In a noisy trend seemingly endemic to today’s social media, the outrage machine cranked up again, this time against haircare brand Shea Beauty. The trigger for online scorn and trending hashtags like #SheaMoisture Apology is this seemingly-innocuous ad:
Okay, pretty young models pouting about hating their hair–what’s the problem?
The problem is simple: Shea Moisture was built as an African American brand. This market became its first loyalists, helping the brand gain more attention and grow to where it now has a presence in mega-chains like Target.
But this ad features three white young women and one very light skinned bi-racial one. At least until the end tag where more women of color appear in small sections of a graphic collage. Reading the comments on YouTube, it’s clear that Shea Beauty loyalists took immediate notice, and deeply resented it.
When social firestorms happen, I can’t help wondering if I would have made the same mistake. Yes, any creative would know the company is black owned. And that the core audience is also African American. But since clients approve, and often dictate, casting decisions, the issue is probably less about a dumb, subjective creative call and more about a strategic brand desire to ‘expand the base.’ Shea Beauty and their agency no doubt had nothing but the best intentions from a marketing perspective, along with data highlighting a market expansion opportunity with blondes and redheads.
And that’s exactly why I favor anthropology over planning. Anthropologists focus on audiences, not brand metrics. They study the people you hope to reach: their values, their economies, their rituals and sacrifices. Anthropology focuses on what aligns and motivates people, which is crucial now that marketing is a two way dialogue.
Research and planning inevitably focus on the advertiser’s wants, but brands no longer control the conversation. Using anthropology to better understand your audience protects you from becoming the worst kind of person in any social situation: the one that only talks about themselves.
Actually, if they listen, Shea Beauty’s audience even gave them the answer to the issue. YouTube commenter Lorietha Causey said this about the cut:
That’s a solid re-edit idea. And if they’re smart, Shea Beauty will listen to their loyalists, get back into edit, and fix this now; which is another advantage of our iterative digital world.