When he owned a salon and was a stylist in the early and mid-’90s, Wil Shelton, founder of Wil Power Integrated Marketing (WPIM), noticed that there was some fertile brand ground to cultivate. The epiphany came from seeing all manner of product discovery around entertainment and that he was inadvertently helping companies—especially record labels and studios—promote their wares.
Shelton’s customers demonstrated “an insatiable appetite for entertainment. And I realized that when people left the shop, they wanted to buy the CD they just heard or see the movie I recommended,” he recalled.
Shelton put together a proposal to a couple of companies as a test, letting them know that he had a captive audience and that it addressed a blind spot: connecting brands to the Black consumer. Almost immediately, Shelton started receiving free CDs and advance movie screening passes. On a trip to Los Angeles, one New York-based record label marketer told Shelton that “he had to meet with me because this idea was so big.”
“That’s when I knew I had something right,” said Shelton.
Armed with a few wins under his belt, Shelton opened WPIM in 1996, where he is CEO. The agency became a hybrid of promotional and experiential well before the days of social media. Using his own salon to pilot ideas, Shelton started building relationships with independent salons across the country.
Fast-forward to today, and Shelton said WPIM has a base of over 100,000 Black-owned salons and barbershops with an audience of over 100 million, creating a powerful, authentic platform. And it’s one that may be hiding in plain sight for brands.
How a ‘Black Paper’ helps brands understand the audience
This week, WPIM released what it’s calling a “Black Paper,” outlining the significant opportunity brands have with this segment of the U.S. population, according to Nielsen, with $1.4 trillion in buying power.
The Beauty of African American Salon & Barbershop Marketing homes in on data, but points out crucial issues related to authenticity and representation. It’s also a fascinating and enlightening look into salon and barbershop history— including its role in Civil Rights activism—and how Shelton sees the platform evolving.
“Blacks have an outsized influence on the culture and have always redefined cultural norms, and I believe they will redefine the cultural new normal as well,” said Shelton, who has worked with major brands like AT&T and several record labels and entertainment studios.
Critically, these venues place a significant premium on trust and authenticity. Black barbershops and salons are community sanctuaries, with stylists acting as trusted confidants while providing services that help their customers build profound and personal identities through the creative expression of their chosen styles.
“[Salons and barbershops] are unifiers and equalizers for African Americans,” said Cheryl Grace, svp of consumer engagement at Nielsen in Chicago. “Regardless of socioeconomic status, when you’re in those salons, everyone is treated the same, and it’s where you can relax and be your unfiltered self. And the No. 1 way Black people start their prepurchase decision-making process is through word of mouth.”
Shelton added that salons are “safe spaces,” with consumers relying on their stylists for emotional support.
His research shows that this audience is tailor-made for companies looking to make inroads with the Black consumer. This demographic makes eight times more shopping trips than any other group, consumes 21% more media content, and African American millennials spend 12-and-a-half more hours per week watching video and TV streaming services than others.