#PR Expanded Guest Post: Lessons for PR Pros – Expanding Doesn’t Equate to Excluding

A Guest Post By Elissa B. Edmunds, Graduate Student, American University, PR Expanded Blog Contest Winner

How do companies lose valuable customers? By failing to represent them.

Credit: DDS Magazine www.ddsmagazine.com
Credit: DDS Magazine

Last year, Shea Moisture released an advertisement for a campaign called “Break Free from Hair Hate” that was meant to be empowering and uplifting. The video highlighted women talking about how they originally hated their natural hair because of how they were teased and treated by others, but eventually grew to embrace it.

The ad received backlash because Shea Moisture failed to represent the key demographic that made the brand so popular: black women with diverse hair textures. In the ad, there was one lighter-skinned woman with loose curls, a white woman with blonde hair, and two white women with red hair. Since coming under fire for their insensitivity and lack of inclusivity for the black women who made the brand famous, Shea Moisture pulled the ad.

People took to Shea Moisture’s Facebook page and Twitter and began to say things like “Shea Moisture is cancelled,” “Shea Moisture is a sell out,” and “I’m throwing my products in the trash!” Some even began to compare Shea Moisture to people who try to invalidate the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Customers began searching on LinkedIn to see who was in charge of the campaign, who was working at Shea Moisture, and who thought it would be a good idea to place an ad like this. Vaynermedia was the company hired to create the Shea media campaign: almost everyone in the campaign project, as well as head of relations and marketing at Shea Moisture was white, even though the business is black-owned. There was not only a lack of representation in the campaign itself, but also of the people who were in charge of creating it. Shea Moisture realized that they messed up and addressed the issue publicly but inadequately. You can read their response here. Here’s why their response fell short. 

  1. They forgot to represent the people who made them famous. Companies, while trying to expand their brand and reach to other audiences often forget about the people who have been the most loyal to them. There is nothing wrong with targeting other audiences, but failing to represent your original supporters in ads, and in your workplace is a problem. Expansion should not mean exclusion.  The advertisement could have included darker-skinned women and white women. Shea Moisture also failed to highlight the discrimination and attacks that black women face on their hair every day in the workplace, on the street, at the store, and anywhere else that they go.  It’s also a hard problem to fix. Even after the brand tried to apologize, many former supporters weren’t accepting it.
  1. Realize it’s not about you- it’s about the customers: There are ways to avoid communication controversies like these from happening. The first is to acknowledge and accept that the campaigns are not about the companies, they are for the consumers. It cannot be all about what the company wants. Shea Moisture tried to defend itself by saying that they are moving towards growing and including products for all women. There is nothing wrong with doing so, but they centered their apology more on what they were trying to do, rather than what they actually did. While Shea Moisture recognized that they were in the wrong towards the end, they also tried to convince their customers that there was just a slight misunderstanding and that the issue was more about how the campaign what was being interpreted, rather than the actual mistakes made by the marketing and public relations teams. In the end it doesn’t matter what you intended, it matters how your audiences responded to it.
  1. Listen rather than make excuses: Shea Moisture made another mistake by going on to Twitter responding to popular black bloggers, saying that there was not really anything wrong with the ad. Again, they were discrediting their loyal customers and people who have provided the company with free publicity multiple times. Instead of utilizing social media listening, where companies have the opportunity to gain insight and have discussions with their customers online, they were trying to correct the customers and minimize their feelings. This simply added fuel to the fire and had people even more outraged at how Shea Moisture was handling the situation.
  1. Make sure your team is diverse and represents your customer base: Another way to avoid completely missing the market and excluding your most loyal customers is to have representation and diversity in the workplace. By doing so, the chances of not having enough representation online will shrink, because there may be people in the room saying “____ needs to be included” or “I don’t see myself in this.” By diversifying expertise, demographics, and experience, there is more creativity, thoughtfulness, and reflectiveness in a group. There needs to be a multitude of perspectives to ensure that not everyone is thinking the same. Your target audience usually will not get left behind or forgotten about because they will be sitting in the room with you.

Black women are excluded from many companies, brands, and marketing. Shea Moisture missed the mark and ended up massively losing support because of it. As a biracial woman, an ex-supporter of Shea Moisture, and a communications scholar, I see a brand that lost sight of who made them successful in the first place, and ultimately lost the trust of their most loyal consumers because of their communications mistakes.

Elissa Edmunds, Graduate Student, American UniversityElissa Edmunds is a graduate student at American University’s School of Communication. Her passion lies with making marginalized voices heard and finding ways to connect the world of communication to social awareness.