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Photo: Iman Cosmetics
Photo: Iman Cosmetics

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Is the Makeup Industry Finally Embracing Diversity?

Women of color now have more choices than ever when it comes to cosmetics, but which brands are doing it right?

Fifteen years ago, when Raquel Lachman was just beginning to take an interest in makeup, visiting department store beauty floors had a way of making her, a black teenager, feel invisible. "I vividly recall being overlooked at the counter," she says. "That is an experience where, no matter how tall you are, you end up feeling a little bit smaller."

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"Today," she continues, "walking through a store is completely different. It changes everything when you approach the counter and are treated with respect and attention. You feel like the company values you and is issuing an open invitation."

A Harvard grad with an MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, Lachman is now the director of brand marketing for Walker & Company, a startup aiming to anticipate the health and beauty needs of consumers of color. She considers herself uniquely qualified to evaluate the cosmetics industry’s attempts to be inclusive. Her assessment? It’s a mixed bag.

When it comes to beauty products, women of color now have more choices than ever. The industry has evolved from leaving customers like Lachman wandering makeup aisles alone to creating elaborate marketing campaigns designed to target her directly.

Walker & Company

Startup Walker & Company caters to the beauty concerns of women of color. Photo: Walker & Company

Over the last decade and a half, cosmetics giants L’Oreal and Estée Lauder have worked hard to make their brands more diverse. Billboards and magazine ads now feature women with a much wider range of skin tones: Lupita Nyong'o is the new face of Lancôme, Frieda Pinto is a L’Oreal ambassador, Sofia Vergara is a CoverGirl. Brands are also expanding their color palettes and using color-matching technology to make it easier for women with darker skin to find the perfect shade of foundation or concealer.

But the attempt to reach out to women of color has also brought new challenges. There are more opportunities than ever for clumsy missteps and campaigns that do more to alienate consumers than appeal to them. Sometimes the error has to do with poor judgement—see, for example, the controversy over whether L’Oreal artificially lightened Beyoncé Knowles’ skin in a print ad.

"Some brands are just trying too hard when they target us."

Or take Benefit’s music video featuring Anjelah Johnson's Bon Qui Qui character that was labeled by many as just plain racist. Or Rodarte’s Juarez collection for MAC that was meant to pay homage to Mexico, but appeared to make light of drug wars instead. Or the many TV spots that feature a Latina woman in hoop earrings applying her makeup while salsa dancing in her kitchen.

"Some brands are just trying too hard when they target us," says Yanira Garza, a Chicago-based beauty blogger. "They rely on stereotypes that have nothing to do with how I live my life. Latin women want exactly the same thing that every other woman does."

Experts in the beauty industry point to the underlying problem of many brands treating women of color as an entirely separate group of consumer.

Both Sofia Vergara and Rihanna have cosmetics contracts with CoverGirl.

"In the beauty industry, brands often divide skin tones into two categories: ‘general’ and ‘ethnic,’" says Karen Chambers, director of product development at Iman Cosmetics. "There is not a broader sense of inclusiveness that recognizes that women are really a single category."

Chambers points out that this division is an unfortunate remnant of the history of makeup in America. For years, L’Oreal and Estée Lauder dominated the beauty market. Their brands lined the shelves of department stores and drug stores alike and focused on products for the so-called white mainstream consumer. It fell on niche brands like Flori Roberts, Fashion Fair, and Black Opal to cater to black women, but with only a fraction of the advertising and distribution budgets of companies owned by multinational corporations, their products were relegated to small specialty stores.

"There is not a broader sense of inclusiveness that recognizes that women are really a single category."

What the beauty conglomerates failed to realize is that women of color are big spenders when it comes to makeup. Black women shell out $7.5 billion on beauty products every year, spending 80% more on cosmetics and twice as much on skincare as other consumers. Add in the fact that white consumers will become the minority in the U.S. by 2040, and it makes sense that big brands are desperately trying to make up for lost time—but when they try too hard to pitch women of color, their efforts often backfire. Explains Lachman, "When you explicitly call out how multicultural you are, sometimes it just sounds like you mean ‘different’ or ‘other.’"

This was a problem that Somali supermodel Iman Abdulmajid wanted to take on when she launched her eponymous makeup line 20 years ago. Her goal was to address the needs of women with darker complexions without focusing on race. Iman’s approach came out of her own international modeling experience during which she discovered that her cosmetic needs were often identical to South Asian or Central American models who had nearly the exact the same coloring as she did. "The real issue is not the woman’s background, but her skin tone," says Chambers. "This was a beauty problem, not a cultural issue."

