For decades, most mainstream US and UK beauty companies focused on fair-skinned consumers. Brands like Iman Cosmetics and Black Opal that served the market for women of color were relegated to ethnic sections or separate aisles at drugstores—and often came at a higher price point. A recent survey from UK chain Superdrug found that black and Asian women spend on average £137.52 more per year on beauty products due to lack of choice.
As diversity continues to become a pressing issue in the fashion world, many brands that have long enjoyed a diverse customer base are expanding their own offerings. Bobbi Brown, a brand popular among women of color, added five new deeper shades in April to its Skin Foundation Stick, while Make Up For Ever currently offers 40 shades of its Ultra HD Foundation. Sephora also added its first luxury line for women of color, Black Up, last fall.
Today, however, these brands find themselves competing with a rash of new offerings coming from the mainstream aisle. In April, actress Kerry Washington unveiled Neutrogena’s new shades for women of color, including Honey, Caramel and Cocoa. When Washington joined as brand ambassador in 2013, there were no shades for women of color. Covergirl launched a diversity-packed partnership with TV hit Empire in March, shortly after adding actress and advocate Zendaya to its lineup.
L’Oréal is also among brands seeking to double down on its diversity. In 2014, L’Oréal launched its Women of Color lab, which takes a scientific tack toward formulating new shades for people of color. A March video called “The Spectrum” tracks chemist Balanda Atis as she works to create shades that address darker skin tones.
The prevailing attitude among consumers who are anticipating more diverse offerings in the beauty aisle can be summed up by an ongoing campaign from natural hair product line Shea Moisture called #BreakTheWalls, which challenges beauty retailers to stop segregating products. “There is a section called ethnic, and there is an aisle called beauty,” says a shopper in the video. “Do I feel like I’m beautiful? Is ethnic not beautiful?”
It’s safe to say that brands are waking up to the power of the African American consumer. According to Nielsen, African-American consumers are expected to hit a buying power of $1.3 trillion by 2017, and consume nine times more ethnic beauty and grooming products than any other minority group. And that’s just one demographic that an expanded set of shades can reach.
But as diversity marketing becomes more powerful (and more profitable), discerning consumers are taking to online platforms to express opinions on this hot-button issue. In June, mineral foundation brand BareMinerals was criticizing for touting sixteen shades of its Complexion Rescue cream foundation, most of which appeared designed for light-skinned women.
Milk Makeup, an offshoot of creative agency Milk that became available at Sephora and Urban Outfitters in February, experienced similar pushback to its latest foundation launch. An Instagram post unveiling the line’s eight different shades was bombarded with similar comments: “2 dark colors aren’t versatile at all,” reads one. And: “So tired of the makeup industry catering to lighter skin.”
Maybelline also came under fire in February when it released an ad for its expanded line of ‘Dream Velvet’ shades starring black British model Jourdan Dunn. A UK beauty blogger quickly discovered that the foundation on Dunn (plus five of the brand’s other darker shades) were not available in the UK, where the ads ran.
In a social-media saturated world, brands are discovering that paying lip service to diversity alone is not enough to stand out to eagle-eyed consumers. “It’s not that these consumers were silent before, but companies didn’t have to listen,” Desiree Reid, vice president of Iman Cosmetics, told Refinery29. “You can no longer put a product out and leave out a segment of the market with such financial power.”