It's been two years since Fenty's launch, and three since James Charles and CoverGirl (in which time he's also come under fire from fans), but there is a sense that inclusivity is just getting started in the beauty space — and in some ways, it's still far behind where it needs to be.
This year, Sephora responded to a consumer backlash that followed accusations of racial profiling in stores with a diversity and inclusivity workshop for employees. Ulta faced similar complaints, with some former employees saying they were encouraged to tail people of color throughout the store.
That doesn't mean there's been no progress.
Brands that cater to niche customer bases are making their way to the forefront by meeting the needs of shoppers that are tired of being underserved. And at the same time, traditional brands are waking up to the movement and changing their product offerings and marketing strategies accordingly.
Patricia Hong, a partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, who also leads its beauty and luxury division, mentions Mac as one of the original inclusive brands in beauty, but noted that many product and color ranges are now being adapted to think more about people who "are not what the beauty industry has traditionally had, in terms of serving."
The number of underrepresented groups in beauty is vast — the conversation includes people of color, non-binary shoppers, older women and men. The issues vary from group to group, but in one way they are similar: There is a lack of products that recognize there is more than one type of shopper in each group, or that cater to their specific needs.
"As a Cuban woman, I remember feeling that there were issues with finding the right tan," Lauren Bitar, head of retail consulting at RetailNext, said of the foundation shopping experience. "But it never really dawned on me that it was a problem, and then I realized, 'God, everyone's having this issue.'"
Bitar said the "1,000 shades of white and light tan" is finally starting to evolve to include a more diverse set of colors, and with it, a change in how the industry approaches beauty altogether.
"What is beautiful is no longer standardized," Bitar said, "and if anything, there's almost a backlash for brands that are still pushing that."
It's hard to define every way in which inclusivity is needed in the beauty space and all the ways the industry could or should evolve to meet the needs of a consumer base in which there are as many definitions of "beauty" as there are individuals. What follows is a discussion of some of the major topics and recent evolutions shaping the industry and what it means to hire and market inclusively.
Moving beyond a 'marginalized aisle'
A number of brands, retailers and startups have stepped in to fill the void of the lack of product diversity and representation in different ways. Kimberly Smith, founder of Marjani, and Amaya Smith, founder of Product Junkie, are doing that through their co-founded business, the Brown Beauty Co-Op.
Located in Washington, D.C., the co-op is focused on curating products made by people of color for people of color through a high-end, community-driven shopping experience. It includes a space that both sells beauty products and also hosts brand founder talks and educational events like makeup demos and how to style natural hair.
The genesis of Brown Beauty Co-op was sparked by the frustration Amaya Smith and Kimberly Smith said they felt shopping for beauty products: While there were online communities that shared those frustrations, "there wasn't a comparable in-store experience happening," Amaya Smith said.
"Even though there's this really large market and you can go to Target and CVS and you can generally pick up natural hair products, it's still kind of a marginalized aisle in the store. It's definitely still the ethnic aisle," she said, noting that some locations might not even have natural hair products in certain areas.
That shopping experience also tends to be limited to convenience stores, Amaya Smith said, making it less enjoyable than the experience a shopper gets at an Ulta or Sephora, something the Brown Beauty Co-Op is trying to change.
"It hasn't become an upscale experience," Amaya Smith said. "It's like, people are buying their toilet paper and trash bags and you can get your hair care, as opposed to when you're in an Ulta or Sephora, you can get these high-end brands, and a really high-end experience. So, the experience that I tried to create is, you can also get knowledge, you can get community and get your natural hair products in a sophisticated, high-end retail environment. It doesn't have to be in the aisle next to where you're getting wet wipes or something."
The lack of an equally high-end shopping experience is just one of the issues people of color face when looking for beauty products. According to Hong, the inclusive hair care market has been "traditionally ahead of the curve," but there is still a lot of work to be done in the inclusive makeup space.
"The first place that everybody starts is the foundation and the shade ranges," Hong said, noting that now that retailers are starting to invest in the technology around foundation matching to account for more skintones. "Match is one of the trickiest things, because we all have very different undertones. So undertone becomes now the big thing in terms of serving people of all colors and all undertones."
