Cultural Appropriation: How to Not Lose Your Loyal Audience

The case of Shea Moisture

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Jan 21 · 7 min read
Photo credit: Shots by PRIIINCESSS

When Shea Moisture decided to create a series of hair product videos with women of various races and hair textures, they weren’t prepared for the backlash they received. Founded in 1912 with homemade hair and skin preparation tips from the founder’s grandmother, Sofi Tucker, this was a company that African and African-American women could count on to sell products that directly catered to our hair types. Their products weren’t just the same mainstream hair products found in retail stores with a black woman slapped on the bottle cover.

Women, especially African-American women, are serious about the ethnic beauty market. According to Essence, the black haircare industry pulled in approximately $2.51 billion in 2018. Additionally, a Nielsen report confirmed that, in 2017, African-Americans accounted for $54 million of the $63 million spent in the ethnic beauty market. Grooming aids and skincare weren’t short-stopping in profits either, accounting for $127 million in grooming aids and $465 million in skincare.

So anytime a group is spending this much money on hair and beauty, they definitely want to be represented. This is one of the reasons it rubbed so many of their consumers the wrong way when Shea Moisture commercials started showing new faces.

Although the company announced a partnership with a minority, non-control investor, the family-owned business still proudly pointed out that they are, “making the decisions and focused more than ever on YOU.” But in 2017, they were apologizing for products that definitely didn’t look like the audience that largely invested in their success. The company sent a humble and wholehearted apology, confirming that they understood where their loyal base was coming from.

But in the world of capitalism, that doesn’t always happen — either because some companies just simply don’t get it or choose to turn a blind eye to why some marketing projects miss their mark. Shea Moisture cares. But turn on your television or open a magazine ad, and you’ll find a host of other marketing campaigns from companies that shrug their shoulders.

Fake-Relating to the Struggle

When marketing companies create ad campaigns, they’re usually equipped to decide who their target audiences are, what kinds of profits they’re looking for, a ballpark estimate of expenses, and what outlets they want to use to get their products sold. But the “feel” of the ad is still too often overlooked when it comes to ad campaigns that target certain features or demographics — especially with marketing companies that don’t have a diverse staff that can catch where the problems lie.

Of course, there are painfully oblivious ideas like Heineken’s “lighter is better” ad. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the ones that are more than just word snafus — they’re a bit more complicated for a casual observer. For example, Kylie Cosmetics can sell lip liners and cosmetics to make women’s lips look fuller. The problem is those lips she’s marketing are courtesy of lip injections that undoubtedly look like that of black women. How does one sell a beauty product when you’re unsatisfied with your own natural beauty?

Then comes Kim Kardashian with Skims shapewear. But Jenner’s sister already received backlash for cultural appropriation accusations related to its original name — Kimono — before figuring out that name should’ve never seen the light of day. Additionally, it’s still hard to ignore that the body she’s marketing metamorphosed into a shape that looked nothing like her original one — specifically her butt.

Sarah Marantz Lindenberg, the founder of NiteCap, talks about hair wraps and toilet paper under hair rollers as though this is something new — regardless of satin caps and silk wraps being a long-standing tradition within the African-American community. And the homepage greeting of waking up to “good hair day every day” doesn’t paint the product as any less delusional. Then there’s the problematic brown-skinned woman wearing white makeup all over her face as though she’s getting a facial — while wearing this oddly frumpy nightcap.

And so on and so on.

There is an unapologetic tone in marketing campaigns that is too often overlooked. The Kardashians, Jenners, and Lindenberg clearly aren’t hurting for cash, but even smaller companies with way less income play coy while appropriating. So marketing companies are left wondering, “If their marketing technique works, why can’t I do it too?”

The truth is you can. While there will always be companies who make loyalty their bottom line, other companies’ first language is the dollar bill. And as long as their marketing campaigns can turn a blind eye to eliminating authentic representation of their products, then the shoddy jobs will continue on.

Diversifying Your Product Without Cultural Appropriation

A for-profit company is not in business to be broke. And maybe their original product was geared to one group, but they’re not making enough funds to stay afloat with just that one. Maybe they see nothing wrong with expanding their audience, and then in comes a marketing team to broaden the consumer demographic.

To be frank, the Kardashians and Jenners are known for a laundry list of cultural appropriation stunts, and so their makeup line is just another pancake on their plates. No one expects anything less from them or companies and/or celebrities like them. But for organizations that don’t want to be known or affiliated with this kind of reputation, choosing their products and marketing ad campaigns properly are absolute necessities.

Here are a few tips to avoid the pitfalls of appropriating while expanding your business.

Do the models in your marketing ads look believable?

Comme des Garçons was inspired by the idea of an Egyptian prince for the 2020 Paris Fashion Week. In turn, they made their models wear ill-fitting cornrow wigs instead of just finding models who can naturally wear their hair in cornrows. If your model has to figure out how to change his own hair texture in order to achieve a particular hairstyle — or wear a wig that sits oddly on his forehead and looks painfully unrealistic — just choose someone who already has the hair type. If your model has to wear thicker clothing in order to appear “plus-size,” skip the fluff and find a plus-size model instead. If your model has to put darker foundation or toner on in order to appear “tan” or “bronze,” why skip over someone who already has these facial bases covered?

Yes, there is such a thing as “putting on your face” and “makeup pretty,” but if your models look nothing like the product you’re trying to sell to consumers who also don’t look like this, both groups are going to have a tough time achieving these results.

Do these marketing ads represent the target audience we want to sell to?

If the words in your marketing campaign talk about how you want to represent “every woman” or “every man,” make sure that the print and online ads look like “every woman” and “every man.” That includes a wide assortment of people of various heights, weight, skin complexion, hair texture, race, gender, etc.

What should your company do if you’re selling or marketing a product that is traditionally associated with another group?

Plus-size model Ashley Graham repeatedly points out black women who are her same actual size and build, but who have too often been overlooked for the kind of fashion campaigns she’s doing. It’s hard not to respect someone who is honest about their own privileges. Your company should do the same.

Make sure you don’t put out misleading ads that will allow people to believe you invented this look. If you already have a group that’s traditionally using this product or has this appearance, why not go to them directly as the focus group and/or the face of the product? Just because the marketing for this product is “new” doesn’t mean you have to choose “new” faces.

What should my marketing company do if we’re trying to expand past a certain group that traditionally uses a product?

If the goal is to sell honest products, then the company needs to be honest about a few things too. Why is the current audience not good enough? How will the current consumer audience feel if they’re left behind? Will the latter group stop purchasing this company’s products, leaving the company with profit loss from a loyal base? What reason do you have to leave them behind instead of just adding an additional product on top of the products you sell?

The easy way out is to say [insert demographic here] is an easier sell to [insert region/demographic here]. But has your company actually tried to do so? Or, is this a convenient way to get out of using the target audience?

Regardless of how consumers feel, businesses will still want to make money. But what makes certain companies stand out is how they treat their loyal base and what they do when they’re under fire. It never hurts to do what Shea Moisture did — listen to the feedback, learn from it, and avoid making the same (unintentional) mistake twice.

Photo credit: The Jopwell Collection

Are you interested in more diversity tips for marketing and sales? Check out this four-part series “Adiversity” by Shamontiel.

Would you like to receive Shamontiel’s Weekly Newsletter via MailChimp? Sign up today!

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; part-time dog walker and dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 5x officer; WERQ dance and yoga enthusiast;

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

More From Medium

More from Better Marketing

More from Better Marketing

More from Better Marketing

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade