How Unilever is working to understand women’s dark hair

How Unilever is working to understand women's dark hair

On a recent spring afternoon, Marcella Roberts and Brooke Council sat in a salon chatting about how much they loved their hair. Two women, both black, were discussing a new cream they were using to style and moisturize their curly hairstyles.

“It works wonders,” said Ms. Roberts, whose daily work as a meter reader allows her curls to dry quickly. “It lasts for a few days.”

“My coworker even said how soft my hair was,” Ms. Council said.

Women said the cream didn’t leave their scalp with the distracting little flakes that other products sometimes did. And while they agreed that the cream had a pungent tropical smell when first applied, it “calmed down and it was a pleasant smell” as the day went on, Ms Council said.

And that initial whiff didn’t stop Ms. Roberts from applying the cream to her head. “A little goes a long way,” she said. “But I just wanted to try. I said, ‘Well, it’s a test center.’

The testing center she was referring to was the same salon operated by Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer goods conglomerates and owner of brands such as Dove, Vaseline and SheaMoister. The product the women were assessing was one of the company’s latest, and as they presented their thoughts, Unilever scientists and stylists listened and took notes on their phones.

Salons – and the insights gained from the people who test products there – are one way Unilever is trying to tap into the long-undervalued, yet increasingly important, black hair care market. The Black consumer is a group that has been underrepresented or completely ignored by beauty companies for generations. Yet with people of color an increasing percentage of the American population, it has become a business imperative for beauty companies to understand the millions of consumers with textured hair.

If Unilever gets the rights, the company could capture a substantial portion of the $1.8 billion that black consumers in the United States spend annually on hair products. black women do Use Twice as many products for their hair care and styling routines than blonde women. And despite this demand, black consumers are three times as likely as other racial groups to be dissatisfied with their options for hair and skin care, according to McKinsey. reports Released last year.

“I’m amazed by the work done so far, but we still have work to do,” said Peter Schroen, who oversees Unilever’s research and development for a dozen beauty brands in North America. “We have a great understanding of people with darker skin from Africa, from India, but we have relatively little information about African American, black and brown, and Hispanic people in North America.”

Every week, Unilever brings about 50 men and women to its salons, which it calls multicultural centers of excellence. More than half of the participants are people of color.

They were not told the name of the product being tested – or what the company believes it should be used for. Instead, executives are looking to see how testers interact with the product because they may reveal a use for it that wasn’t previously considered.

“It’s really filling in those gaps of understanding of biology or what we might have thought we understood from one or two studies,” said Tiffany Yizer, director of Unilever’s North America Multicultural Beauty Technology Center.

Across the street from the salon, Unilever has a research and development lab where it tests ingredients and formulas designed for frizzy hair. Salon is where the company tries to figure out what encourages people to buy its shampoos, conditioners and lotions from retailers like Target, CVS and Sally Beauty. (Unilever sometimes recruits shoppers in the aisles of these stores to participate in testing.) When the company collects feedback from those in the salon, the products are sometimes sent back to the lab for more work. goes.

Between Unilever’s two buildings, a team of nearly 400 scientists, data analysts and stylists study human biology and consumer reaction to create products that sometimes take 18 months to hit the shelves. The scientists — who, Mr. Schroen said, come from 40 countries — don’t work for a specific brand. Instead, they seek to identify ingredients and develop “blockbuster technologies” that can be applied across Unilever’s product lines, including hair care brands X and Sunsilk.

Unilever’s recent changes include upgrading the formula of Vaseline lotion to add 88 percent more moisture, the company said, and rolling out a Dove line that includes conditioners and recovery masks infused with honey, jojoba, aloe and coconut oils. Are. In 2020, Unilever launched Fair, a skin care line of gels, serums and sunscreens for people of color and their pale skin organic makeup. SheaMoisture began selling a scalp care line focused on dandruff, a top concern for black women, according to Euromonitor’s 2022 survey.

Unilever faces increased competition from e-commerce upstarts that have gained loyal followings on social media, and both it and its fellow giant Procter & Gamble have acquired some of these emerging brands. But investing money in its own research and development allows Unilever to understand the science underlying textured hair, said Jennifer Van Wyk, a former researcher at TRI Princeton, who conducts cosmetic science research that is supported by Unilever and other companies. financially supported.

Ms Van Wyk, who leads the non-profit’s Textured Hair Project, said: “Once you understand that, it’s really helpful to try and find these solutions to alleviate those problems.” Maybe, those who want.”

Unilever has been running its Consumer Testing Center for five years. But in the wake of the racial justice protests in 2020, the company realized it could do more. In 2021, officials Mortgage Doubling funding to research and create products for melanin-rich skin and textured hair by this year.

Over the years, several of Unilever’s brands have faced criticism for the way they treat women of color in their marketing. An advertisement for Dove soap in 2017 featured a black woman taking off her skin-coloured shirt to reveal a white woman in a white shirt. The ad played into a racist trope that black people are dirty. After an outcry on social media, Dove apologized and said it “deeply” regrets “the offense it has caused.”

For black and brown consumers, purchase decisions are not just about purchasing products scientifically formulated for their skin and hair types. It’s also about realizing that a large company like Unilever wants to earn their trust by seeking their feedback and representing them fully.

Understanding those customers is one of Ms. Yizar’s main duties in the company. She advises Unilever on what products can and should enter the market by 2026. Ms. Yizar, 37, is a trained chemical engineer who went to Brown University, she said, because it exposed her to a liberal arts environment while studying. The hard science of chemical and biochemical engineering.

“Beauty is a place where you really go such a long way,” said Ms. Yizaar, who is Afro-Latina and wears her hair in locs. “I grew up in a time where there was only so much going my way. So I think we owe it to our consumers to have a diversity of options.”

On the day of the focus groups, she saw Ayana and Melissa Williams, mother and daughter, apply a whitening cream to their curly hair after stylists washed it. While the two were applying cream to their wet hair, Ms. Yizzar asked them questions about how they learn about new products (via YouTube, Melissa, 22, said) and when they browse at a store (bottles). What comes to mind when you’re doing this is that it lists castor oil as an ingredient).

The elder Ms. Williams said she often buys products that smell good, and it’s even better if the scent of the product lingers in her hair after she cooks a traditional Caribbean meal. The cream she was testing in her hair that day smelled like a drink, she said, speculating that it had hints of peach and coconut.

But price is also an important factor. “For me as a mother, I’m always trying to find a deal,” said Ms Williams, 41, who works in a primary school.

Winning over one client with textured hair doesn’t mean the same product will work for the next client with naturally curly hair.

“The biggest challenge is the huge reach, quite honestly,” said Courtney Romney, an analyst at Mintel who researches the hair care industry. “I think one of the biggest downfalls of brands is trying to appeal to every single black consumer.”

Ms Yizzar acknowledged that if Unilever hoped to garner customer loyalty from a significant number of people of colour, it had to be more nuanced and nuanced. And he noted that the work never really stops.

For example, Unilever has recently focused more on black consumers, but there is still a lot of work to do in understanding the habits and needs of Latino shoppers. Ms. Yizar said it could take a decade for the company to gain a true understanding of that diverse group of consumers.

“Once we do that,” she said, “there’s definitely going to be another group.”

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