In the space of 20 years, the black hair care market has undergone a profound transformation. Product offerings that were once centered on hair relaxers have given way to natural hair care products thanks to the natural hair movement. How are current brands keeping up with this movement that is here to stay and what are the next evolving trends in the years to come? We explore all of this below.
Few saw it coming and some beauty industry giants are still reeling from their market share loss: the boom of the natural hair movement has disrupted what was once a well-oiled machine in hair relaxing. However, there is one woman who saw the tide turning, and today she finds herself at the center of a booming sector valued at around billions euros. This woman is Agnès Cazin.
Agnès Cazin is a voluble, energetic, exuberant but extremely quick-witted woman who has built her expertise in the matter thanks to her numerous experiences in the black cosmetics sector. She is a French-Haitian native and a London-based multihyphenate who is at the helm of her creative agency Haiti 73. With multiple consulting activities for various brands to community management expertise hailing from Curvy & Fit under her belt, in addition to podcasting (“Buz of Beauty” coming out soon), Agnès offers a full transversal analysis without mincing her words on the state of the black hair care market in 2020.
« It’s no wonder that France is 50 years behind counterparts in terms of Afro hair salons’ presence when there’s limited access to entrepreneurship and lack of hair education and training here. »
Overall, how is the black hair care market performing?
The market is performing well overall because there is still a big demand, however it’s not doing as well as a couple years back when there was a real frenzy from consumers who were purchasing the latest products at the height of the natural hair movement. Beauty industry giants are now at a crossroad, either they will fully embrace natural hair care products or they will have to think of new products that will fill the billion dollar void leftover from hair relaxers. Even if most women today have embraced their natural hair, the natural hair care sector value does not equate hair relaxers’ market value. Twenty years ago, when there were only a couple of hair relaxing brands in the world, it was easier to generate billions of dollars per year. Today, there are over 3000 black hair care brands that have popped up, that more or less do the same thing, so it has become an extremely competitive and fragmented marketplace. The smaller brands that took over are more nimble and agile and can thus respond to consumer demand for natural and clean ingredients and market changes quicker, which give them a leg up against bigger brands that used to lead the black beauty industry.
There was a point where panic reigned among the leading brands of that time because they didn’t know what to do anymore since women for the most part no longer wanted their hair relaxed. One client asked me “Why don’t you relax your hair anymore?” It was so easy for them before. My 10 year old son doesn’t even know what hair relaxers are – when he sees old pictures of me with relaxed hair, he doesn’t understand and asks why I used to have my hair like that. For him it’s almost heretical to do that and I think this way of thinking has seeped into the newer generations. The more we educate the youth on how to take care and love their hair, the less there’ll be a need for relaxers. If relaxers do come back in vogue, it won’t be for the same reasons : it won’t be to normalise your hair style or to find work or because kinky hair is considered “ugly”. At the moment, these hair relaxing brands are still finding success in Africa, but they’ve definitely lost their competitive advantage in European and American markets with the boom of the natural hair movement.
Another major change lies in communication. Before hair relaxing brands innately trusted that consumer demand would always remain high, so they barely advertised since products sold out on their own. There were few magazine advertising spreads nor platforms, so there was no need to think about a communications budget. One unique global photoshoot was enough in terms of branding and no market localization was needed. Everyone wanted to look like an African-American with straight hair anyways. Now things have changed, as more thought goes into deciphering digital, marketing and event planning budgets by country or zone. In Europe, the biggest market is France then it’s the United Kingdom.
Is it true that France, while it stands as the biggest market, is hard to penetrate?
Yes, France is a very hard market to break into. If you don’t understand the French mentality or have a strong network of relationships here it’s hard to find success. Word of mouth recommendation is the best marketing practice here, as people are naturally more suspicious or defiant. It’s not a country of “early adopters”, but once you’ve got them hooked, they are in it for the long haul for several generations to come. Distribution here is also complicated because there are too many networks, like for example in the distribution of hair extensions. Concretely the way it works is that brands sell their products to distributors and then the latter act as purchasing centers and choose what they want from the brands’ lines. Afterwards, these distributors resell these products to stores. I recurrently hear people saying that there are more choices in one country over the next, but that’s not really true. What really happens is that some countries have better distributors that are going to choose larger product lines. Sometimes brands want to sell to stores directly, but a distributor is able to sell to 3000 stores, whereas a brand only to 200, so there’s nothing to gain from direct selling and going against the distributor. There are also three types of stores: the boutique or concept store that will be attentive towards the merchandising, product selections, in-store design and layout and customer service like Les Secret de Loly or Provial Cosmetics. Then there’s the Asian corner shop that lacks merchandising, customer service, nice in-store layouts and sometimes the products themselves can be expired. Finally, there’s a lack of hair care education in France: too many hair salons here don’t know how to cater to kinky or natural African hair or how to cut it. Conversely, in America there’s a whole cult around Afro hair with proper care routines available at the hairdressers, it’s the same in London. In France, we’re still very far off from this reality in hairdressing.
