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Eco Attributes Reinvent the Ethnic Hair Care Segment

Elle Morris

The global multicultural marketplace is an increasingly competitive environment for beauty brands, and a swirl of ethnic hair care products from both new and seasoned manufacturers have launched in recent years with a common theme: natural positioning. While the beauty market at large has seen a rush of products with organic claims, the ethnic hair care segment seems to have been particularly affected by this trend. Hair care brands in this segment are also now exercising a more multicultural approach, quietly moving away from ethnic-specific messaging in an attempt to appeal to a wide range of skin tones and hair textures that constitute the ethnic population.

A Fast-growing, Worldwide Segment

The ethnic beauty segment is one of the fastest-growing worldwide, a trend that can be attributed to growing populations abroad (particularly those in emerging markets), and subsequently, the increase in the purchasing power of multicultural consumers. Today, men and women of color account for approximately 80% of the world’s population, and that figure is only expected to increase in the coming decades as ethnic populations continue to rise in the U.S., U.K. and France. Additionally, in emerging markets such as India, China, the Middle East and Africa, beauty sales—and hair care, in particular—are exploding, largely driven by an ever-expanding and youthful middle class.

Regardless of demographic trends and market fluctuations, ethnic consumers have also been found to spend more of their income on beauty products than their Caucasian counterparts, with hair care products often accounting for more than half of those sales.

According to Diagonal Reports, black consumers spend up to seven times more on hair care in France, and in the U.S., African-American women account for 30% of all hair care product sales. Depending on the cultural context of beauty—traditions, routines, ideals and so on—beauty cultures can appear dramatically different, but the importance of hair maintenance and its relationship to beauty is a common trait among ethnic populations. This has helped keep the global ethnic hair care market relatively insulated during the recent economic recession. Across cultural groups, ethnic consumers see their hair as a form of personal expression and a key reflection of their personal identity. From Africa to Asia, ethnic hair has different needs than Caucasian hair, and ethnic consumers seek hair care formulations that address those needs. They want products that prevent hair loss, repair dry or damaged hair, facilitate styling and moisturize the scalp. In recent years, another significant trend has been pronounced dissatisfaction and greater education regarding the effect of chemicals on hair, helping to transform this market to one characterized by healthy hair and how to get it.

As the spending power of multicultural women continues to rise (some research shows more than $1 trillion in the U.S. alone), more products are being introduced with the multicultural consumer in mind, particularly within the hair care segment. Increasingly more conscious of chemicals found in hair care products, ethnic women are a driving force for the natural trend in the mainstream, spurring product innovation related to high-quality ingredients, eco-attributes and ethical positioning. Since 2009, organic and natural hair care product advancements have swept the ethnic hair care market as safer alternatives to harsh, chemical-based products that have traditionally been a staple in hairstyling. These product launches—including curl relaxers and curl enhancers, hair-follicle restoration and scalp treatments—all have similar benefit claims: Using eco-ingredients, they are able to restore and deliver healthy, shiny, manageable, strong hair.

The popularity of natural hair care products have propelled boutique brand owners and African-American entrepreneurs into the global spotlight and, according to Mintel, their organic positioning has helped many brands win market share from traditional formulations.

Carol’s Daughter, Mixed Chicks, Black Earth Products, Jane Carter Solution and NouriTress, for example, were all founded by entrepreneurial women dedicated to finding alternative beauty options, and they are now well-recognized brands within the specialty retail segment. With both eco- and multicultural positioning, these brands have benefited from their authentic understanding of the multicultural consumer. Naturalaxer—a new organic hair relaxer line from Green Wonders, an African-American-owned company founded by Trinidad native Angela de Joseph—has emerged as a leading prestige brand, with endorsements from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Well-recognized mass brands such as Dr. Miracle’s, which introduced its Follicle Healer collection in August 2010, commonly claim to restore damaged scalp follicles through nourishing ingredients, and similarly, Johnson Products, Inc. launched Ultra Care, a relaxer and styling line made from natural ingredients with the tagline “Discover the Beauty in You … Naturally!” Competition in this segment is high, with products such as Proline’s Dark and Lovely No-Lye Relaxer (from the brand owner behind one of the first lye relaxers), U.K.-based Colomer Group’s Crème of Nature with Argan Oil, SheaMoisture Organic Hair Care and L’Oréal’s SoftSheen-Carson brand, which launched Roots of Nature, a line of hair care products specifically designed to make styling easier for women who choose to “go natural.” According to Symphony IRI, Namaste Laboratories’ Organic Root Stimulator is a top performer for relaxers at mass, with sales increasing by more than 12% in the first quarter of 2010 for its organic hair relaxer product.

