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Ethnic Skin Care: An Opportunity for Personal Connection

Elle Morris
  • Market research company Packaged Facts indicates the ethnic skin care market has grown 231% since 1990, and is reported to be worth $1.5 trillion globally.
  • Distinct differences between Caucasian and ethnic skin lead to the need for highly targeted skin care products for the ethnic consumer—an area in which the industry is currently lagging in product choices and understanding.
  • Ethnic consumers are replacing baby boomers as the critical growth demographic within the U.S. and U.K.

Women and men of certain ethnic descents need products from brand owners that address their unique needs. As this demographic continues to grow within the U.S., there is a pressing need for an array of products relevant to the needs of multicultural skin. However, this demographic trend has yet to fully resonate within the beauty market, both at mass and prestige.

Although ethnic skin care products exist, this growing consumer group continues to struggle to find skin care products that are optimal in addressing their particular needs. The opportunity for brands to connect with ethnic consumers is significant, a figure supported by a recent Smart Beauty study conducted by Essence magazine in which African-American women reported spending 80% more on cosmetics and nearly twice as much on skin care products than the general market.

According to The Nielsen Company, ethnic health and beauty products are among the categories predicted to grow most significantly, with ethnic consumers replacing baby boomers as the critical growth demographic within the U.S. and U.K. In fact, according to Packaged Facts, the ethnic skin care market in the U.S. has exploded during the previous two decades, growing 231% since 1990. In the U.K., the ethnic population is the fastest-growing segment of the population—with 12% of the total population, or 7.3 million people, being described as non-white. Yet, less than 1% of new beauty products address this group.

Ethnic Market Differences and Desires

So why, with all this data on growth and consumer need, does a relative absence of beauty choices, when compared to Caucasian-targeted products, continue to persist? It comes down to understanding the differences beyond what is used to typically define category norms: oily, normal or dry skin; younger skin versus aging skin; and sensitive versus normal skin. Women and men of color around the globe—whether they are described as Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, Asian or of African descent—experience distinctive skin-related issues, with the type and amount of pigmentation varying drastically between ethnic groups.

Among those differences are the melanocytes, or pigment cells, which are more sensitive to irritation and tend to react more aggressively to injury. The oil-producing glands in pigmented skin are also different, creating heightened levels of oiliness and dryness in pigmented skin. Common problems involve hyperpigmentation—in which patches of skin become darker after a cut, burn, or even insect bite or minor scrape. Acne, eczema, in-grown hairs and flesh moles also are common complaints associated with darker pigmented skin. Does this mean there is a direct correlation between the issues ethnic skin experienc

es and Caucasians typically featured in antiaging skin care ads? Absolutely. People of color benefit from high melanin counts, which provide natural protection from ultraviolet radiation and wrinkles associated with aging. Skin of women of color tends not to age the way Caucasian skin does—however, the propensity for irritation is magnified and requires greater sensitivity in product choice and treatment options.

Fundamental differences between dark and light skin have led to a void within the skin care market, and many brand owners either ignore or misunderstand the needs of ethnic skin. While Caucasian women seek products with antiaging, moisturizing and skin protection benefits, darker-skinned women seek products that address hyperpigmentation and facial oil while also preventing blemishes and severe dryness.

Products that address hyperpigmentation are plentiful in both mass and prestige—often with additional claims toward radiance, clarity and evenness of skin tone, creating a unified color of the skin and eliminating dark spots. In some cultures, this also is code for lightening.

Products such as Palmer’s Skin Success have targeted hyperpigmentation issues while also addressing dryness, allowing Palmer’s to dominate the market share at mass within the ethnic skin care category. Both Palmer’s and Johnson & Johnson’s AMBI have launched skin care products that contain hydroquinone, an ingredient found to be effective in lightening dark scars and spots on the skin. Although hydroquinone has been found to have mild to severe side effects and is highly regulated in countries outside the U.S., this ingredient continues to be found in products at mass. AMBI’s Fade Creams have experienced significant success in this category, positioning hydroquinone as a dermatologist-recommended ingredient that, when combined with vitamin E as a moisturizer, creates smooth, evenly toned skin.

Kitchen Logic and Ingredients

What’s the relevance of kitchen logic, or folk medicine, to this consumer? According to research by Packaged Facts, ethnic consumers—especially Latinos and African-Americans—are more concerned with natural and organic positioning than other ethnic groups, more often looking for ingredients they trust to be natural and effective. With that in mind, brands leveraging ingredients that have historically resonated with ethnic consumers—many associated with generations of home remedies—are often more successful. Ingredients such as cocoa butter, shea butter, olive oil, eggs and emu oil are trusted sources for moisturizing and protecting the skin.

