This Salon Works to Understand Black Women’s Hair

Each week, the global conglomerate Unilever brings people into a salon to test new products. It’s hoping to get a bigger piece of the long undervalued but growing Black beauty market.

On a recent spring afternoon, Marcella Roberts and Brooke Council sat in a salon chatting about how much they liked their hair. The two women, who are Black, were discussing a new cream they had been using to style and moisturize their curly hairstyles.

“It does wonders,” said Ms. Roberts, whose daily work outside as a meter reader can quickly dry out her curls. “It lasts for a couple of days.”

“Even my co-worker said how soft my hair was,” Ms. Council added.

The cream didn’t leave their scalps with the distracting little flakes that other products sometimes did, the women said. And while they agreed that the cream had a pungent tropical scent when first applied, it “calmed down and it was a pleasant smell” as the day went on, Ms. Council said.

And that initial whiff hadn’t stopped Ms. Roberts from slathering the cream all over her scalp. “A little does go a long way,” she said. “But I just wanted to try it. I said, ‘Well, it’s a testing center.’”

The testing center she was referring to was the salon itself, run by Unilever, one of the largest consumer goods conglomerates in the world and the owner of brands like Dove, Vaseline and SheaMoisture. The product the women were assessing was one of the company’s latest, and as they offered their thoughts, Unilever scientists and stylists listened in and took notes on their phones.

The salon — and the insights gleaned from the people who test products there — is one way Unilever is trying to tap into the long undervalued, yet increasingly important, Black hair care market. Black consumers are a group that beauty companies have underinvested in or outright ignored for generations. Yet with people of color making up a growing percentage of the American population, it has become a business imperative for beauty companies to understand the millions of consumers with textured hair.

If Unilever gets this right, the company could gain a larger share of the $1.8 billion that Black consumers in the United States spend annually on hair products. Black women tend to use twice as many products for their hair care and styling routines as white women. And despite this demand, Black consumers are three times as likely as other racial groups to say they are dissatisfied with their options for hair and skin care, according to a McKinsey report released last year.

Melissa Williams, 22, went to the Unilever salon with her mother to test new products.Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

“I’ve been amazed with the work that’s been done so far, but also the work we still have to do,” said Peter Schrooyen, who oversees Unilever’s research and development for a dozen beauty brands in North America. “We have a lot of understanding of people with darker skin from India, from Africa, but there’s relatively little information we have on the African American, the Black and brown and Hispanic people from North America.”

Each week, Unilever brings in about 50 men and women to its salon, which it calls the Polycultural Center of Excellence. More than half of the participants are people of color.

They aren’t told the name of the product being tested — or what the company believes it should be used for. Instead, executives are looking to see how testers interact with the product because they might reveal a use for it that hadn’t already been considered.

“It’s really filling in those gaps of biology understanding or what we might have thought we understood off of one or two studies,” said Tiffany Yizar, the director of Unilever’s North America multicultural beauty technical center.

Across the street from the salon, Unilever has a research and development lab where it tests ingredients and formulas designed for curly hair. The salon is where the company tries to figure out what encourages people to buy more of its shampoos, conditioners and lotions from retailers like Target, CVS and Sally Beauty. (Unilever occasionally recruits shoppers in the aisles of these stores to participate in testing.) Products are sometimes sent back to the lab for more work once the company gathers feedback from those in the salon.

Between Unilever’s two buildings, a team of about 400 scientists, data analysts and stylists study human biology and consumer feedback to create products that sometimes take 18 months to hit the shelves. The scientists — who, Mr. Schrooyen noted, come from 40 countries — don’t work for a specific brand. Instead, they try to identify ingredients and develop “blockbuster technologies” that can be applied across Unilever’s product lines, which also include Axe and Sunsilk, a hair care brand.