Kimberly Smith agrees that undertones have not been addressed as well as they could be, and even with the influence of a brand like Fenty — which industry watchers credit with waking the beauty industry up to inequality in the space — there are problems in how brands and retailers are jumping in to fill the void.
While almost everyone is launching foundation lines with an extended shade range, the problem now is quantity over quality.
"As a person of color, you can still see a brand have about 50 shades and not take into account the different undertones and all the different things," Kimberly Smith said. "It's not just about the shade itself or the complexion color, it's really a little bit more than that. I think brands do a disservice when they don't take the time to understand what it is that we need in our color cosmetics."
The need for more personalized products is also part of what pushed Ozohu Adoh to found Epara, a skincare brand focused on solving issues that women of color predominantly have. She marks skincare as the area where "the biggest gap lies" and told Retail Dive in an email that one of the largest problems is that not every consumer concern is taken into account during product development.
"You find a high number of experimentation amongst women of colour because they are constantly having to try so many products to find that which works best for them," she said.
A world without 'gender-specific lines'
Talking about inclusivity only as it relates to race and ethnicity would be to ignore additional issues that beauty has to tackle. Gender is becoming an increasingly important conversation for beauty brands on several different fronts.
"Whether it's for beards and traditional men's grooming to doing things that were traditionally more female, like skincare or color, it is becoming more acceptable," Bitar said.
Brands are recognizing that they need to go beyond a strict gender binary to fully serve customers, whether that's through partnerships like Morphe and James Charles, Violet Chachki and Pat McGrath or even the reframing of BirchboxMan to a more neutral Birchbox Grooming.
Hong sees color, lipstick and eye makeup as the next categories of beauty that will be tackled with a more inclusive approach in mind, including both gender and better catering to different undertones. She noted that efforts so far around color makeup have been focused on gender inclusivity, including collaborations like NYX Cosmetics and Aquaria, and Anastasia Beverly Hills and Alyssa Edwards.
To Bitar, these campaigns, while not the complete answer to gender inclusivity, do a lot to fight long-standing beliefs about who should or shouldn't be wearing certain types of makeup.
"It is someone who presents male, and in this case, in drag, wearing eyeliner — and a super bright shade," Bitar said of the NYX Cosmetics and Aquaria collaboration. "The palette that they came out with was extremely bright. And being like: that this is okay, this isn't taboo."
In that sense, beauty is still working on full acceptance of inclusivity: The industry has recognized that there are underserved groups and many brands have begun working to change that, but there are still barriers that prevent some shoppers from having the same experience as consumers who saw themselves reflected in long-established beauty standards.
The understanding that beauty is not solely a cisgender women's space is also changing how retailers label their products, and Andrea Blieden, general manager of The Body Shop North America, thinks dividing products by gender will soon be a thing of the past.
"Anyone can use our makeup, anyone can use our skincare, anyone can really use anything at The Body Shop," she said. "We don't try to specify based on gender, particularly in any other category outside of those few men's SKUs. … I think in the next five years, I'd be surprised if brands still have gender-specific lines."
For now, though, there are still clear delineations. On one end, the industry has seen a wave of men's grooming brands enter the space in the past few years, including Harry's, Dollar Shave Club and even competition from private label brands like Target's Goodfellow. These brands are part of a trend that has made it socially acceptable for men to care about their appearance, but there are still some hurdles for those consumers.
Eric Bandholz, founder of Beardbrand, started a business strictly around beard care because, as someone with a beard, he noticed a lack of brands in the space catering to that demographic — in more ways than one.
"The products didn't exist on the marketplace. There was no utility balm, no beard softener, no beard oil, anything like that," he said. "But our idea tools more broadly than that and it also included our YouTube videos. There were no YouTubers at all, at the time, giving any kind of guidance on how to take care of your beard."
Beardbrand's YouTube videos, like its brand, are focused around the beard, and include tutorials on styling and trimming, or sometimes product reviews. Another channel is dedicated to things like barbershop trips or more lifestyle content.
