Beauty consumers have demonstrated that their buying habits can be a form of activism. Now, brands want to be activists, too.
In the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May, beauty consumers took to social media to demand that the brands they patron take a stance against racism and police brutality. Some brands were more proactive than others in issuing statements of solidarity, pledging donations to relevant causes and forming diversity and inclusion advisory boards or other initiatives. Some, mustering the least amount of effort, posted simple black squares.
Shea Moisture was one of the first brands to take meaningful action by investing $100,000 to create a social justice coalition to support activists working to put an end to the continuation of racial injustices. Glow Recipe launched a Community Mentoring Initiative meant to offer guidance to Black-owned beauty and wellness businesses that employ, at most, four people. Peach and Lily also announced a yearlong mentorship program geared toward Black aestheticians and aesthetics students.
The online conversation and in-person global protests eventually proliferated to the point that even beauty conglomerates known to stay silent on matters of race buckled under consumer pressure. As beauty’s power players struggled to act “authentically” on a problem they have historically perpetuated and ignored, one thing became clear: Brands had no option but to speak with moral clarity on what has become a global human rights movement.
“I’ve worked on many brands within the beauty industry throughout the course of my career, but this time feels very different,” said Cara Sabin, chief executive officer of Sundial Brands. “While it’s disproportionately impacting communities of color, COVID-19 has also, in some ways, been an equalizer. It has exposed the fragility of human life.”
Brands, Sabin continued, feel compelled to speak out about Black Lives Matter now because of a collective realization that “this is a human rights issue.”
“It’s not a subjective issue, it’s something that is very clear,” Sabin said. “The combination of circumstances we’ve found ourselves in this year is why we’re seeing more brands taking a more activist position.”
The past few years have given rise to a number of brands embodying the idea that purpose is as important — if not more — than profit. One such brand, Thrive Causemetics, has given away more than $100 million in product since it first launched.
In 2020, consumers are asking that purpose take center stage. Their demands, which are clearer and more powerful than ever before, are fueling the current brand-as-activist phenomenon.
Wendy Liebmann, WSL Strategic Retail’s ceo, said this year’s renewed Black Lives Matter movement is “more enduring and global” than it was in 2013, when organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi created it.
“It’s not only the Black population, who continue to stand up for their rights, but the coming together of the white population [and] other people of color to support the Black community,” Liebmann said. “There’s a recognition that this is a much broader outpouring and that companies at large are going to be called upon to identify not only that they are supportive but what they are doing to be supportive — and by that I mean, with their own people, within their own organizations, as well as their external messaging and the external communities they reach out to.”
One of the leading voices driving radical transparency with regards to race and equality in the beauty industry is Sharon Chuter. Chuter, the founder and ceo of Uoma Beauty, is the creator of grassroots campaign Pull Up for Change. Chuter launched the campaign on social media on June 3, the week after Floyd’s death. The account now has more than 130,000 Instagram followers.
Chuter’s campaign began as a channel through which to hold brands accountable for the actions behind their words of solidarity. It asks companies in the beauty industry and beyond to reveal the percentage of Black people they employ and specify the number of Black employees in leadership roles. In the nearly three months since it first launched, Pull Up for Change has prompted responses from H&M, Snapchat, The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., Shiseido, Kylie Cosmetics, Sephora and more.
Chuter is now working with companies directly and has taken on advisory roles at companies she would otherwise consider competitors.
“I’m proud of the impact. This industry was set on fire,” Chuter told Beauty Inc. “A lot of the work is now happening in real life in terms of stepping into the detail of these conversations and helping companies, helping with initiatives.…The companies that took it better and saw it as an opportunity were usually companies that were female-led or led by a person of color. That’s very interesting.”
Chuter and her campaign have set an example for brand activism in 2020. But for Chuter, activism is not new.
More than a decade before launching Uoma Beauty, the Nigerian-born entrepreneur had dreams of becoming a performer. She stumbled into her first role in the beauty industry as a teenager, when she acted as a distributor for Revlon and expanded its business to her home country.
