John Demsey and Steve Stoute

How can beauty brands answer the call to activism consumers are requiring of them?

The past year sparked a rare spirit within the beauty industry. The COVID-19 pandemic and killing of George Floyd incited a series of events that humbled long-standing beauty institutions, challenging them to build new — and better. Consumers drove the conversation of change, demanding that brands clarify their stances on racism.

During the Virtual Beauty Inc Summit, John Demsey, executive group president, The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., and Steve Stoute, chief executive officer and founder of Translation and UnitedMasters, spoke with WWD’s Jenny B. Fine about how brands can respond to consumers’ collective call to activism and be agents of change within the industry.

“It starts with a strategy,” Stoute said. “You need a founder or a leader who’s pushing for diversity and inclusiveness. It’s how they bonus people, how they hire, it’s core to the company’s values. We can’t use the word ‘authentic’ or even attempt to say that word unless it’s part of the DNA of leadership.”

Following Floyd’s killing, Stoute received calls from holding companies and ceo’s asking him for advice on what to do.

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“I just remember thinking, that was the same thing you called about five years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed,” Stoute said. “You still have done nothing. It’s almost like when The New York Times puts it in the headline, you immediately gravitate toward wanting to do something. And then as soon as it loses its headline, your concern dissipates. I didn’t want to participate in renting a solution to anybody.”

Echoing Stoute’s statements, Demsey said brands should “speak, first and foremost, an authentic truth,” tailoring their messages to their core values.

“Every brand starts from a core set of values and principles and a core constituent and audience,” Demsey said. “As a broader organization of the Estée Lauder Cos., inclusion, diversity, values, value systems and respect are at the fundamental core of what we are about. But to say that the platform that MAC speaks with is exactly the same as the platform that Smashbox would speak with or Clinique or Estée Lauder, there are nuances in different generations and levels of how deep it goes to the core premise of what the brand is about.”

Stoute, who cowrote the book “The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy,” spoke specifically about segmentation in beauty — an industry practice he said “plays a role in racism.” While building the brand Carol’s Daughter, he noted that mass-market retailers often separated brands geared toward a multicultural consumer. That practice, he said, “is fundamentally flawed.”

“Cultural truths are what connect people,” Stoute said. “If you’re a white kid in Greenwich, Connecticut, who is 17 years old, you have a lot culturally that you connect with with an African American kid in Compton who is the same age. Yet no one talks about that part.

Both Stoute and Demsey agreed that companies need to change — for both moral reasons and as a business imperative. “The fashion and beauty industries are not only incentivizing segmentation, which is a byproduct of racism.…But I also think that they’re doing themselves a commercial disservice,” said Stoute.

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