Ingredients Lead the Way

Ingredients continue to drive innovation, offering a point of differentiation at the shelf for natural and organic brand extensions, and ethnic consumers are more likely to identify with ingredients they traditionally trust to be safe and effective. In North America, Brazil and Europe, shea butter is a notable favorite at both mass and prestige, and recent product launches leverage the widespread recognition of shea butter’s moisturizing and healing properties through packaging, brand identity and advertising. Other common ingredients include aloe, honey, olive oil, coconut oil and avocado, as well as heritage remedies such as African herbs, naturally occurring minerals and even lava clay. In the prestige category, Estée Lauder’s Ojon, sold throughout North America and Europe, features “naturally derived ingredients from the world’s rain forests.” In Asia, new hair care formulations use traditional ingredients associated with health and wellness, such as ginseng extract, pearl protein, aloe, algae and white flower, which can be found in both Kao’s Asience Deep Nourishing line and the LaFang’s Active Amino Acid collection. Procter & Gamble has also extended the Rejoice product line with Eva, a new Asian hair care line that features traditional Chinese herbal ingredients.

Within many cultures, traditions and beauty rituals associated with hair care are passed down through generations. In the African-American community, a vast number of women straighten their hair, a practice that often begins in childhood. As comedian Chris Rock captures through interviews with his own children in the documentary Good Hair, at very young ages, black women exhibit “hair envy” and are often willing to go to extreme measures (i.e. chemical relaxers and weaves) to achieve straight hair. The chemicals used to straighten hair, often lye or alkaline creams, can permanently damage the follicle, and ethnic women commonly report thinning hair and baldness as early as their late teens and early 20s. These harmful side effects intensify the demand for organic or natural alternatives within the ethnic segment, including hair care products for children that are quickly becoming popular within the U.S. and Europe. Namaste Laboratories recently introduced Olive Oil Girls Built-in Protection Plus, an organic relaxer for children ages 10 and older with four-color instructions and a hair checklist, and boutique brands such as Carol’s Daughter and Curls also offer organic hair care product collections developed specifically for kids and babies.

Getting the Word Out

The popularity of organic and natural ethnic hair care products has translated to the retail environment too, with major mass retailers such as Target dedicating more shelf space to ethnic organic beauty products and going beyond traditional relaxers to offer more premium options traditionally sold only through specialty outlets, including Miss Jessie’s Curls and the Jane Carter Solution line. Organic ethnic hair care products are also making appearances on TV home-shopping networks like HSN and QVC.

Ethnic hair care has come a long way from lye relaxers, and the relevance of natural positioning is not expected to fade anytime in the near future. In fact, as more brands leverage eco-attributes and natural positioning, the multicultural, or “multitextural,” consumer is likely to get more attention at mass, with more marketing spending dedicated to address the specific hair care needs of blended consumers.

Further, the term “ethnic” will become more antiquated during the next decade, as brands become more global and consumers outside the U.S. resonate less with the term. The saturation of this segment will continue, and in an effort to relate more authentically to their consumers, ethnic hair care brands are also more likely to incorporate greater cultural relevance in communicating with their consumers across marketing channels such as social media, direct mail and TV. Additionally, there will likely be further leveraging of word-of-mouth as a key influencer via product sampling and health-related education.

As more products are introduced into the ethnic hair care segment with similar claims, ethnic consumers can look forward to greater innovation related to the performance of organic lines with less concern for traditional ingredients. As the unique relationship between ethnic consumers and their hair continues, they will also continue to purchase many different products in an effort to find one that is effective. However, brands that do succeed in connecting with this consumer and empower her to make more informed choices are likely to benefit for many years to come.

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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