Unilever owns a number of recognizable brands like Dove, Vaseline and SheaMoisture, but is facing competition from smaller e-commerce upstarts.Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Unilever’s recent changes included upgrading the formula of Vaseline lotions to add 88 percent more moisture, the company said, and rolling out a Dove line that includes detangling conditioners and recovery masks infused with honey, jojoba, aloe and coconut oil. In 2020, Unilever introduced Mele, a skin care line of gels, serums and sunscreen created for people of color and the biological makeup of their melanated skin. SheaMoisture started selling a scalp care line focused on dandruff, which is a top concern for Black women, according to a 2022 survey from Euromonitor.

Unilever is facing increased competition from e-commerce upstarts that have gained loyal followings on social media, and both it and its fellow giant Procter & Gamble have acquired some of these emerging brands. But pouring money into its own research and development allows Unilever to understand the underlying science of textured hair, said Jennifer Van Wyk, a former researcher at TRI Princeton, which conducts cosmetic science research that is financially supported by Unilever and other companies.

“Once you have that understanding it can be really helpful in terms of then innovating and finding these solutions to mitigate whatever problems there are or whatever benefits people want,” said Ms. Van Wyk, who led the nonprofit’s Textured Hair Project.

Unilever has been running its consumer testing center for five years. But in the wake of the racial justice protests in 2020, the company realized it could be doing more. In 2021, executives pledged to double the funding for researching and creating products for melanin-rich skin and textured hair by this year.

Over the years, several of Unilever’s brands have faced criticism for the way they’ve treated women of color in their marketing. An advertisement for Dove soap in 2017 showed a Black woman taking off her skin-tone-colored shirt to reveal a white woman in a white shirt. The ad played into a racist trope that Black people are dirty. After an outcry on social media, Dove apologized and said it “deeply” regretted “the offense that it has caused.”

For Black and brown consumers, purchase decisions are not just about buying products scientifically tailored to their skin and hair type. It’s also about feeling that a large company like Unilever is seeking to earn trust by soliciting their feedback and representing them fully.

Tiffany Yizar, standing at left, is the director of Unilever’s North America multicultural beauty technical center.Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Understanding those customers is one of Ms. Yizar’s main duties at the company. She advises Unilever on what products could and should enter the market as far out as 2026. Ms. Yizar, 37, is a trained chemical engineer who went to Brown University, she said, because it put her in a liberal arts environment while she studied the hard science of chemical and biochemical engineering.

“Beauty is a space where you’ve got this really long aisle,” said Ms. Yizar, who is Afro-Latina and wears her hair in locs. “I grew up in a time where only so much of the aisle was for me. So I think what we owe our consumers are diversity of options.”

On the day of the focus groups, she watched as Ayanna and Melissa Williams, mother and daughter, applied a white cream to their curly hair after stylists washed it. As the two worked the cream through their damp hair, Ms. Yizar peppered them with questions about how they learn about new products (through YouTube, Melissa, 22, said) and what catches their eye when they’re browsing in a store (bottles that list castor oil as an ingredient).

The elder Ms. Williams said that she often bought products that smelled nice, and that it was even better if the product’s fragrance lasted in her hair after she cooked her traditional Caribbean food. The cream she was testing in her hair that day smelled like a drink you’d have on a beach, she said, guessing that it had hints of peach and coconut.

But price is also a crucial factor. “As a mom, for me I’m always trying to find a deal,” said Ms. Williams, 41, who works in an elementary school.

Winning over one customer with textured hair doesn’t mean the same product will work for the next customer with naturally curly hair.

“The biggest challenge is to have too big of a reach, quite honestly,” said Courtney Rominiyi, an analyst at Mintel who researches the hair care industry. “I think one of the biggest downfalls that brands have had is trying to attract every single Black consumer.”

Ms. Yizar acknowledged that Unilever must get very nuanced and granular if it hoped to engender customer loyalty from a large number of people of color. And she noted that the work would never really stop.

Unilever has recently focused more on Black consumers, for instance, but still has a lot of work to do around understanding the habits and needs of Latino buyers. Ms. Yizar said it could take the company a decade to gain a true understanding of that diverse group of consumers.

“Once we do that,” she said, “there’s surely going to be another group there.”

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