The Ethnic Hair Care Market

November 7, 2005

Last year's sales may have signaled an end to a multi-year slump, and marketers are expecting even bigger results in 1998, as "hair heroes" inspire black consumers to try colorful new styles.

The Ethnic Hair Care Market

Last year's sales may have signaled an end to a multi-year slump, and marketers are expecting even bigger results in 1998, as "hair heroes" inspire black consumers to try colorful new styles.  

M ost marketers and industry watchers agree that the ethnic hair care category is experiencing a renaissance after slumping throughout the 1990s. Last year saw a resurgence in the category, and marketers expect 1998 to be a breakout year for the $1.6 billion category. "We're looking at lots of expansion in the category this year," predicted Don Baldock, advertising coordinator for Memphis-based J. Strickland & Co. "Products that were flat for years are booming now. Even Afro-Sheen is making a comeback."

For Chicago-based Soft Sheen Products, past losses and recent gains are tied to distribution. Said president Terri Gardner, "Our sales outlets have shifted from drug stores to mass merchandisers partly as a result of the consolidation trend in drug store chains." These changes in distribution hit Soft Sheen hard for several quarters, but the company adjusted its warehousing and inventory approach. Sales were expected to rise nearly 5% in 1997 and the company projects even stronger growth for 1998.

Soft Sheen's most recent addition to the marketplace is the Alternatives line of relaxers designed for younger consumers. Profiled in the January issue of happi, Alternatives has been a hit for Soft Sheen. "We feel conditioning's very important for ethnic hair care products, so Alternatives uses a state of the art moisture retention complex (MRC) to protect hair," said Ms. Gardner. The MRC contains botanicals and proteins, which Ms. Gardner describes as a winning combination. "For Alternatives, we were looking for ingredients with great therapeutic value, in addition to their functional properties," she said.

Other marketers agree that certain ingredients have a powerful appeal to consumers. Mr. Baldock commented that black consumers have become much more label-conscious than ever before and have started to seek out products with natural ingredients. Gia Clinkscales, marketing director of A-P Products, New Rochelle, NY, said that ingredients with history and name recognition, like castor oil and African shea butter, go a long way in the ethnic marketplace. "That's not to say that black consumers will sacrifice performance just for the sake of a traditional ingredient," Ms. Clinkscales clarified, "but they certainly have a degree of comfort with ingredients they already know." She also said that herb-based products have sold well lately.

Styles Dictate Sales
A critical factor in the performance of the ethnic hair care category has always been the styles of the moment. "Consumers in our marketplace are hugely influenced by celebrity hair styles," said Ms. Clinkscales. These "hair heroes," typically singers with music videos in heavy rotation on MTV and BET, have a powerful impact on the fashions and styles of black consumers. Recent videos from Brandy, Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson have inspired a rainbow of hair color this year. Black women are dyeing their hair red, blonde, brown and other unexpected hues.

Color no longer serves only its traditional function of covering gray hair, but has now become a fashion accessory for black women. Industry watchers and fashion mavens have noted that hair mascara has crossed over from the general market into the black marketplace. "Dior's Flash and other hair mascaras are huge sellers among young black women," said Ms. Clinkscales. "They let black women play with colors and emulate their favorite performers."

It appears that "high hair," intricate, time-intensive styles, have fallen out of fashion this year. Instead, natural styles, with twists, braids and dredlocks have been popularized by Lauryn of the FuGees and Erykah Badu. Similarly, R&B singer Aaliyah's long, straight hair style might have a direct correlation on increases in relaxer sales, particularly among younger consumers.

Home of the Braids
One of the biggest trends in ethnic hair care has been the rise of hair extensions. In recent years, these weave-in hair braids have become a fashion necessity in the African-American marketplace. "Early on, hair extensions were a touchy subject because synthetics were just so obvious," said Ms. Clinkscales. "Nowadays, synthetic weaves are very convincing. It's no longer taboo to have long braids one week and your own hair the next."

The hair-weave boom has led African Pride to develop a new line of products formulated to deal specifically with weaves. The company will soon release African Pride Wonder Weave conditioning sheen spray and Wonder Weave moisturizing styling gel. The spray is a non-oily, alcohol-free formula that conditions and moisturizes both natural and synthetic hair for a natural shine, and the gel is a maximum-hold formula that offers shine and long-lasting control without dryness or flakiness, according to African Pride. The spray retails for $3.49-$4.19 for a 7.5-oz. fine mist pump; the gel costs the same for a 8.5-oz. pump. Ms. Clinkscales said that the Wonder Weave products are the first nationally distributed weave care product.

J. Strickland recently entered the weave care market from another direction. Mr. Baldock explained that, with the use of these weaves, the hair and scalp must receive extra treatment. "Scalp maintenance is very important when you start using weaves," he commented. The company's new African Gold line of styling products include several hair and scalp conditioners, including braid sheen spray conditioner and hair and scalp spray conditioner, both available in 12-oz. pumps. "Along with our gel and oil hair and scalp treatments, we've tried to make African Gold as good for the skin as it is for the hair."