Can you give me an example of a difficult brand launch that failed in the French market?
L’Oréal’ s Mizani is a good example. L’Oréal is a conglomerate that was never really interested in the black beauty market in the first place until they created Mizani in 1991. Then they acquired Soft Sheen Carson who carried the brand Dark and Lovely in the early 2000s and Carol’s Daughter in 2014. I loved Mizani when it first launched, it should have emerged as a brand leader in the market, but they did not know how to properly sell it in France as they marketed it solely as a B2B product for hair stylists. They didn’t understand that there wasn’t a strong network of Afro hair stylists across France. They wanted it to be a luxury product for hairdressers to use, but it was a major flop here. However, American hairdressers knew how to use and promote the line.
Do you think that by acquiring Carol’s Daughter, L’Oréal finally understood that there was something to gain from the natural hair movement?
They understood that there was something at stake in the natural hair movement, but they didn’t know how to go about it properly as they used the same trite strategies. Unlike L’Oréal, Indian brands like ORS put emphasis on listening to their consumers and adapting their marketing strategies if they have to in the eve of a launch if they spot a mistake.
Most of the beauty products that cater to black women are produced in Asia, why is that?
Because it’s cheaper and they have the infrastructure, the laboratories and the knowledge spanning over 50 years. But new cosmetics brands like Melayci or So Aesthetics are produced in Italy now or in Africa like R&R Luxury.
Let’s circle back to the consumers. What are the specificities of the French, British and American consumer?
The French African woman is very educated, cultivated and engaged. Her hair symbolizes an identity, a culture, a fight… Sometimes you want to tell them to take a “chill pill”, but it’s France – the land of passion and intensity. They invest a lot in hair care but don’t necessarily know how to get the best value for their money.
Black British women have high standards when it comes to hair care since they know a lot about products, hair extension networks and are really influenced by America and the Commonwealth Caribbean. Also, fun fact! There is a common thread amongst the biggest American music stars lately: most of them originate from the Caribbeans… Rihanna is from Barbados, Nicky Minaj from Trinidad, Cardi B from Dominican Republic and Trinidad. The proliferation of reggae from the Islands in America profoundly influenced fashion and hairstyles in the 1990s. And today, these Island-repping music stars are deeply influencing women’s style. British Caribbean women today are at ease with their bodies and experiment with their looks a lot, they are not afraid to wear colorful wigs etc. It’s a more versatile way of being that’s different from the archetypical church going boujee African-American woman that Beyoncé represents with her “safe” honey blonde hair.
Anyways, to circle back to black British women, it’s a large diaspora: most of them have families in America or the Caribbeans, so they’re all interconnected and largely influence each other. That’s why they carry on with the “Sunday Wash Day” ritual, which was an African-American weekly tradition to prepare for church by steaming their hair at the hairdressers. So it’s all very cultural! In France, most of the hair traditions come from Africa like box or threaded braids.
What are the brands that stand out today and how do they communicate their unique selling points?
It depends on the country, but overall brands like Shea Moisture, Cantu, AS I AM, Activilong, Design essential and ORS are coming out on top. ORS understands that being fun, playful and speaking to everyone is the secret to selling well. They’re able to relate to the natural hair women as well as the relaxed hair one, the one that wants to dye her hair red or the one that wants to keep it curly. They like taking risks and they encourage women to show off their style! Cantu understands that their consumers are not necessarily in the mood for parties, rather they focus on families – putting education in their core message. Activilong is trying to clean up their ingredient list in their products to make it more natural and safe and they’ve put a lot of effort towards their communications strategy. Now they’re everywhere, very dynamique and their natural hair care line is decent. Shea Moisture is very targeted and not very versatile but they have great products most specifically for curly hair types. Design Essential is on the same wavelength as ORS and Cantu and has a strong distribution network. Their products are very present in the provincial regions of France and they target the right consumers who buy into their offering. Each brand has its own way of selling their products successfully!