Supermodel Iman has helped pioneer makeup for women of color, or as she says, "women with skin of color." Photo: Getty Images

As she launched her company, Iman set out to change the very language that the beauty industry used to describe market segments. Rather than addressing her customers as "women of color," she chose to use the term "women with skin of color." On the surface, this seems like a minor distinction, but it sent a profound message, emphasizing that women of color are part of the larger group of all women, instead of a separate category. "Women with skin of color" have darker complexions and that’s it. In one sense, this represented a bold, original way to speak to women that broke free from old frameworks. But it was also an obvious way to engage with consumers: after all, advertising directed at white women does not highlight their particular parentage.

There are brands that have been able to make inroads with women of color without explicitly focusing on race.

Chambers explains that the brand has to tread a delicate line between showing respect for different cultures without making culture the center of the conversation. "We get engaged in things that are culturally important to our consumers," Chambers says. For instance, Iman Cosmetics was involved with Latina Fashion Week and Bollywood’s 100th anniversary. "But when it comes to beauty, the conversation is focused on beauty," she continues. From the brand’s earliest days, Iman reinforced this approach by using a diverse array of models wearing neutral clothing. In order to illustrate the foundation shades in the collection, three models of different ethnicities wear each color.

By being diverse at every point in the shopping experience, Iman Cosmetics has been able to attract customers from a broad array of backgrounds. Iman was keen to make her products affordable and accessible to as many women as possible; she sells her line at mass market retailers like Target and Walmart, though offering foundation that retails for $16 has made it among the more expensive lines sold in those stores. The brand is also popular overseas, with loyal customers in markets as far away as India, Nigeria, and Mexico. The company is now worth $25 million dollars.

There are other brands that have been able to make inroads with women of color without explicitly focusing on race. MAC and Bobbi Brown, premium labels within the Estée Lauder group, have loyal black, Asian, and Latina consumer bases because of their comprehensive color palettes. It helps that both companies were founded by professional makeup artists who had experience working with a diverse range of models.

MAC's inclusive approach has translated to customer diversity. Photo: Getty Images

Raquel Lachman has been using MAC products for years and appreciates how much thought the brand put into her personal experience as a consumer. The approach is pragmatic: in-store makeup artists are tasked with helping customers address their specific concerns, for instance, the hyperpigmentation or uneven tone that can affect women with darker skin.

"Rather than just calling out that they are a brand for women of color, they show me that they value me by demonstrating that they were thinking about my needs when they created their products," she says. "It is a holistic experience: The makeup artists know exactly the right color for my skin and the look I am trying to achieve. I see women I can identify with both in the stores and in their ads."

"I see women I can identify with both in the stores and in their ads."

Bobbi Brown has a similar approach. Vimla Gupta, senior VP of global marketing at the company, explains that the brand takes a problem-based approach to beauty. "Bobbi started the company because she was interested in answering the needs of all shades of all women," she says. "She was interested in skin tones, which goes beyond race."

The company shows consumers that it's inclusive by offering a wide array of products and by using models from different backgrounds to show those products at work, not by loudly proclaiming any sort of diversity pitch.

While women with darker skin are increasingly flocking to mainstream beauty companies, there is still space in the market for niche brands that are investing heavily in the development of groundbreaking new products for women of color. Walker and Company, for instance, is currently working on how to improve the shaving process for black women who have coarser hair and are prone to razor bumps. Iman Cosmetics reimagined BB creams and CC creams to accommodate both the tone and texture of darker women’s skin.

Bobbi Brown's experience as a makeup artist who worked with models of all skin tones compelled her to start her own beauty brand. Photo: Getty Images

"I love that brands like Iman, Black Opal, and Black Radiance exist because they are thinking about way more than adding new shades to their collection," says Patrice Yursik, founder of beauty blog Afrobella. "They're addressing our needs in terms of coverage and the finish we might need. Often, they produce very sophisticated and tailored products at the drugstore price point, so we don’t have to seek things out at Sephora or a department store."

When it comes down to it, women of color do not want special treatment. They, like all women, just want to have their beauty issues solved, and brands are finally starting to recognize that.

"There are companies now that are willing to invest time and effort in listening to women of color and addressing their needs accurately," says Lachman. "Their output reflects the thoughtful, intimate relationship they have with their consumer."


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