Bandholz also felt that products in the space were not always being developed with a variety of consumer needs in mind. In a reversal of the problems many women feel in other categories, Bandholz noted that men in the personal care space are often handed products that haven't been altered much from their counterparts sold for women.
"You end up with these products, like 'Clinique for Men.' Not to call them out specifically, but it's more of that, 'for a man.' It's like, 'Here's a woman's product, but now it's for men,' and there's not really that understanding that guys want to have their own products. They don't want women's products that were re-marketed towards them and they can kind of see through that. If you have to say it's for men, then it's not really for men."
Though men are more involved in personal care and beauty, it's still a growing space, and there remains a stigma against men who care "too much" about their skin, according to Cocokind founder Priscilla Tsai. In addition to making some men hesitant about purchasing skincare products, it also makes marketing men's products more difficult.
"A lot of men using skincare was because of a woman in their life buying it for them," Tsai said, "and so it makes it a really, really hard industry because you're basically targeting someone, but the person who's buying it is different. That makes it tricky. So I still think there's a lot to be learned about and to change actually to empower men, like: 'You can buy your own skincare.'"
'Inclusivity begins with the team you have'
Of all the sources Retail Dive talked to for this story, no one argued that great progress has been made, but no one felt confident that the fight was close to finished, either. Adoh said that, despite the fact that inclusivity is improving, shoppers will also likely need time to adjust to the changes brands are implementing.
"As in all endeavors where there has been a lag in addressing systemic deficiencies, there will be a time of trust and confidence-building by existing players," she said.
Changing systemic issues is also made tougher by the fact that underrepresented groups are not always included in the leadership teams at major beauty brands and retailers. For example, despite being a segment of retail targeted largely toward women, many of the CEOs in the industry are men.
Bitar notes that more women are entering the workforce and they have more of a voice now as companies realize they need to be heard, but it is still "overwhelmingly male."
"What you do see, whether it was in beauty or apparel, the organization would be predominantly female, and female all the way up to about maybe even the VP level, but then the CEO would end up being a male," she said. "When I was at Sephora, pretty much all of the heads of color and skincare — all women, but then you get to the head, and it was David Suliteanu or Calvin McDonald."
Representation in the management ranks becomes even more of a challenge for women of color, who are doubly underrepresented. For them, it's "even harder to access power," Amaya Smith notes.
There are some players genuinely trying to raise these issues, irrespective of the diversity in their management ranks, and in some cases the evidence is in the product selection at stores themselves.
"You're seeing sort of a subtle change. I think the boom you see in hair products in places like Target, no doubt was probably in consultation with people of color," she said.
Some of these issues could be rectified by the slew of niche brands entering the space, which tend to be more inclusive from the start (though that is by no means universal). The unique viewpoints of these new brands and the ability some have to appeal to underserved consumers have made them popular investment targets as well, according to Hong.
CPG companies are also paying attention to new players in the space, with Unilever being particularly acqusitive recently, while P&G could be looking to add more DTC brands to its roster, which already includes Native, Walker & Company and This is L. Though the investing community, even for beauty brands, is also notoriously male.
While it may seem like a relatively simple problem to fix — hire more members of underrepresented groups to leadership roles — it's more complex than that. Hong said she has witnessed some companies pushing their leadership to have a succession plan that includes 50% women for every top role, but in some cases there just aren't enough women with the necessary experience, which needs to be solved first.
"You cannot have two women that are showing up as successors for every brand, every region — you need to have options," Hong said.
In addition to being a good business practice in general, it ensures that products and marketing campaigns are more inclusive just by having a more diverse set of representatives in the room.
"Inclusivity begins with the team that you have," she said, adding that managers should take a close look at how accurately their team reflects the product they want to put out. Hiring inclusively should also account for women of different ages, according to Hong, as older women are often excluded by beauty companies.
"The thing is, it is not something that we're going to see fixed in this generation, because you just don't have the pipeline," she said.
The path to more inclusive executives may be a long one, but store associates are daily representatives of a retailer that often influence shopper experiences. To Blieden, many brands still have a "look" that they consider when hiring associates, which is problematic in and of itself.
