How Brands Looking for New Audiences Can Avoid Shea Moisture’s Mistake of Alienating Core Fans

Ignore loyal customers at your own peril

Longtime fans accused the brand of abandoning them in an attempt to boost sales.
Shea Moisture

Shea Moisture had, by its own account, “really f-ed this one up.”

On Monday, social media exploded as fans of the hair-care brand, which has long catered to African-American women, expressed a shared sense of outrage. The cause of the discontent was a new ad from the company that featured two white women and one woman of color.

The problem was both simple and deceptively complex: As the brand looked to expand its consumer base, its core audience felt “erased” from the ad, which was the first in a new campaign by agency of record VaynerMedia.

Here’s a copy of the ad, captured by an Instagram user:

Part 1: #Naturalhair product #SheaMoisture accused of white-washing in new commercial.

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“[Shea] started out catering exclusively to women of color, especially with products that work for kinkier, curlier hair types,” said Marie Denee, an influencer and marketing veteran who blogs as The Curvy Fashionista and identifies as a regular user of Shea Moisture products.

“There’s a perception that now that they’re getting investors, they’re leaving us,” Denee added. “We understand that they’re trying to reach other people. However, it could have been done with a little more sensitivity. The original run of the first commercial was very exclusionary.”

Some context: Shea’s origin story focuses heavily on Sierra Leone-born entrepreneur Sophie Tucker. In 2015, owner Richelieu Dennis sold an unspecified portion of its umbrella business, Sundial, to investors at Bain Capital. The brand addressed customers’ concerns about the acquisition in a lengthy Facebook post, noting that it was still an independent, family-owned and -operated business.

In an effort to increase its market share, the brand hired Droga5 as its creative agency of record. The key product of that pairing was the #BreakTheWalls campaign, which debuted just about a year ago.

While that spot directly addressed the challenges of marketing Shea products to a broader range of consumers and moving them to a new aisle in retail stores, it’s also very different from the ad that sparked so much controversy.

Time to say we’re sorry

“They didn’t have anyone with the kinkier style [in the new ad],” Denee told Adweek, noting that this omission was particularly striking given the campaign’s focus. “When you talk about hair hate, as a woman of color, you’re already predisposed to having your hair straightened. … I’ve been told by managers that my hair needs to be more professional, meaning I don’t wear it in its natural state.”

Additional ads in the series did focus more specifically on black women, but the damage was already done, and the brand issued an apology via social media.

Wow, okay – so guys, listen, we really f-ed this one up. Please know that our intention was not – and would never be – to disrespect our community, and as such, we are pulling this piece immediately because it does not represent what we intended to communicate. You guys know that we have always stood for inclusion in beauty and have always fought for our community and given them credit for not just building our business but for shifting the beauty landscape. So, the feedback we are seeing here brings to light a very important point. While this campaign included several different videos showing different ethnicities and hair types to demonstrate the breadth and depth of each individual’s hair journey, we must absolutely ensure moving forward that our community is well-represented in each one so that the women who have led this movement never feel that their hair journey is minimized in any way. We are keenly aware of the journey that WOC face – and our work will continue to serve as the inspiration for work like the Perception Institute’s Good Hair Study/Implicit Association Test that suggests that a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their textured or natural hair. So, you’re right. We are different – and we should know better. Thank you all, as always, for the honest and candid feedback. We hear you. We’re listening. We appreciate you. We count on you. And we’re always here for you. Thank you, #SheaFam, for being there for us, even when we make mistakes. Here’s to growing and building together…

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Since the story first blew up on Monday, Shea has responded to criticism by linking back to the statement above, apologizing for what it has called “miscommunications” and clarifying that it has not changed the formula or ingredients in its products.

“As we’re seeing from the reactions, Shea truly angered their base,” said Christine Villanueva, head of strategy at Walton Isaacson. “But more importantly, they were tapping into something that has deep roots in our culture, and they missed an opportunity to make a statement that this country is a cultural quilt. So in terms of trying to broaden their base, a more sensitive portrayal of many cultures would have served them better.”

‘Strikingly tone-deaf’

Denee said the apology indicated that the company didn’t truly understand the problem. “What people are upset about is the feeling of being left, of no longer being cared for,” she said, adding that she would have preferred all the ads to feature women of different races rather than the campaign beginning with a spot clearly aimed at those with more “traditional” hair.

Such an oversight was notable given that less than three weeks ago, Shea Moisture published a long Facebook post in response to a Racked article, “The Whitewashing of Natural Hair Care Lines.” Shea and Carol’s Daughter called the report’s claims “misleading” and stated that no one would be “erased” as the company attempted to expand beyond its historic consumer base. “They stepped right into the same thing they were talking about,” said Denee.

Kristy Sammis, co-founder and chief innovation officer at influencer-focused agency Clever, which has worked with Denee in the past, agreed that Shea (and specialty brands in general) should more carefully listen to loyalists before making such significant changes in their marketing strategies.

“They apologized, but it felt like they stopped listening to the core customers, who were very vocal on Twitter,” Sammis said. “The bigger issue is that nobody was saying they had any problem with Shea trying to expand their customer base or appeal to folks they hadn’t before. But doing so at the expense of their core audience … it was strikingly tone-deaf.”

Resetting the relationship

Denee and Sammis also agreed that a single apology won’t cut it. Denee said she has been paying more attention to ads from smaller businesses that cater to her more specifically.

“I think there should have been more polls or focus group testing,” she said, adding that “the climate was very unfavorable” for such a reinvention due to the earlier Carol’s Daughter controversy. As an example of a recent campaign that appealed more directly to women of color, she referred to Grey New York’s recent Pantene ad, “Celebrating Strong, Beautiful African American Hair.”

Sammis argued that while Shea did a better job of apologizing for its recent debacle than Pepsi or United Airlines, the brand statement still “put the onus on” its audience. “Customers are savvier than we used to be,” she said. “If you want to appeal to white women, just say that. I don’t want to speak for anybody, but there was a tremendous sense of disappointment [over the] gap between the people selling the product and those buying it.”

A spokesperson for VaynerMedia did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.