When I decided to write about the explosive topic of racial justice and equality in America, and how that plays out within the beauty category, I came face-to-face with a four-letter word: fear.
First, an analytics firm that measures consumer confidence – and that had originally approached The Robin Report offering its insights – declined to answer any questions regarding brand authenticity and racial justice. Next, a digital marketing platform, used by a huge number of DTC beauty brands to send promo emails and newsletters to customers, also begged off.
Companies say, “We’ll be inclusive until it doesn’t make money, and then we’re going to phase it out and go back to business as usual.”
In the midst of getting shot down by the analytics firm and the digital marketing platform, I received a mailing from a small luxury hair brand, the owner of which I’ve known for 25 years. With his latest product, a CBD scalp and body oil, he included a note that read, in part: “We are forgoing any official launch events/activities this coming season – giving space to Black voices, brands and businesses deserving center stage within our beauty community…”
Eureka! Surely this luxury hair brand owner, whom I’ve known and written about for decades, will want to talk to me about racial justice, right? Wrong.
But then a brilliant friend of mine suggested I reach-out to Corynne Corbett, and it was off to the races.
Anyone who’s been in the beauty industry for any length of time knows Corynne Corbett. As a groundbreaking Black beauty editor, Corbett was at the top of the beauty mastheads at Elle, Real Simple and Essence, for which she created “The Best in Black Beauty Awards.” In addition to those legacy magazines, Corbett also served as Editor in Chief for both Heart & Soul, which targeted Black readers, and Mode, a style publication championing what Corbett calls “real-sized” women.
Now a strategy consultant for beauty brands, Corbett, who obtained a Master’s of Professional Studies In Technology Entrepreneurship from University of Maryland College Park in 2017, is also the founder of Beauty BizCamp, a program dedicated to helping young women hone their chops in four tracks: “STEM, Artistry, Business and Entrepreneurship.” Also, an avid podcaster, Corbett’s currently developing a project that will enable Gen X and Gen Z women of color to tap her deep knowledge of beauty and technology to both create jobs and advocate for a more inclusive, realistic representation in media.
Given Corbett’s bio and current areas of focus, I think you’ll agree she’s pretty much THE person to talk to about racial justice and beauty. While very soft-spoken and measured in her responses, Corbett has strong opinions about this topic. Below is a condensed version of an hour-long, no holds barred chat.
Dana Wood: I feel like you’re such a deep thinker when it comes to beauty, while I deep think about virtually nothing.
Corynne Corbett: Well, you and I came of age at the same time in beauty editorial, and how much can we actually write about lipstick? Everyone’s doing that. I had to think about what differentiates me from other editors. And here’s what that is: I’m a Black woman who’s concerned with making sure there’s a diverse and inclusive voice at the table when it comes to products. Because I’ve been to too many press events where there were no products for me. And then I had to write about them anyway.
Wood: But you don’t feel that every beauty brand has to be for every person, correct?
Corbett: No, but the problem is brands that say they’re for everyone and really aren’t. Then it’s just a performative display of “we’re for everyone.”
And we’ve seen this cycle before. It’s like companies say, “We’ll be inclusive until it doesn’t make money, and then we’re going to phase it out and go back to business as usual.”
Wood: Are there any brands you’re specifically referring to? That walked away from inclusivity once they decided it wasn’t lucrative.
Corbett: The last time beauty companies tried to be inclusive was back in the late 80s, early 90s. Remember when Iman actually had a department store line? There was also Patricia French for Gazelle, there was Shades of You. There was all of this interest. And of all of those brands from that period, only Iman is left.
Wood: What about the big beauty companies – L’Oréal, Lauder, LVMH? Did they have any Black lines?
Corbett: No, but they had the colors – although they wouldn’t always have them in stock in the stores. I will say though, that Clinique did at least try over all these years. They weren’t always successful, but they did try.
But what would happen is, even if a brand had the right colors, salespeople weren’t always trained to service the Black customer. It was almost as if salespeople were steering customers away them from their brand.
MAC of course took a foothold because it so many shades. Even though the range wasn’t exactly right, people would use it because it was the closest they could get to their skin tone.
And back in that time, advertising drove the beauty message, even in editorial. So, it’s not like editors could say, “This doesn’t really work.”
Blogging and social media changed that dynamic, in that we now had Citizen Journalists telling their truth without worries [about repercussions from advertisers]. This is just my own opinion, but I think influencers now have the same problem editors had, in that they’re being paid. So, they’re not telling their whole truth. They’re doing what makes sense for them from a business perspective.
Wood: Well now we’re in this new moment. And we can’t say that interest in Black beauty is being totally driven by the racial justice movement, because a brand like Fenty has been massive since day one. And that launched when? 18 months ago?
