Last week, Essence Ventures acquired Essence Communications from Time Inc. Since 1970, Essence Communications has served as a source of empowerment for black women across its platforms, including its flagship print magazine, television specials, and the annual Essence Festival.

The acquisition makes Essence Communications a 100 percent black-owned company, led by a black female executive team who now have an ownership stake in the brand.  

Richelieu Dennis is the founder of Essence Ventures, and also the CEO of Sundial Brands, a leading haircare and skincare company that caters to women of color and was recently acquired by Unilever. I chatted with him to gain further insight into why having black female leadership at the helm of Essence better helps it serve women of color. He noted:

There is the freedom to go deep in the culture, and tell the story from the cultural participant perspective, which allows for a high level of freedom and awareness around unique cultural and economic issues.

He went on to explain that the enhanced sense of freedom "opens the art of the possible" when it comes to finding new ways to empower and connect with Essence's audience.

Why black women are a customer group you can't afford to ignore

Black-owned companies aren't the only ones that need to focus their attention on serving women of color. That's why Unilever and other businesses large and small are working to figure out how to effectively tap into the spending power of African Americans--$1.2 trillion, largely controlled by black women.

In a recent Nielsen report that focused in-depth on African American women, researchers echoed the need for brands to abandon the one-size-fits-all approach with this consumer group.

As the U.S. population continues to shift toward diversity and a multicultural majority, brands can not afford to ignore the unique preferences of African-Americans. To that end, African-American women are leaving an indelible imprint on America's economy, social consciousness and cultural landscape, and they're showing no signs of slowing as they become more and more aware of that influence. 

Here are three important lessons from the Essence acquisition that will help you reach women of color effectively in your business. 

1. Representation is important

I first learned about the Essence deal through social media. A number of people I'm connected to posted about how proud they were that both the leadership and the ownership of a brand they had grown up with once again looked like them. 

Business is about belonging. And you will do a better job of creating that sense of belonging with your customers when your team reflects your customer base. Peruse the #allmalepanel or #Oscarssowhite hashtags on Twitter to see that people are fed up with a lack of representative diversity.

That doesn't mean you have to go out and change who owns your company as you embark upon reaching diverse customer groups. But it will be important for you to be intentional about building a team who will enable you to authentically connect with your audience in a meaningful way.

2. Customer intimacy is not optional

You cannot effectively produce products, services, and experiences that solve your customers' problems like none other without having a deep degree of intimacy with them.

Richelieu Dennis has been serving women of color for more than 27 years with his various businesses. That knowledge combined with an Essence executive team who brings their own personal experiences as black women alongside their professional skills uniquely positions Essence to leverage its customer intimacy as a source of competitive advantage.

You can develop a deep degree of intimacy with your diverse customers even if you don't share the same background by intentionally practicing empathy. 

I spent the past four years at my corporate job getting to know the plight and daily challenges of people with diabetes. That included talking with them regularly, poring over research, and even wearing an insulin pump and checking my blood sugar regularly for a period of time so I could better understand what it was like for them.

3. Company culture has to be supportive of change

As you work to reach more diverse customer groups, often you will have to take different approaches to connect in a way that speaks to the groups directly.

Thus if your company culture is one that resists anything that deviates from the status quo, you will have to work to create a transformation that allows your team the freedom to explore the best way to serve these customer groups.

Start on a small scale if necessary with various experiments to get you more comfortable with a new way of operating. As you learn what works, you can expand your efforts.

Published on: Jan 9, 2018