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Lisa Price of Carol's Daughter. Photo: Carol's Daughter
Lisa Price of Carol's Daughter. Photo: Carol's Daughter

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Is Carol's Daughter Selling Out or Growing Up?

Longtime fans of Carol's Daughter, which was bought by L'Oreal last month, are hoping the beloved brand avoids the fate that's befallen so many others.

An independent brand builds a passionate following based on niche products, catches the eye of a major corporation, gets acquired by said corporation, and then eventually loses sight of its original mission—and its customers. Heard this story before?

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Longtime fans of Carol's Daughter, which was bought by L'Oreal last month, are hoping the beloved brand avoids that fate.

In 1993, Carol's Daughter was started in the kitchen of founder Lisa Price, who sold all-natural haircare products at local Brooklyn farmers' markets before she expanded into a full-scale business that now includes body and skincare. With a focus on black customers who were otherwise underrepresented in the beauty industry, Carol's Daughter garnered fans like Jada Pinkett Smith and Mary J. Blige. It eventually became available nationwide via Target, Sephora, HSN, and Ulta, and now has further expansion plans under its new ownership.

Price tells Racked she's committed to keeping the formulation and quality of her products the same, and that the acquisition will only provide more opportunities for the brand.

"There are plenty of concerns that the product is going to change, but just because I've sold to L'Oreal doesn't mean that I've sold my identity," she says. "I'm looking forward to staying with the brand. I understand people's concerns when it comes to acquisitions because corporations have a bad reputation for not being human, sensitive. But I built this brand based on my life. When a company buys a brand, it's because they like what you're doing, so the worst thing you can do is change."

Since L'Oreal's purchase, Carol's Daughter's Facebook page has been littered with sentiments like, "It's so sad black businesses don't see the value of staying on for the long haul" and "I want to keep my purchasing power in my community and help build it as much as I can."

"There's a feeling of concern in the African-American community about ownership and appropriation," explains Patrice Grell Yursik, who runs the beauty blog Afrobella. "There's the worry that things that belong to us don't belong to us, whether it's music, culture, and in this case, hair culture and hair products. What's happened now with Carol's Daughter is that it's not owned by someone who looks like me. There's the question of what does it mean about the brand we supported the whole time."

This is not the first time a black beauty brand was bought by a giant corporation and subsequently met with criticism. Proctor & Gamble purchased Chicago-based Johnson Products Company in 2004; Softsheen-Carson was bought by L'Oreal in 1998. The black haircare industry in particular is estimated at $774 million, and with these acquisitions, the very community that supports the industry does not necessarily benefit from the profits, notes beauty writer Trudy Susan.

"Finding black business owners and creators in this game has become seemingly easier," she says. "We may have a lack of access to capital, though some of us eventually break through—but hardly any of that cash makes it back to the black community."

Yursik notes some consumers might also feel uneasy about the L'Oreal deal given its controversial marketing tactics. The beauty giant came under fire for allegedly lightening Beyoncé's skin in a 2008 advertisement. Four years later in 2012, critics once again cried foul when a different Beyoncé commercial boasting her French and Native American heritage appeared to some as a ploy to downplay the pop superstar's race.

"Hardly any of that cash makes it back to the black community."

"L'Oreal has had an interesting history of their representation of the African-American community," says Yursik. "It doesn't have the cultural understanding of it, and there's going to have to be an evolution behind the scenes. We hope Carol's Daughter will educate them suitably."

In addition, customers are concerned L'Oreal will not stay true to Carol's Daughters all-natural mandate. These fears are not necessarily unfounded: When L'Oreal bought sulfate-free pioneer Pureology in 2007, salon professionals and shoppers alike complained that the products completely changed under L'Oreal's auspices.

Then there's that unshakable feeling that niche brands are being used as pawns in an ever-competitive game between huge multinationals. Estée Lauder, L'Oreal's largest competitor, has been leading the niche beauty brand charge as of late. Over the last few months, Estée Lauder has bought Frédéric Malle and Rodin Olio Lusso, as well as Brazilian indie giant Niely Cosmeticos Group.

Photo: Carol's Daughter

As one beauty blogger who asked to remained anonymous told Racked, "I'm quite suspicious of the timing of it all, especially when only months ago, Carol's Daughter seemed to be having significant financial trouble. This might just all be part of a one-upping game with other companies to chase after communities with specific needs, but my beauty routine is not a commodity to be traded around."

The financial trouble she's referring to is the bankruptcy filing of Carol's Daughter's store division back in April. While Price wouldn't comment on the filing, she did say that Carol's Daughter will explore salon distribution under L'Oreal, instead of continuing with the retail route.

It's all part of what Price sees as the value of going corporate: "We'll be operating as we have before, it'll be business as usual. We'll just resources we didn't have as a small company."

"We'll be operating as we have before, it'll be business as usual."

But will L'Oreal respect Price's wishes and maintain her products' integrity? It's entirely possible. Back in 2012, the company bought animal-friendly beauty brand Urban Decay, which still offers vegan makeup (although plenty were angry the cruelty-free brand was being acquired by a company who has a history of testing products on animals). And then there's Kiehl's, which was founded in 1851 and acquired by L'Oreal in 2000. Kiehl's scaled tremendously while still using its original formulas and keeping its classic packaging.

Denitria Lewis, an independent marketing analyst, says she too feels optimistic about the changes to come. She believes that under the leadership of L'Oreal, who would not provide comment to Racked, international customers will now have access to Carol's Daughter and the brand can have an even bigger impact.

"Haircare is a fickle industry," Lewis says. "If you are going to build a brand for the long-term, you need what L'Oreal can offer in terms of distribution, research, science. There are so many operational elements Carol's Daughter will now have access to."


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