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Think Tank: Iman on the Multicultural Consumer

The founder and ceo of Iman Cosmetics offers a business strategy for selling beauty products to women of all skin tones.

Editor’s Note: Think Tank is a periodic column written by industry leaders and other critical thinkers. Today’s column is written by Iman, founder and ceo of Iman Cosmetics.

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I’m in the game of beauty, and have been for more than 20 years. Pre-Iman Cosmetics, as a supermodel being strewn to all luxuriant pockets of the world on location with access to the most coveted innovators in all things style, nothing should have been off-limits when it came to beauty. However, I would show up to a shoot fresh-faced, ready to be primped and teased into divineness, and the makeup artist of the moment would greet me with what was a commonplace opener at that time: “Did you bring your own makeup?” And more ethnically diverse models knew what that meant. “There are no foundations for your skin tone.” Ouch! This was not the uniqueness I was going for, and I was seething. Women who look like me have money to spend because we’re climbing the economic ladder and do research on brands because we’re educated — and we want to look good when we rule the world, just like everyone else.

When I launched the brand in 1994, we were touted as the prestige brand for women of color, which in marketing speak was really just a PC way of saying black. And even though our brand positioning and advertising incorporate a vast array of skin tones from what people identify as Hispanic and Asian, I was admittedly comfortable with Iman Cosmetics being identified as a beauty brand that filled the gap for black women because it was deeply personal for me. It was more than foundations and powders; it was appealing to a deep psychological need that I think all black women needed at that time: to be told that they were beautiful, invited to sit at the cool table and courted in high style. However, as we gathered more information about the game we were in, we started to shift into the more holistic vision that we are known for now throughout our positioning and advertising: Women of all skin tones want to look good when they rule the world. That is our fundamental principle.

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At Iman Cosmetics, we stick to a basic business strategy that starts with marketing and actually extends to a corporate positioning.

1. What’s Your MI (Multicultural Intelligence)?: This is the springboard for any marketing group that wishes to take a sophisticated approach to advertising and builds sustainable brand loyalty. How diverse is the group sitting at the boardroom table? Chances are, if there is varied representation there, the company structure is MI savvy and will inherently know how to resonate with their cultural group. It starts at home.

2. Free Your Mind: Marketers can be incredibly perceptive about trends but tend to stereotype multicultural markets. Multicultural markets are nuanced, but not alien.

3. Take It to the Streets: I’m not a big fan of the “expert opinion.” Nothing really beats hearing it from the horse’s mouth, because direct communication with the communities of interest lends authenticity to insights. Hire people from local communities as focus-group moderators.

4. Know the Language: Any marketing group has to be on board with cultural mores. If you’re marketing beauty products, you not only have to know what’s of significant import to specific cultural groups, but if advertising may be potentially offensive. Showing a collarbone to advertise luminous skin may be a norm in one country, but may be considered lascivious in another.

5. Be a Flagrant Button Pusher: We’re a big fan of what some marketers call “the wink.” This is when a general market advertisement or marketing campaign has a subversive message of alliance to a multicultural group with a sly social cue that is completely devoid of stereotype. Again, this is where sophistication comes in. There’s usually an insider reference that someone who is not part of that group would miss, thus hitting a sweet spot of recognition. Multicultural consumers often don’t want to be singled out, just included.

6. Don’t Just Date Her, Marry Her: If you target a multicultural group one year, you can’t simply drop that group because there’s a new trend and focus. If groups are not courted on a continuous basis, they just go find a brand that will treat them the way they deserve to be treated, and this negligence translates to a hit on your ROI (return on investment). Period. We did our own extensive sales and marketing research to gauge how women with skin tones of color spend their disposable dollars on beauty, and split the variables every which way to Sunday but in the end the findings were unequivocal. Well, what if she lives in Nashville versus New York? She wants to look good when she rules the world. Or how about 18 to 34 versus 35 to 50? She wants to look good when she rules the world. Or a median income of $40,000 versus one over $100,000? She wants to look good when she rules the world. We can’t just change the aesthetics; we have to change our thinking.

Everyone is hip to the fact that if you want to be in business, you clearly have to be in bed with the multicultural consumer. It would be an exercise in foolishness not to invite this customer out to play. But the playground mentality has been industry standard for longer than it needs to be, where someone new rolls on the scene and all of the attention goes to that new person.

I’m wondering if there is even such a thing as the multicultural consumer anymore and if this entire framework needs a renovation. But for now I’ll continue to stick to the basics, offering nothing more than a place to play for joy’s sake. After all, that is the point.

Iman founded Iman Cosmetics, a groundbreaking beauty collection designed for women with skin of color, in 1994. Discovered in Nairobi in 1973 by Peter Beard, Iman became one of fashion’s most iconic models throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Today her products are sold throughout the world.

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