Self Made gets to the root of what makes black haircare significant.
I’ve known the history of Sarah Breedlove Walker for some time, as she was a phenom in the history of beauty and the first self-made female millionaire. It was really cool to see a major streaming channel like Netflix produce such a riveting series about her. I have to admit, I binge-watched it.
My fascination with Madam C.J. Walker’s story stems as much from my interest in the beauty industry as it does my interest in marketing, because she was a master of both. She understood on a deep level how feeling beautiful on the outside can make women feel worthy on the inside. In addition to creating a line of products for black hair, it also became a lifeline for her in which she ultimately made beauty salons into what they are today: sanctuaries where black women go to recover, recharge, and reconnect with each other. Black women spend a lot of time and money to maintain their hair.
Mintel values the black hair care industry at more than $2.5 billion, and if Madam C.J. were alive today, she’d probably be taking the lion’s share of it.
The profound connection between African-American hair and African-American culture is why I founded my own company.
Today, I help Hollywood studios, television networks, global brands, and streaming services like Netflix leverage African-American salons and barbershops to gain admission to these valuable consumers where they are the most captive, receptive, and open to new ideas. The Netflix mini-series got so much right about that phenomenon, I can’t help but reference the show to explain why experiential brand activations in salons and barbershops result in powerfully effective, culturally relevant marketing.
The relationship between African-American women and their hair is complicated
In the first episode in the series, Madam C.J. compares a black woman’s sometimes turbulent relationship with her hair to the relationship between biblical brothers, Cain and Able, the latter of whom killed his brother out of greed and jealousy. At its core, this analogy shows the extreme depth of the love/hate relationship between African-American women and hair that can be stubbornly unmanageable, prone to breakage at each bend in a curl, and always a message to society about how much, or how little, a black woman should be respected. On the other hand, black hair is an adornment that gives black women many options for styling: It can be silky and straight, kinky and coily, worn as an afro, or augmented with a weave. It’s also a mechanism that can instill confidence and inner pride.
How African-American women choose to style their hair can be as much a political statement as a personal one, but it almost always reveals something about who she is and where she wants to go in life.
So, it’s understandable that many African-American women feel like they are doing as much battling with society as they are with their own hair. They deal with a prejudiced society on top of the self-made, false confessions they make against themselves. A simple day at the salon can empower them with a trusted (above all, African-American hair technician must be trustworthy!) ally by their sides.
Society is Always Judging
Self Made is set in 1908, a time when racism was much less veiled and finding a higher level of employment might depend on how well-groomed an African-American woman was. These women’s personal battle with their hair was not as personal as it should have been. Products like Madame C.J.s that helped enhance their locks could mean real, radical change in their lives. And a change for one African-American woman represented a step up for all of them. As D.J. says,
“If she look good, we all look good. If one of us looks respectable, we all look respectable. Everything we do as negros reflects back on us.”
This is still true for many African-American women today, which is why many visit the salon on a weekly basis with almost as much commitment as they give to attending church. While they are there, they are a captive audience for hours on end, and they are already having conversations with their hairstylists and other women about movies, television, and music.
Entertainment brands that gain access to these moments can become part of that conversation in an organic way that resonates with this consumer. This goes back to the incredible business instincts of Madam C.J. Walker who created a niche that changed the game and made her unique to her target consumer. Unique is better than better!
According to Nielsen, African-Americans watch 37 percent more television than other demographics, and what they watch influences others, making this marketing approach a natural for streaming services that need to quickly drive awareness and build excitement around a new release. Brand activations are turnkey ready and can be executed in barbershops and salons in market in short order. Because each of these venues have a highly specific consumer base, it is possible to target them as accurately as needed to reach African-American audiences within a desired demographic.
Madam C.J. Walker was among the first to recognize the vast potential in African-American haircare products for women and went on to use her network of hundreds of salons to organize political rallies in support of the civil rights movement.
There is still vast potential in reaching African-American women in salons and tapping into nearly $1.3 trillion in annual African-American buying power. As African-American women continue to flex their power, it’s time to consider putting beauty salon marketing on your “favorites list” for highly targeted, out-of-home marketing tactics to reach them.