Corbett: Yes! It’s great, actually. Kendo owns a stake and Rihanna has a financial stake in it, too.
The difference with Fenty was the way in which Rihanna communicated: “I see you.” And it wasn’t just with darker skin. It was the palest white girl, the albino girl. It’s: “I see you in all of your real diversity.” It was that emotional connection she was able to make.
Wood: I’ve been doing a little recon about beauty brands that have donated money to Black causes, and there’s actually a lot. I was really impressed. Glossier, a million bucks. Huda Beauty, $500,000. Some big checks have been written over the last six weeks. That’s good, right?
Corbett: Yes, it is good. But there was also pressure to write those big checks. This is just my perspective, but I think it’s one thing to write a check and that’s lovely. But what are you doing in your own company to address systemic racism? This has to be multi-pronged. Do you have recruitment efforts? What are your retention rates? Your promotion rates? What is your product assortment? What is your supplier diversity? What are the other things you can do to address racism?
You can create a plan, but if there are no measurable goals that you can be held accountable to, it’s just a performative allyship. Because everyone else is doing it, you have to do it.
And what I’ve been noticing is that there’s already some “allyship fatigue” setting in. People are already getting tired. And the need for diversity, inclusion and equity is not going away.
It’s the inclusion and equity parts that people need to pay attention to. If L’Oréal acquires a brand and the founder leaves, what’s that about? I mean, SoftSheen Carson did have people behind it at one point. But now it just becomes a name rather than really showing us the heritage and legacy.
Wood: But do you think the L’Oréals and Lauders of the world will start snapping up more Black brands now? I haven’t really heard of anything yet.
Corbett: They’re looking for unicorns now, like Drunk Elephant-level brands. The challenge with Black-owned brands is that oftentimes the reason they sell is because they don’t have the capital to scale. You can either be a successful small brand making a few million, or you can take money on, or sell your company outright. The big companies can scale in a way you can’t. It’s a Catch-22.
Wood: Do you think consumers our age will start voting with their wallets more when it comes to Black-owned brands? I know younger generations really do that.
Corbett: Yes, Gen Z is all about that; they were already doing that before this movement. And there are millennials who also do that. We’ve seen that with the whole clean movement.
But there’s also a sector that just doesn’t care.
I think Black women are willing to support Black-owned brands, for sure. For instance, although I was using Fenty, more recently I’ve been using Lip Bar. It’s a great product, and I’ve been really intentional about supporting that brand. Not only because it’s Black-owned, but because I also really love the product. It can’t just be because it’s a Black-owned brand. You have to get what you need from the product as well.
During Black History Month, all these lists come out about Black-owned brands, and it’s almost like information overload. So, I’m wondering what can help the average consumer wade through all that information and choose.
Like there’s this brand Black Girl Sunscreen, and also EleVen by Venus Williams – both of those address the fact that sunscreen can be chalky on our skin. Brands like that are offering a solution to a real problem.
Wood: Although I was psyched to see the big checks being written to Black Lives Matter and other racial justice causes, I have to say I’m really skeptical about all the recent editorial coverage on like Vogue.com and other sites. For a while it was “Black girl, Black girl, Black girl” and now I’m already seeing less of it. We were being bombarded and now we aren’t. Do you think publications need to be held accountable for ongoing coverage?
Corbett: It can’t be a “specialty” thing. It needs to be an ingrained part of editorial coverage, and not a special mandate, which is what I think we saw a lot of.
And then you’ll see situations like with Refinery 29, which has an entire Black vertical, but then you hear about mistreatment of personnel. Media needs to look at its practices, and not just react to movements. It’s not just content alone.
And that’s the case also with Condé Nast and Hearst. They’ve got to really look at how they do business and do better. That’s the bottom line. It’s how they treat women, how they treat people of color.
There are more Black people in media now, but rarely on the print side of the business. You’ll see it more in digital.
Wood: Yes, when I was at Brides as Beauty Director and Keija Minor got bumped up to Editor in Chief, it was the first time in the history of Condé Nast that a Black individual held that title.
Corbett: I think there’s still an elitist attitude toward the print product, even though it isn’t making the money it used to. Of course, it’s important to understand what’s going on now, too. And while there have been so many inroads with digital, I think there are opportunities to be better storytellers in that sector, too.
I just want to say one more thing about beauty brands writing big checks for this movement right now. I think what Glossier is doing, which is not only to give money but to provide grants to Black-owned beauty businesses, is impressive. That’s the way to support people, and that’s putting your money where your mouth is. Glossier is trying to make a real difference.
I really want to see where we end up with all this. Talk to me again in a year.