Never Forget Your Roots
How Brands Can Build a Future While Knowing and Appreciating Their Past
By Dante Pannell
Before he met with Unilever execs at their Park Avenue skyscraper;
Before he sold his products as a Harlem street vendor;
Before he even moved to the United States;
Before he did any of these things, Richelieu Dennis was an aspiring entrepreneur living between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
After Dennis moved to the United States to attend Babson College, civil war broke out in his native countries, leaving him and his mother exiled. Desperate for a way forward, and with no ability to return home, they began what would become SheaMoisture (and its parent company Sundial Brands) in the bathtub of a cramped Queens apartment, making soaps from the recipes passed down by his grandmother. Each product was all-natural and relied on raw ingredients from Africa, such as shea butter, African Black soap, and essential oils.
Dennis’ initial customers looked a lot like his mother: women who craved products they were familiar with, but that were not available in their adopted America—and who had long been neglected by mainstream beauty brands. When building a brand in a community of consumers who have been historically ignored and underserved, authenticity is indispensable. As the brand grew, it garnered the attention of celebrities and business leaders alike, and SheaMoisture also began to test expansion outside of the audience who fueled its meteoric rise.
All successful brands must eventually grow beyond their early adopters. But as SheaMoisture aspired to be for all women—not just Black women—it struggled to remain true to the story and the people who supported it from day one. Brands who want to own the future must know and appreciate their past, especially when their legacy is rooted in communities ignored by others.
Shea Moisture’s desire to grow the brand it had been building for nearly 30 years almost came at a high price: the lost faith of its core audience. It only took a 30-second ad to almost bring the natural beauty giant to the ground.
What seemed like a normal day for Dennis was dramatically upended by a single text from his daughter simply reading: “Dad, WTF?”
For years, SheaMoisture had run advertisements featuring Black and Brown skinned women. The ad which caught his daughter’s ire was different: it featured four actresses, three of whom were white women, and one a woman of lighter skin tone. SheaMoisture’s faithful customers, accustomed to seeing a brand that reflected their own beauty, were caught completely off-guard.
What had always been a brand for Black women with natural hair—who couldn’t use alternatives for fear of drying or breaking—was suddenly able to be claimed by everyone. The public outcry was a resounding: “You are replacing us!” In what was to be Shea’s first true step into courting a “worldly” audience—a word used by Dennis to describe this broader market—a lack of representation from the hero of Shea’s story was a near disaster. For a brand so rooted in its community, Shea had left its most loyal customers out of the picture it was painting of this new future.
A brand such as SheaMoisture is able to develop a dedicated following because of its ability to understand the needs of a group ignored by the mass market. But, as brands like that expand, they must do so in an authentic and consistent way with the story that has engaged their core customer, and when they fail to do so, terrible things can happen.
With this cloud still over his head, Dennis and his mother made the decision to be acquired by Unilever for an estimated $1.6 billion. Unilever has a rather spotty track record when it comes to selling to marginalized markets, but for Shea Moisture the deal was an opportunity to bring their products more into the mainstream, while recommitting the audience that needed the brand the most. Though it was acquired, Shea negotiated the ability to continue operating independently of Unilever, while gaining access to the conglomerate’s capital, distribution channels, and resources. The company also secured a pledge from Unilever to create a $50 million investment fund that would support and empower women entrepreneurs of color.
This focus on community did not end there. In the following year, he and Shea Moisture purchased 100 percent of the African American publication Essence magazine from Time Co., which made the publication 100 percent Black-owned for the first time in decades. At its official launch, Dennis also announced that the fund established in the Unilever sale would be twice as large: $100 million.
Shea Moisture built an empire on the connections and commonalties it shared with neglected consumers—and Unilever paid handsomely for it. It almost took a fatal misstep along the path to acquisition, but persevered by reinvesting in its core story. Walker and Company had a distinctly different journey while fighting the same battle.
Tristan Walker created his eponymous brand, which sells shaving products to men and women of color—most notably the Bevel razor—as a result of two frustrations.
Walker and Company reflects the founder’s belief that although global culture is led by American culture, and that although American culture is led by Black culture, the value and weight of that contribution goes unrecognized. Walker was additionally frustrated with what he calls the “ethnic aisle:” the corner in the back of a store that has horribly outdated and inferior products targeting African Americans: the same need seen so clearly by Dennis.
Tristan Walker’s background on paper looks nothing like that of Richelieu Dennis. After receiving a graduate degree from Stanford, he spent time at both foursquare and a16z, before creating Walker and Company in 2014. In under two years’ time, he had raised almost $24 million in venture capital, received celebrity endorsements from the likes of John Legend and Nas, and was poised to place his product on the shelves of Target stores all over the country.
Before its funding round, Walker and Company was very clear who its products were for and the problem it was solving for that audience. The razor bumps and ingrown hairs experienced by men and women with coarse and curly hair after shaving create major discomfort that is not understood by mainstream beauty brands. A single-blade shaving system, the Bevel razor, was the perfect solution.
The genius of Walker’s expansion was how it balanced being a fast-growth company, backed by institutional funding, while continuing to serve a dedicated, core audience as its expansion reached new heights. It’s an expansion story which began not in 2014 when Walker and Company was founded, but almost forty years before.
In 1976, a Black man named Andrew Woods worked as a clerk at a Safeway in Hampton, Virginia. Woods was fired for wearing a beard, even after his dermatologists prescribed he wear one to avoid the razor bumps, or pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB), which resulted from shaving. Woods sued Safeway, arguing its policy against beards and his termination was just another tool to discriminate against Black men in the workforce. Woods lost his suit against the grocery store chain, and saw the original ruling upheld on appeal; it was brought to the Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case.
Woods’ appeals cited research from the National Medical Association which found 45 to 80 percent of Black men were susceptible to PFB—men who, after Woods’ case, faced the choice of discomfort from PFP, or limited career opportunities. This is the battle Walker decided to wage.
Although Walker was bringing change to an outdated industry, his decision to make Black men his core demographic was simple: it made good business sense, especially as the demographics of America continue to change.
Walker and Company’s embrace of an audience long ignored by mainstream brands led to streams of emails from customers who had been transformed by the Bevel razor and the product’s understanding of their needs. The numbers don’t lie either: Walker and Company tout an unbelievable 97 percent renewal rate for its subscription products.
Walker’s growth path was faster and more linear than Dennis’, but both balanced the need for growth with the commitment to their story and its hero. And, much like Shea Mositure’s asks in its deal with Unilever, Walker also made a calculated move that appears to be working for not only his brand, but his customers as well. In December of 2018, Walker announced Walker and Company would be acquired by Proctor and Gamble—the behemoth of consumer products.
Proctor & Gamble Co. has been one of the leading organizations when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and gender equality in business. With initiatives such as hiring Shelly Macnamara as the head of Diversity and Inclusion, setting global diversity goals publicly, and even its controversial “Black is Beautiful” campaign, P&G continues to place an importance on speaking to the consumer who may have previously been left out of the conversation. With a shared legacy of giving back to neglected communities, Walker’s brand and Proctor and Gamble’s brand belong together.
Both Shea Moisture and Walker and Company recognized problems that long plagued the experience their communities had due lack of representation and consideration within the beauty industry. In making products that solved these problems and connected with ignored customers they struck a chord—and in remaining authentic to that audience, they were able to fuel significant expansion and their acquisition.
When customers finally connect with a brand after feeling ignored, they see themselves as a representation of the story being told. As the brand grows that representation, and partnership, must be cultivated and deepened—and carried into the mainstream together.
Dante Pannell is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss how we can help tell your story.