There is a great deal of natural ingredient positioning in mass products, and natural ingredietns are well-represented in the prestige channels, as well. Prestige ethnic skin care brands such as Clear Essence, Nyraju and Rx for Brown Skin by Dr. Susan Taylor tend to offer a natural positioning with organic or natural ingredients that address similar issues of hyperpigmentation. These brands also leverage the appeal of a specialist, employing a physician as a spokesperson or using medicinal packaging to convey the brand’s positioning.

Brand Growth Tied to Ability to Relate to Ethnic Consumers

There are prestige brands that are dedicated exclusively to darker-skinned consumers. However, the offerings are fractional compared to their those targeted to Caucasian consumers. Prestige brands such IMAN Cosmetics, Sleek MakeUP, Fashion Fair and, most recently launching in the U.K., K By Beverley Knight have been able to achieve a loyal following of ethnic consumers while also experiencing success globally. And the success of these brands appears to be directly related to their ability to provide options to these consumers, by both accounting for the wide variety of skin tones and for the unique needs of skin with varying degrees of pigmentation.

As these brands gain more market share, other more well-known prestige brands have suffered, losing more than 20% of the market share in the past decade. However, notable global prestige brands have recently begun to embrace the needs of ethnic consumers. Estée Lauder expanded its portfolio to include more ethnic prestige brands, leveraging a combination of brand recognition with the individual attention of the beauty counter as a competitive edge. But are there other channels this consumer shops for her beauty needs? Traditionally, ethnic consumers have relied on niche brands and custom ingredients to fulfill their specific and often varied skin care needs, and these are brands that often have a limited presence at brick-and-mortar stores. Although the space devoted to ethnic skin care products in mass retail doors is increasing, ethnic consumers still exhibit preferences toward purchasing at beauty supply stores, barber shops and beauty salons that carry products recommended by advisors they trust. Not only has this preference made it difficult for new products in the market to gain traction, it also created a highly competitive prestige market with thousands of brands offering similar claims and competing for market share with just a few enjoying most of the success.

What role do in-home consultant brands play with this consumer? Ethnic consumers have targeted needs and tend to trust the advice of those who know them personally. Therefore, direct skin care sales from companies such as Avon and Mary Kay continue to gain in popularity with this segment, especially in Latin America and within both African-American and Hispanic populations in the U.S. Mary Kay distributed its first Spanish catalog more than 20 years ago, and now nearly 18% of U.S. Mary Kay beauty consultants are Hispanic, and 10% of all direct sellers in the U.S. are African-American, a number that continues to expand with shifts in population and the appeal of individualized attention from a trusted source.

Moving Ahead Into the Ethnic Market

Why is it so important for marketers to become intimately familiar with this consumer? According to a recent study published by Reportlinker, the ethnic-specific skin care category in the U.S. is expected to surpass $284 million by 2014, with cosmetic sales climbing beyond $1.5 billion. The opportunity within ethnic skin care lies in the ability of beauty brands to connect with their consumers. Market research indicates more education on skin care is needed at mass, and this is an opportunity for beauty brands to lead the way, opening the door to begin a relationship with ethnic consumers. By offering more product options and investing research in product innovation and market data, these consumers will feel more valued and more understood by brand owners.

Beauty brands that ignore the changing landscape of their consumer base of ethnic consumers will find themselves at a severe disadvantage as they seek relationships with this key market in the future. Genuine intimacy is the key to success in this category, and the investment needs to be in building consumer knowledge and brand offerings that meet unique needs.

Elle Morris is the vice president and general manager of LPK Beauty, overseeing its general business management and serving as chief customer officer. She provides strategic oversight on businesses in the categories of hair care, feminine care and beauty. Morris has worked with partners in North America, Latin America, Asia and Europe to develop an understanding of beauty’s power across cultures.

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First Experiences

Throughout her career, Elle Morris has helped build and revitalize ethnic beauty brands, including Pantene’s Relaxed and Natural and Fashion Fair lines. Here Morris, who was born Maria Elena de la Vera Cruz Morris and is of Cuban descent, shares an early experience with ethnic skin-specific products.

I remember seeing my first bottle of AMBI. It was sitting on my college roommate’s dresser. It seemed like a facial moisturizer—so I applied it liberally after washing my face while preparing for bed.

When my roommate, Alicia, walked in and saw what I was doing, she quickly intervened and explained the product was designed to lighten dark pigmentation. She then chuckled, because I was the palest person she knew, and she doubted the product would have any effect on my porcelain skin.

As I quickly washed the product off my face, I wondered why she would need a moisturizer that would lighten her skin. This started my long journey into understanding that women with a vast range of skin tones also have an expansive range of needs from their beauty products—there was no single type or solution. Each woman is as distinctly beautiful as her skin is distinctly different.

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