You know the Afro Hair and Beauty Salon in London and the Natural Hair Academy (NHA) in Paris very well. What are the major differences between the two?
The Afro Hair and Beauty Salon started out as a trade show that professionals from all over Europe attended. From a B2B trade show, it opened up to the public and became an event for consumers. For product launches, Afro Hair and Beauty is more interesting because it has a strong network of distributors onsite, which isn’t the case for NHA. The NHA’s business model is very attractive though because organisers understand the appeal of giving away hair care kit boxes, having POS advertising and promotions, merchandising, and a live concert, overall creating a fun environment that engages young people throughout the event. However, both events have blind spots as they haven’t fully understood that the future of beauty resides in lifestyle and B2B and B2C experiences, which is something that Essence Festival does really well.
What are the future trends that will prevail in the black hair care market?
The future will play out in the mainstream, distribution, digital and educational spheres.
- Black beauty needs to break the glass ceiling and head towards the mainstream. You don’t need to be black to have dry skin or curly hair. I have Italian and North African assistants who tried ORS or Cantu and loved it. The black woman is very demanding in terms of product quality: either she finds store bought products that correspond to her standards or she makes her own, hence the proliferation of DIY beauty and use of kitchen cabinet ingredients. She knows what ingredients work for her and those that don’t, so as a response hair brands that catered to black and mixed race women had to increase their quality. I think today, shampoos, conditioners and detangling treatments are much better than what’s on the market for white women at the same price points. What Rihanna did with Fenty Beauty was heading straight into the mainstream by allowing consumers to find the right products that work for any skin tone, type, complexion etc. regardless if you are black, white, asian, latina… at the same stores and price points. The last bastion of racial segregation lies in beauty products and hair salons. So what will really make the difference for brands who successfully sold “black” products to women in the 80s and early 2000s, is the ability to market them as mainstream in store chains like Monoprix or Carrefour where other women of different origins can buy into the brand’s promises. I think that the brands that don’t make this jump, will miss a window of opportunity and run the risk of becoming irrelevant in 10 years or will simply be relegated as regional players outside of Europe. Conversely, current smaller brands dedicated to women of color operating under new business models have the opportunity to include all types of women from various origins who can identify with the products.
- Currently wholesale is also an issue because some wholesalers are scared to purchase products that are too specific and niche, so brands dedicated to people of color feel overlooked. These same brands can’t decide to suddenly stop selling at Château Rouge or Château d’eau because it will be a huge loss to their distribution. But I also think that this distribution at Château Rouge and Château d’eau in Pakistani corner shops will slowly disappear or at least become less dominant because people don’t like shopping there and the area’s gentrification will phase these retailers out. There will be new businesses that will propose new retail experiences and e-commerce will usurp traditional distribution.
- As far as product offering goes, there is still a gap in the market for products that aid in the maintenance of hair locs. This is potentially the new frontier in black hair care, as filling this market void can make for a very lucrative endeavor. Masculin black hair care is also a huge market to dive into. The French West Indies are already market leaders for locs and natural hairstyles, but there’s currently no beauty conglomerate that is seriously looking into this segment.
- Finally, the future lies in establishing educational institutions that train hairdressers in Afro hair styling. There is such a lack of cosmetology schools in France. In London for example, you can go to Josh Hair to learn everything you need to know about hair styling. It’s no wonder that France is 50 years behind counterparts in terms of Afro hair salons’ presence when there’s limited access to entrepreneurship and lack of hair education and training here. Fortunately, things are starting to change and black hair care brands can expedite this process by partnering with various hair salons. They can help in the establishment of Afro hair salons and in return, hairdressers exclusively use or promote their lines. Hairdressers also need to educate the consumer on how to use those products at home especially hair relaxers, because those can be the most damaging if badly applied. I think hair relaxers will evolve and take on different forms.
What do you mean by hair relaxers coming back in the market in a different way? Will the hair relaxers of tomorrow no longer be chemical?
Shampoo is chemical, conditioner is chemical, glue used for weaves is chemical, there will always be chemical products. At some point, there’s a limit to what shea butter can do unless we want weaves to look like those in the 80s. Honestly, no one wants to go back to that look – we have to be realistic. What I mean is that cream relaxers that currently exist as a white lotion that reeks of sulfate won’t exist anymore. We will use more subtil methods such as keratin, brazilian blowouts, more sophisticated flat irons…
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