugly and whites are nice and handsome.”

The racially-charged beauty ideal has given rise to a hydra of entrenched colorism and negative self-perceptions among many black people. Shifting business strategies in the beauty industry need to address, and help reverse, this reality. Using diverse models and investing in positive messaging is key.

Working to make all women feel beautiful

One brand doing this is the behemoth behind Cover Girl.

With their “My Black is Beautiful” campaign, Procter & Gamble, which produces Cover Girl, has made an impressive effort toward this goal. The campaign’s Imagine a Future documentary, which aired on BET in July 2013, shows Delaware teenager Janet Goldsboro rising from admitted low self-esteem due to her brown skin tone, to realizing her inner and outer beauty via a trove of mentors and an empowerment trip to South Africa.

Goldsboro’s story makes clear that as the business of beauty transitions, the architects of change must be mindful of all the customers on the receiving end of the strategies and images. As Iman has found, it’s just good business.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.