“One of the things that forces you to do is get very creative,” Chuter said. “In Nigeria, people used international brands, but it was literally people going overseas, buying and stuffing it into their suitcases, bringing it back and then selling it. I decided that I wanted to reach out to beauty brands and see who wanted to come to the country. Long story short, somehow, I got Revlon.”
Chuter went on to hold corporate positions at L’Oréal and LVMH, but grew frustrated with the lack of diversity that is typical of big corporations.
“I had lost myself personally and assimilated to get to where I had gotten so much that I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Chuter said. “Everything around me made me angry — the way businesses were run, the way people were being treated, the lack of diversity, which has always been a big issue [to me].”
She launched Uoma Beauty in 2019 as an inclusive cosmetics company and “Afropolitan” beauty brand. As a Black woman, she had long felt like a misfit in beauty’s historically white — and male — industry, so she resolved to make Uoma a home for misfits of all kinds.
“My brand is activism,” Chuter said. “The beauty industry has excluded people for many reasons and only accepted a few. The purpose of my brand and Uoma Beauty will always be to create a home for the misfits. If it comes at the cost of some dollars, I will always trade the dollars and take my misfits and my community and create a home where they can feel like themselves and feel inspired to be authentic.”
Chuter raised about $3.5 million in investment prior to Uoma’s launch and has since raised about $2 million more. Weeks before the launch, she was still a one-person team. She held a launch event in Los Angeles right before Uoma’s web site went live. The brand, she said, “went viral overnight.”
“I had 400 followers on Instagram when I launched my brand,” Chuter, who now counts more than 24,000 Instagram followers said
. “I had no influence to piggyback off of. There was nothing in terms of consumers I had organically, which was scary. But the consumers just got it instantly.”
Uoma launched direct-to-consumer, in-stores and online at Selfridges and in 200 Ulta Beauty doors, as well as on Ulta’s web site. Retail was Uoma’s main sales driver, but that changed drastically when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Upon launch, Uoma’s Shade Finder tool broke from overwhelming use — an unforeseen circumstance that was particularly unfortunate, as foundation is Uoma’s hero product. Simultaneously, Ulta’s store locator tool was down, causing would-be Uoma customers confusion about where they could find the brand.
“The number-one rule of retail is to make it easy for people, and it could not have been harder for them when we launched,” Chuter said.
Months before COVID-19, she prioritized the optimization of Uoma’s e-commerce platform and shrunk the global team from 25 people to 12. In May, e-commerce accounted for 77 percent of Uoma’s business, and in June, that number increased to 82 percent. The company is now on track to grow in 2020 despite the pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
Part of Chuter’s mission with Uoma is to normalize buying from Black-owned businesses. When the brand received complaints for not featuring enough white women, which seemed to deter that demographic from purchasing Uoma products, Chuter told her team to “double down” on the brand’s DNA.
“We said, ‘Somebody has to normalize this so that white women understand it’s OK to buy from a Black-owned business,’” Chuter said. “It’s OK to have a campaign that is not all about [white women] and a token person of color. The majority of the world are people of color.
“In Selfridge’s, it was like white women saw a ghost,” Chuter continued. “They would run past the counter. They didn’t even make eye contact — and you don’t stop them because they’re uncomfortable.”
Uoma has since recruited “more white women [customers] than any other demographic,” Chuter said. She attributes that both to Uoma staying true to its brand ethos and the more recent movement by consumers of all races to buy from Black-owned brands in an effort to foster economic equality.
“What I enjoy about the way our business is shaping up is teaching consumers and businesses that you can be moral and commercial,” Chuter said. “Every decision I’ve made and continue to make is always doing what’s right and not what’s commercial. But somehow, it always circles around and is commercial — every single time.
“Even when I did Pull Up for Change, I thought my business would be dead because you do not challenge the industry that feeds you,” she continued. “I would rather go out of business doing what I believe is right than go out of business after I assimilated.”