Soft Sheen's Alternatives includes moisture retention complex to protect hair. J. Strickland uses herbs and oils for its African Gold scalp conditioners. African Pride has just introduced Wonder 8 Oil Hair and Body Mist Stimulate and All Ways Natural aromatherapy essential oils for the hair and body. What's going on with all this moisturization?

"Just like with ashy skin, black people show off dry hair worse than white people do," said Ms. Clink- scales. "When a black woman's hair is dry, it's a very visible problem." Thus, marketers have worked to pack their hair care products with conditioning agents.

"With all the relaxers women use, along with the assorted colorants, processes, dresses and activators, the black consumer's hair needs special treatment," said Ms. Gardner, who commented that some consumers aren't aware of how much these products can dry out their hair without relief. "Consumers aren't professional hair stylists, and we can't treat them like they are. By including extra conditioning, we can compensate for consumers' lack of expertise."

With the distribution shift toward mass merchandisers, some marketers find it difficult to put educational material on display with their products. "Off-the shelf material is very necessary in the ethnic hair care market, but it's tough to get display space in some outlets," said Ms. Gardner. To supplement its educational efforts, Soft Sheen offers a toll-free consumer hotline. Operators help consumers get brochures on hair care and can also find them the closest retail outlet carrying Soft Sheen products. "Outside of that," Ms. Gardner lamented, "it's a lot of word-of-mouth, salon tips and community hair heroes."

Spreading Knowledge
J. Strickland tries to bridge the gap by providing retailers with a training program called Take 25. Said Mr. Baldock, "You might not be able to get your message out to every consumer, but it's critical that your retailers know what it is your product offers." However, Mr. Baldock admitted that this approach had its share of pitfalls. In southern markets, for example, J. Strickland's products are mainly offered in mass outlets such as Wal-Mart, which are strong on discounts, but weak on customer service. "To compensate for that, we try to sponsor as many in-store promotions as we can down south," said Mr. Baldock. Also, the company participates in the "Sisters Only" consumer expo in Atlanta, which is attended by 15,000 women annually. J. Strickland also sells products through Wal-Mart's web site (wal-mart.com), but doesn't engage in any other internet activity. "We're planning to get involved down the line," said Mr. Baldock, "but presently the penetration of the internet into the black community isn't deep enough to justify it." This is a common refrain among marketers, who thus far have only a minor presence on the web. While some small marketers have found success selling products through the web, the category's larger companies have held back. Presently, Soft Sheen is creating a web site only for its professional brands. It, too, plans on a consumer site when enough black consumers are on the web.

African Pride created its own site (african-pride.com), which yielded plenty of hits, according to Ms. Clinkscales. "The problem was, people surfing the net want information to be updated constantly," she explained. "We don't introduce products fast enough to warrant constant updates, so creating new and interesting content can be tough." African Pride hasn't surrendered the fight on the internet, however. Ms. Clinkscales revealed that the company may create a hot-link with the online version of well-known hip-hop magazine Vibe (vibe.com). "By connecting to Vibe's fashion section, at least we can harness the linking power of the web and put our name and our products on the screens of interested consumers," said Ms. Clinkscales.

Men: Less Color, Lots of Style
One underrated growth segment for the ethnic hair care category has been the men's market. Throughout American culture, men have become increasingly conscious of their appearance, and the ethnic market is no different. "The importance of men's sales has been underappreciated for a long time in this category," said Ms. Clinkscales. "Men are more and more involved in buying their own hair care products." Typically, men are introduced to products by the women in their lives, be they mothers, wives or girlfriends. But once they hit upon a product they like, men are intensely brand loyal.

Pomades in particular have benefitted the surging men's market. Ms. Gardener reported that Soft Sheen's pomade for men, Sporting Waves, has grown 10-15% in recent years. Other marketers have also seen a rise in men's pomade sales. Said Ms. Clinkscales, "The pomade market has stayed stable in recent years because of the influx of male consumers. Even though there aren't as many men buying pomade as women, men are more frequent users. A lot of men will use pomade every day, especially with their simpler hair styles."

Men have also become interested in coloring products, but for the more traditional reason of covering up gray hair. "Men aren't quite so comfortable playing with their appearance as women are," Ms. Clinkscales commented. It would appear that Dennis Rodman hasn't reached 'hair hero' status for the men's market.

Still, men do have their own set of hair heroes. Young black men in particular have a set of hair role models to emulate, from cornrowed NBA stars like Allen Iverson to the gravity-defying braids of rappers like Coolio, while the success of model Tyson Beckford proves that bald can still be beautiful. In addition, the afro is making a mini-comeback, thanks in part to celebrities like Kobe Bryant, though it may never reach the heights of the 1970s, which offered such notable masterpieces as those as worn by Julius Erving. Kids on basketball courts may never been able to soar like Kobe or Dr. J., but at least they can wear the same hair styles. And marketers hope that hair heroes from sports, music and the silver screen continue to drive sales in the ethnic hair care market.

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