Human resource policies can also exclude certain employees, which is a side of inclusivity Blieden thinks has been relatively ignored by the industry so far.
"I think that, for me, is a huge place where more progressive brands need to start thinking differently," she said. "It's great to hire broadly and give everyone equal opportunity to get employed and all of that, but those people are then marginalized based on your benefits."
Marketing to more than just the masses
James Charles becoming the first male ambassador for CoverGirl is just part of the story in terms of beauty companies making their marketing more inclusive. In addition to representing a greater diversity of individuals in ad campaigns, inclusivity also means showing consumers as they are.
"Really showing: 'This is who I am. I've got these curves. I've got these laugh lines. My skin is not a perfect color all the way around.' I think that's huge," Bitar said. She also noted that retailers and brands should have a more thoughtful approach to inclusive marketing rather than just putting more diverse faces in ads. "How do I approach them there? How do I use that as a backdrop? Instead of being like, 'Well, I've got my ad, and it's got one Asian woman and one white woman. #diversity' — it's just being more real."
To Bitar, that starts with not touching up marketing photos so much and moving away from need-based marketing to more feature-enhancement marketing, which newer brands like Glossier are already doing.
"We can see if you are making certain moves just to placate us versus you making moves because you genuinely want us to continue to patronize your stores."
Founder of Marjani, co-founder of Brown Beauty Co-Op
"It's all about just like a little concealer and little details and little things that just make certain features pop versus saying: 'You have a need, you have a problem,' and that's how a lot of beauty marketing has been," Bitar said.
As brands move away from marketing that shames the customer, authenticity becomes key. That includes incorporating different customer concerns into marketing campaigns — not all shoppers are looking to get the same things out of their skincare routines, for example — but it also means being careful not to market disingenuously.
Inclusivity and authenticity are both buzzwords in the marketing space right now, and it can be tempting for brands to jump on the bandwagon of certain consumer causes. Shoppers see through that, Kimberly Smith warns, and being disingenuous in marketing is a larger issue than not addressing it all, she said.
"We can see if you are making certain moves just to placate us versus you making moves because you genuinely want us to continue to patronize your stores," Kimberly Smith said.
Other challenges persist as well, especially when it comes to gender inclusive marketing. Using models who identify as gender neutral, transgender or another group, "doesn't necessarily translate on a static ad," Bitar said, but it's not something retailers should point out to viewers either.
"The more you make it a talking point, the more you're pointing out differences. So it's a very delicate balance," she said.
Modern marketing has also made consumer education more challenging. Tsai's brand Cocokind is centered around clean beauty, but with so many other brands entering the space and also claiming to be clean, she worries that shoppers are not receiving accurate information, or enough of it.
"For people who know the clean beauty industry, they obviously understand what type of standards we're working with, but for people who don't know, it's hard for them to differentiate us versus another company that is using the word clean, but still using a lot of ingredients that are banned in other countries," she said.
Ingredient transparency is one thing her team is doing to try and ensure that everybody can access Cocokind products, no matter their level of education in the space. Pricing products at an accessible price point is another — one that Tsai finds is still lacking when it comes to quality beauty items. Often, prestige brands are priced above what most people could afford, and for Tsai, that exclusionary pricing is personal.
"There's actually no correlation between what people are putting inside the bottle, and what they're charging for it," she said, remembering buying a Chanel cleanser at the age of 17 because she had suffered with acne issues and thought "the most expensive was the best."
Marketing for luxury brands in any sector of retail comes with an implication that the quality is also higher, yet Tsai was left with products that didn't solve her problems and cost her more money than she wanted to spend. Since no one was creating the products she needed, she made them herself, and even when they worked for her, even when her friends started asking for her products, she remained apprehensive about being a founder in the beauty business.
Why? A reason that is at the heart of beauty's problem: She didn't fit their mold.
"It actually took me a long time to decide to start a beauty company," Tsai said, "and that's because I was really nervous and I was really insecure about being a founder in the space as someone who had actually dealt with acne, would still break out from time to time, wasn't a celebrity, didn't have perfect skin, dealt with the normal issues. There is a lack of inclusivity when it comes to real people being shown as good examples in the beauty industry."