Dove, a brand owned by Unilever, came under fire in October for a controversial ad that appeared to show a black woman taking off a shirt and turning into a white woman.
Backlash was swift across the board. Dove pulled the ad, and issued an apology noting the ad "did not represent the diversity of real beauty which is something Dove is passionate about and is core to our beliefs, and it should not have happened."
In recent weeks Unilever announced they are acquiring Sundial Brands, a leading haircare and skincare company that caters to women of color. In their press release announcing the acquisition, Unilever explained their reasoning behind making this move: "The Sundial team has built differentiated and on-trend premium brands serving multicultural and millennial consumers that enhance our existing portfolio."
Trends in the population show the U.S. is increasingly becoming more diverse. And companies who don't embrace these changes in their marketing will soon find themselves struggling to stay relevant with consumers.
This acquisition proves Unilever recognizes the importance of women of color as a customer group. And even though they've had missteps in the past, it shows they are committed to getting it right, so they can evolve with the changing needs of the market, rather than being forced to catch up later on.
Here are three important lessons you can pick up from Unilever that will enable you to better market to diverse customers:
1. Leverage the expertise of others.
When it comes to speaking to diverse consumers, it is ideal to have a team that is reflective of the customers you want to serve.
I used to work for a company that made insulin pumps for people with diabetes. A good chunk of our team had type 1 diabetes and personally used our products. Our ideal customer was always top of mind since so many of them were colleagues. It was easier for us to develop a deeper degree of intimacy with our customers, which helped us better understand their unique challenges.
While building a high-performing diverse team is optimal, it isn't always a change that can happen overnight. Thus in the interim, companies will do well to seek out the expertise of people who already know how to reach those customers.
As part of the acquisition, Unilever announced the appointment of Esi Eggleston Bracey to the role of Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of Unilever North America Personal Care. The company noted Bracey's "strong track record of business leadership in driving cultural relevancy in brand building."
In an interview discussing her new role, Bracey shared the broader impact she'll bring to Unilever: "A woman of color in a leadership position really brings cultural competency and inclusivity."
2. Show commitment to the community.
When it comes to marketing to customer groups you haven't focused on in the past, you'll need to demonstrate that your commitment to them isn't just transactional. They'll want to know your attention isn't just opportunistic in nature.
During my time at the diabetes company, our teams invested a significant amount of time connecting to the community by participating in Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) fundraising walks, volunteering at diabetes camps, hosting free educational events, and more.
As part of the acquisition agreement with Sundial Brands, Unilever says it's investing in programming to better the community as well--including a $50 million "New Voices Fund" specifically for women of color entrepreneurs.
Bracey added that "the epitome of this transaction, is that the community matters, this business matters, and we can take it further."
3. Don't fix what isn't broken.
When companies that consumers have come to know and love get acquired by larger businesses, often the fear is that their beloved products will change for the worse.
I started working at that diabetes company soon after Johnson & Johnson acquired it. In the years following the acquisition, our teams worked hard to ensure our customers knew many of the differentiating elements they'd come to love about the company weren't going to change now that it was part of a larger company.
After the announcement that Sundial Brands was becoming a part of Unilever, many of their loyal customers expressed concern. Richelieu Dennis, Sundial's CEO, was quick to put those concerns to bed with a brief statement: "The products are not going to change and we're not selling out."
Bracey added to his sentiment: "Why would Unilever change the product? The agreement is all about building the foundation, building off of it from the strength of the business."
The time is now to start focusing your efforts on reaching more diverse customer groups. Embrace the lessons of Unilever's quest to get it right, so you can too.