Natural beauty brand Shea Moisture was forced to apologize after a new ad campaign sparked a social media backlash among some of the company's customers.

But this backlash wasn't really the result of a bad ad.

The backstory

Shea Moisture was founded by Liberians Nyema Tubman and Richelieu Dennis, who came to the US as refugees. They built a business reportedly valued at $700m by developing natural beauty products that cater to a market historically underserved by large beauty brands – women of color.

But with outside investment from Bain Capital and skyrocketing consumer interest in natural beauty products, Shea Moisture's parent company Sundial Brands is betting that there is a bigger market for Shea Moisture's products.

With that in mind, the company recently unveiled a 60-second ad developed by agency VaynerMedia as part of its #EverybodyGetsLove marketing campaign. The ad features a black woman, but it also features a blonde woman and two redheads. That did not sit well with some Shea Moisture customers who felt that the ad was a sign the company is moving away from the market segment that made it what it is today.

On Facebook, the company's Page has been inundated with more than 7,000 one-star reviews.

The backlash was fast and big enough that the company quickly pulled its ad and Richelieu Dennis, Shea Moisture's founder and the CEO of Sundial Brands, took to social media to apologize. "Wow, okay – so guys, listen, we really f-ed this one up," he wrote. "Please know that our intention was not – and would never be – to disrespect our community, and as such, we are pulling this piece immediately because it does not represent what we intended to communicate."

He further stated, "While this campaign included several different videos showing different ethnicities and hair types to demonstrate the breadth and depth of each individual’s hair journey, we must absolutely ensure moving forward that our community is well-represented in each one so that the women who have led this movement never feel that their hair journey is minimized in any way."

When marketing mistakes aren't marketing mistakes

While the media coverage of the backlash caused by Shea Moisture's ad largely focuses on the notion that the company made an advertising mistake, this is really a brand management mistake because the truth of the matter is that Shea Moisture is a company that was probably going to have a hard time extending its brand without alienating the customers in its core segment.

Strong brands that focus on underserved market segments risk upsetting their customers when trying to expand beyond those segments or to "go mainstream" because the customers in those segments feel strongly about the brands. 

In Shea Moisture's case, the segment it built its brand serving – women of color – know Shea Moisture as a company that for years has focused on their needs when other beauty brands didn't. That gives them a stronger-than-usual level of perceived investment and ownership in the brand.

This can be a powerful asset, and it's one of the reasons there are riches in niches. But with the wrong strategy, this asset can become a liability because loyal customers, when they feel slighted or abandoned, are more likely to speak out. Unfortunately for Shea Moisture, its parent company, Sundial Brands, appears to have made a major brand management faux pas that caused just that to happen.

According to CEO Richelieu Dennis, the decision to extend Shea Moisture into new market segments was based on the notion that "we have to grow the business." He elaborated...

Brands that didn't service women of color for decades are all of the sudden creating campaigns for them to go after that because of the growth they've seen come from us. The competition that we now see, puts businesses like ours at risk.

But it's not clear to this author that trying to extend the Shea Moisture brand to market segments already dominated by the very newcomers he speaks of represents a wise growth strategy because this type of brand extension is very difficult and actually risks brand dilution.

In my opinion, a better strategy would have been for Shea Moisture to double down on the market segment that it built its success on by playing to its strengths, which include brand loyalty and a reputation as a pioneer, rather than intentionally trying to bring the Shea Moisture brand to segments that are already saturated by bigger companies that are hoping to make inroads in Shea Moisture's segment.

If Sundial Brands truly believed there are opportunities in other market segments, it should have explored launching one or more new brands for the effort. While doing that would not be without its own challenges – building a new brand is never easy or cheap – clearly the company did not fully grasp how risky the attempted extension of the Shea Moisture brand to new customer segments would be.

Risking customer segments in which you have a strong position for new, competitive segments is usually not a pillar of sensible brand management. 

It's too easy to blame advertising

At the end of the day, had Shea Moisture better managed its brand, it never would have produced a backlash-inducing ad in the first place.

So while many are focusing on the company's ad, it's important for brands to remember that good advertising can't fix bad brand management, and advertising shouldn't be blamed for consumer backlash when poor brand management all but ensured that advertising couldn't be good in the first place.

Patricio Robles

Published 26 April, 2017 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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Comments (2)

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Donna Akodu, Marketing Planning Executive at Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Interesting view point great article. As one who used these products I have found that the changes to the formula of them has changed. I realised that was primarily due to the buy in from another investor.

I think as you have said companies that start small with a loyal consumer base must always remember the people that supported that journey of success. And when growth happens ensure that they stay true to the brand and those customers...

about 1 year ago

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Chris Turner, Owner and Principal at Bright Blue Kite

Agree, good points. Another approach to growth could have been to widen the product offer to this loyal core group.

I also learned that my hair is on a journey. I was unaware of this until just now.

about 1 year ago

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