For years, women of color embraced Shea Moisture for hair products catering to naturally coily and curly hair. The family-owned business — inspired by a grandmother who sold shea butter across the Sierra Leone countryside nearly a century ago — has prided itself on empowering and meeting the needs of women of color.
But Shea Moisture also touted a message of inclusivity, broadening its reach to include women of all backgrounds and hair types. Marketing that expanded reach while appealing to its loyal customers, it turns out, can get a bit complicated.
A promotional video posted on its Facebook page provoked backlash Monday for focusing much of the ad on two white women, instead of its predominant customer base. The video centers on a message of “break free from hair hate” and opens with a black woman discussing the challenges of growing up with naturally coily hair. But then it turns to a blond woman with straight hair. She says there are many days when she stares in the mirror and doesn’t “know what to do” with her hair. Another white woman with barely wavy red hair complains about feeling pressured to dye her hair blond.
Scores of Shea Moisture’s consumers — predominantly women of color — felt insulted by the ad, which one writer called a “blatant erasure of African American women who made the brand what it is.” Some black women felt the ad, like the phrase “All Lives Matter,” discredited their community’s needs, which most mainstream products in the hair care industry do not meet.
“Yes, we know good hair is for everyone,” a BET writer said, “but that is why companies that cater specifically to Black women need to exist — because so many of the products out there do not.”
Shea Moisture, owned by Sundial Brands, issued a statement that said it would be pulling the ad immediately and that the video did not represent what it intended to communicate.
“Please know that our intention was not — and would never be — to disrespect our community,” the statement said.
“So, the feedback we are seeing here brings to light a very important point,” it went on. “While this campaign included several different videos showing different ethnicities and hair types to demonstrate the breadth and depth of each individual’s hair journey, we must absolutely ensure moving forward that our community is well-represented in each one so that the women who have led this movement never feel that their hair journey is minimized in any way.
“We are different — and we should know better,” it added.
Richelieu Dennis, chief executive of Sundial Brands, said in an interview with The Washington Post that the video aimed to spotlight the challenges all women face with defining their beauty but that the execution missed the mark. He said he hoped to ensure women of color that the company is not attempting to “abandon” them for a different type of consumer.
“Their sentiment — of wanting to make sure that the brand is no longer focused on them and is leaving them behind — is simply not correct and accurate,” Dennis said. “We continue to stand for women of color. We continue to service them. We are not changing anything. We’re overwhelmingly innovating for them.”
Still, the company’s apology did not stop many customers from tweeting that they would no longer be using Shea Moisture products. Some expressed parallels to times in which black women felt their culture was being appropriated by white women, such as when the Kardashian sisters posted pictures on social media wearing cornrows.
“The Shea Moisture fiasco should be proof that we aren’t exaggerating,” one Twitter user wrote. “We really can’t have anything to ourselves.”
Others made references to a recent Pepsi commercial that was criticized for appropriating serious political and social-justice movements to sell soda. Pepsi later apologized and announced it was pulling the ad.
Yet others criticized the backlash, claiming it was an overreaction to a company’s attempt to diversify its customer base. Some white women came forward to share that they, too, have used Shea Moisture products, even if their hair isn’t naturally curly.
As Kristal Brent Zook wrote in The Post in September, this is not the first time Shea’s push to broaden its reach has led to awkward hiccups.
In February 2015, the company posted several Twitter ads featuring white and Asian babies and children — a move that prompted black-oriented blogs such as MadameNoire to take them to task for a marketing shift they called “jarring.”
Last September, the company again faced backlash after announcing its new “strategic partnership” with Bain Capital Private Equity, a firm founded by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Sundial’s reassurances that it would remain “majority family-owned and operated” weren’t enough to escape accusations of “selling out” and abandoning black consumers.
At the time, Dennis explained that biracial people are the new “general” market.
“My mother is biracial. My grandfather was white, in a village in Sierra Leone in the 1940s,” he told Zook. “Just because you see someone physically doesn’t necessarily mean you know who they are. That’s not where the world is headed.”
Born in Liberia, Dennis came to the United States to attend business school Babson College. When he graduated in 1991, he was unable to return to Liberia because of civil war. He decided to partner with his college roommate, Nyema Tubman, to launch a company that would address skin and hair care issues traditionally ignored by mass market companies.
With the help of his mother and Tubman, Dennis began selling natural hair and skin preparations on the streets of Harlem, inspired by his grandmother, Sofi Tucker. Widowed at 19, Tucker began making handmade shea butter soaps and other products and selling them to missionaries and villagers as a way to support her family in her native Sierra Leone.
When the company started in 1992, there were very few companies focused on creating natural products for natural and textured hair needs, Dennis wrote in 2015. Since then, a growing number of brands have launched products. Department stores and pharmacies have begun carrying more brands specifically for such hair, at times stocking shelves beyond the “ethnic hair” aisle.
“More and more, women are embracing the natural state of their hair,” Dennis told The Post. “And that movement has been led by black women.”
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