In My Opinion: Market Smart to Special Needs

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Would it surprise you to learn that 20% of our adult population reports having a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau? Let’s bring that figure into focus: imagine 54 million adults with various disabilities—28 million of them women—spending, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly $200 billion every year on discretionary items such as health and beauty products. Would it further surprise you to know that this figure represents two times the spending power of teens, a segment heavily marketed to by the beauty industry? If those figures are not staggering enough, add to them the millions of teenage girls out there who also have disabilities and whose parents, who typically pay for these items, have the same income and assets as the general population.

I should know. I have a teenager and a younger daughter who have special needs.

Every year millions of dollars are spent on cosmetics, physical fitness, clothing and hairstylists, in an attempt to look like the “ideal women” we see portrayed in the media. Though perception varies from person to person, most of us find that there is a gap between what we perceive as ideal and what we know is real, yet we continue to strive for the former. Women and teens with disabilities are affected by this discrepancy even more and strive that much harder to reach what is considered ideal.

Improving Self Esteem
Every woman I know uses cosmetics to camouflage imperfections, to draw attention away from problem areas in one form or another, but psychological studies have shown that makeup in particular can act as more than just cosmetic; its effects appear to go way beyond face value. It can improve self confidence and self esteem, and enhance the emotional well-being of its wearers. It can also affect the attitudes of others in terms of how they view the person wearing the makeup. Certainly everyone can benefit in some way from this “miracle,” but those who stand to benefit the most are the teens and women who have disabilities, especially those with any type of facial deformity.

Yet, when these women and teens approach retail cosmetic counters they are often spoken to with disregard or serviced improperly, or worse yet, ignored. My own daughter has had these experiences, coming home in tears. Her facial deformities cause many folks working behind the counter to avoid her requests to sample products or have a makeover; worse, she is often spoken to as though she is a child or someone with a cognitive impairment. Unfortunately, for most women with disabilities, this appears to be the rule rather than the exception. The beauty industry has not yet embraced this large, loyal segment of the population and said, “We want your business,” and more importantly, “We want your business not in spite of but because of your special needs.”

This community is not looking for research and development of new products. They are looking for an understanding that although they have some unique needs, which do need to be met, they are women first and foremost and are entitled to feel beautiful and to be treated like everyone else. They want to celebrate their differences, not hide behind them. The beauty industry has an incredible opportunity to help them accomplish this with confidence through sensitivity and service at point of sale and through appropriate marketing. These women want to know that when L’Oréal says, “Because I’m worth it,” and Estée Lauder says, “Every woman can be beautiful,” that those messages include women with disabilities.

Avon recently launched its Instant Manicure Dry Enamel Strips. This happens to be a fabulous product for some segments of the special needs population that have difficulty polishing their nails the traditional way, yet the company has not proactively marketed it to the women who may need it the most.

Busting Myths
So why, if women and teens are such a large segment of the population with money to spend and a desire to be marketed to, are they largely ignored by beauty marketers? The three reasons or myths I most often hear are:
1.    People are not comfortable seeing folks with disabilities in the media.
2.    The special needs community is too small or niche.
3.    The special needs community lacks disposable income.

I believe I have shown these items to be more fiction than fact. One last reason often cited by a company is the fear that they will “do it wrong.” This last item is a very real concern and should be taken seriously, yet the solution is quite simple. As with any new business venture or entrance into a new market segment, consulting with the experts from the very beginning can make all the difference and assure success.

Keep in mind that although people with disabilities are now considered the largest minority market in the country, for corporate America they also represent a cause. As we have all heard from the results of the Cone Corporate Citizenship studies, when a firm’s marketing is tied to a cause, most Americans say that they have a more positive image of the company, are more likely to switch from one brand to another similar in price and quality, and it is important in where they shop.

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