When Instagram first debuted in 2010, people welcomed the democratic, visual platform enthusiastically. Anyone who took pretty pictures could rise to fame. Any business with aesthetic branding could explode on e-commerce. For beauty brands, however, it’s become clear that mastering the platform is far more complex, involving a dizzying set of decisions before clicking “share.” Who is, and isn’t, represented on the grid? What skin tones do we see? Which hair textures?
No one thinks about this more than the Black entrepreneurs behind brands like The Lip Bar, Girl + Hair, Derma di Colore and Melanin Haircare, who cater to women whose needs have traditionally been overlooked by the industry. They have all used Instagram to propel their businesses forward but admit navigating the platform comes with a level of nuance most mainstream beauty brands don’t have to consider.
When Melissa Butler, Founder and CEO of the The Lip Bar, started her company back in 2011, big beauty brands were force-feeding Eurocentric ideals of beauty and rarely, if ever, making products that complemented the rich tones of deeper complexions. Foundations consisting of just four beige shades were still the norm.
From the onset, Butler was crystal clear on who she wanted to serve and what corresponding imagery she wanted to put out into the world. “I was downright frustrated with the lack of inclusivity, so I set out to create a company that would be the best of all worlds: Inclusive, high quality ingredients, affordable, high performance, [and] cruelty-free,” Butler explains. The Lip Bar would go on to be so successful that, as of February 2018, it now lines the shelves of Target.
She continues, “I know what it is to be underserved and not have representation, so when I started The Lip Bar, it was always my goal to serve the community that has typically been ignored.”
That’s the thing about diversity and inclusion. For it to be authentic, it must be seen and felt across every touchpoint of the brand, especially when it comes to visual representation. What is an inclusive social media account without the products to back them up, or rich pigmented products without diverse visual representation? When a community has been relegated to an afterthought for centuries by large corporations, it will take more than words and products to make them truly included.
Camille Howard-Verovic, founder of Girl+ Hair (Under Hair Care), knew that when she started her brand’s social media account that it was imperative it reflected the breadth of communities of color. “Social media is a great place for people to discover your brand and also a great place to build a community,” she explains. “Our product has a very clear target market and we are true to that target and I am very adamant about our page being very reflective of what we consider beautiful,” she goes on to say. That means the brand is hyper attuned to showing various skin tones, hair textures, and even hair styles on its page.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen time and time again that major beauty brands fail to match this level of intention. There are makeup companies who claim they wanted to get the product out as fast as possible, and made the decision to move forward before all the shades (read: deepest shades) were ready to go. There are brands that blame physical-only SPF in the product for not being able to go darker than their deepest shade. Meanwhile, brands founded by people of color, or those that have POCs in decision-making positions within the company, make considerations down to the curl pattern and even undertones of the women they post on their pages.
Most makeup brands believe they’re in the clear as long as they include a brown arm swatch—only slightly deeper than beige—every six or seven posts and hair care brands are good as long as they throw in one woman with textured hair in the bunch. What it really boils down to is that many beauty brands’ definition of inclusivity and diversity is one that doesn’t aim to actually see and hear people, but simply gets them to purchase products.
Dr. Carlos Charles was adamant about not doing with his dermatologist practice Derma di Colore. “I think the goal should be to start from a place of inclusiveness from the start,” which many still aren’t doing. “Those who are paying attention to our Instagram feed are extremely savvy and understand what we are about,” he says.
While catering to your audience by posting images of people who look like them all the time seems like a winning social strategy, these beauty brands also run the risk of hindering themselves from growth and expansion. Popular natural hair vlogger Whitney White (aka @naptural85) assures that’s not a concern as long as the brand prioritizes authenticity.
Her new haircare brand Melanin Haircare, “was created for, and because of, a specific community and so, for me, it’s only natural that the community is represented in the marketing,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s pigeonholing if it’s your truth.”
Despite having a more nuanced and complex set of decisions to consider, Black-owned beauty brands doing the the hard work of pushing and expanding what it means to authentically serve a community are the industry’s true change makers. Now, it’s time for other brands to step up and give greater consideration to the images and people they post on their Instagram accounts.