Since its launch, Pull Up for Change has been amplified online by media outlets, companies and celebrities such as Trevor Noah, who featured the campaign on “The Daily Show.” Influencer Jackie Aina also shared an Instagram video in which she expressed support for the campaign, challenged brands with which she has worked to release their employee statistics and encouraged her followers not to purchase from brands for 72 hours until they responded to the campaign.
“I didn’t realize the magnitude of how this would literally create a domino effect on the industry,” Aina said of the Pull Up for Change campaign. “It confronted a lot of things that are often brushed under the rug and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. I admire [Chuter] for standing her ground and coming with facts and numbers and receipts and solutions. It was truly an honor to support her through that.”
In July, Aina announced via Twitter that she would no longer work as an affiliate with Morphe.
“I refuse to align myself with a company that continues to retail antiblack [sic] racist beauty brands,” she wrote on Twitter, encouraging other influencers to follow her lead. The following week, Morphe announced that it had severed ties with Jeffree Star, the cosmetics entrepreneur who has been accused of making racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic comments.
Aina’s stance is emblematic of a greater movement: Consumers and influencers are consciously aligning themselves with brands that share their values. Pamela Zapata, founder and ceo of consulting agency Society Eighteen, said the influencers she works with scrutinize the values of their brand partners to ensure they match with their own.
“When the movement started, we were looking at all of our brand partners across the board and making sure they had a stance, an opinion, that they were making a statement, donating to causes,” Zapata said. “We needed them to be doing something. And if they hadn’t been doing the right thing, making sure they were talking about what they were going to do to try to do the right thing and what changes were going to take place and how. All of my clients are women of color, so this is something that affects all of us.”
When Brother Vellies founder Aurora James launched the 15 Percent Pledge, she tagged a handful of retailers she felt had “the most significant economic influence in the United States,” she said in a statement. One of those retailers, Sephora, ended up taking the pledge, thus committing to dedicate 15 percent of shelf space to Black-owned beauty brands.
“I truly believe that by reallocating their purchasing power, major retailers can help close the financial equality gap,” James said. “Black people spend billions of dollars in this country every year, yet represent an insignificant fraction of what is on the shelves. When these huge corporations rethink their business strategy and their business relationships, they can better represent the Black community on their shelves while investing in the future of the Black community.”
How brand activism will continue to evolve depends inevitably on who will hold brands accountable.
“I do think this is driven by social media,” Sabin said. “I think younger consumers don’t have a tolerance for brands to be agnostic — because brands are composed of people and employees, and we market to consumers who are people.”
Consumer demand for brand transparency will “expose brands that are participating in that kind of dialogue to be performative,” Sabin continued. In other words, beauty consumers are officially past the point of accepting a one-off statement at face value. Their activism goes deeper and, therefore, so must that of brands.
Companies’ commitments to diversify marketing campaigns without taking a hard look at their employee bases are no longer adequate. And revealing one’s employee makeup is essentially worthless without action. Change, more often than not, starts at the top.
“One of the big issues we have with the diversity challenge is that companies feel like issues of system racism only exist on [the] associate-level,” Chuter said. “The leadership team distances themselves from it, [saying things] like, ‘The company has to work on diversity, the company has to work on systemic racism, unconscious bias.’”
If real change is to occur, Chuter continued, commitment at the highest level is non-negotiable.
“This is a problem that money in itself cannot fix without real leadership,” she said. “If you cannot check your own unconscious bias, your own ideas of race and racism, how can you expect that to slow down through your organization?”
Taking a critical look at a company’s errors and mapping a path forward can be overwhelming. But, Sabin said, there is hope.
“In the almost 20 years that I’ve been in beauty, and the many companies and brands I’ve been a part of leading, I’m inspired,” Sabin said. “While it may be uncomfortable for some to be engaging in these kinds of conversations, my hope is that it portends a positive future of real change.”