African Beauty: Multi Billion Dollar Hair Industry

It is almost impossible to find a wider scope of beauty rituals than in Africa: from braiding to weaving from relaxing to treating from coloring to styling. To achieve this expertise, our talented Advanced Research teams of scientists and biologists based in South Africa have developed extensive knowledge in collaboration with African hair stylists & dermatologists. International love brands such as Dark and Lovely and Magic, or local brands such as Optimum, Nice & Lovely, Restore Plus and Blue Ice are all part of the L’Oréal African beauty brands portfolio.

We cought up with Gwendoline Mbatha, Research Specialist and Hair Product Performance Manager, L’Oréal South Africa to learn more about her journey as well as research put into this multi billion dollar hair industry.

Hi Gwen, how did you end up at L’Oréal?

I started my career as a Marketing assistant working for a Youth & Kids activation agency. I then moved through roles learning about qualititive research and honing my skills in this area. After working for research agencies, radio stations, digital agencies, I finally got the opportunity to join L’Oréal RSA as part of the Consumer Evaluation team. Quite a ride!

What was the biggest motivation for you to join L’Oréal?

Firstly, L’Oréal being an truly global company. Secondly, in R&I our journey is to understand our consumers — their needs and frustrations, and work together with the lab and evaluation teams to deliver breakthrough innovations. It is incredible to be part of the life cycle of a product — from the development to the store shelf and finally to consumers homes. This is one of my biggest motivations everyday.

Two things that surprised you about working at L’Oréal?

The open door policy in terms of growth and ‘The sky is the limit’ within L’Oréal. Here you feel motivated to succeed and seek “entrepreneurial” growth because of the empowerement you are given.

If you push yourself, what you can achieve professionally and personally is limitless across 140 countries and 35+ international brands.

Can you tell us a bit about your team?

I am part of the Consumer Evaluation team within R&I, there is four of us within the team including the team manager. We each come from different career backgrounds — some have a product background, others came from consumer research, but commonly driven by our inquisitive nature - bring the best possible product to consumers.

I work very closely with different experts, instrumental and chemist on each project to evaluate new product technology/ formulas. Once we identify a need, we assemble our team to work together to test the prototype with consumers right through to the end of the process.

What is your biggest challenge to solve today as a Research Specialist?

In Africa, people are too humble and shy away from telling how they feel especially in product testing, which affects the conclusiveness of results. The African consumers might also be conservative when considering new products, this can be a challenge when working on innovations.

What’s the project you’re most proud of?

It will have to be Darkn’Lovely Superior Moisture Plus. That’s the most challenging quantitative project. Darkn’Lovely Moisture Plus is still the best and top selling relaxer kit in the market. To innovate a product that is currently the best in market was very challenging. However, after two blind usage tests (BUT) we managed to find a breakthrough innovation, which was launched and now currently in the market.

What are some interesting insights in terms of African hair specificities?

Firstly, beauty is a self-confidence booster, and importance of being neat and naturally beautiful is key. Women and men are more conscious about their internal beauty in terms of what they consume and how they take care of themselves which therefore manifests into external beauty.

Africa is well known for the diversity of hairstyles from relaxed hair to braided hair, although we seeing a decline, relaxers/ straight look still makes up the majority of the market, and we also seeing a rise of the natural hair/ afro look. As women are looking to move away from chemicals and also, natural hair is seen as a self-expressive style. Here in Africa, instead of using shampoo and conditioner every day — washing your hair once a week is considered frequent — women refresh their hair with ‘hair food’ — a moisturising oil that can be used daily in conjunction with the hair food treatment.

Interesting beauty attitudes per region that are vital when targeting each of these regions:

West Africa: The expressive

East Africa: The conservative

Southern Africa: The authentic

Which lessons Europe can learn from SA in terms of consumer insights?

In Africa, culture plays a vital role in all aspects of their lives, and the cultural elements need to come across in each product innovation/ launch.

The African consumer is very complex, we work in a region where there is no “one size fits all” approach. Each of the African regions needs to be targeted in a unique manner, depending on their attitudes to beauty.

How do we cooperate with the African scientific ecosystem to bring the innovation to life?

We currently work in conjunction with hairdressers, specifically on innovations that are salon specific. They are our most critical consumers because they work with hair every single day. We have established a partnership with hairdressers to further evaluate and create innovative products.

We also work closely with dermatologists on specific body/skin care products. We rely on experts from each industry to help us evaluate and create relevant innovations.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring L’Oréal future talent based on your application process?

  1. Passion should be your key driver in everything that you do — it’s a powerful force in accomplishing anything you set your mind to. So, focus on what excites you.

2. Have an entrepreneurial drive, because at L’Oréal you can go beyond the sky. There is no perfect solution like solving, but the fulfilment comes from realising your potential. Here you are given an opportunity to unlock it when you act upon your ideas to see where they take you.