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African beauty under L’Oréal’s microscope

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Julia Gichuri

The sector’s world number-one is not going to be left out as Africa’s beauty market explodes. L’Oréal is opening a center of research and innovation in Johannesburg to study needs, routines and trends among African consumers in situ. We met with Consumer Evaluation Manager Julia Gichuri at the Research Centre for Sub-Saharan Beauty to learn more.

Already hard at work in L’Oréal’s new Johannesburg center

Although the center does not officially open its doors until July, the 17-strong team is already busy. Julia, originally from Kenya herself, points out that the Johannesburg unit also includes three people based in her home country. She goes on to stress the multicultural quality of the Group’s new Research & Innovation centre. “Like South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, we bring together people from all over.” Just as the team members hail from different places, they also offer diverse skills: “some have a product background, others came from consumer research”. All of which is harnessed and put towards the overarching goal: “we want to bring the best possible product to consumers”.

The researchers team will be able to tap into the experiences of the Group’s other research centres. “There are several centres like this one around the world, and we work closely together. For example we collaborate on haircare with the facilities in the USA and Brazil, two countries boasting large communities with African roots, and on skincare with the Indian and French centres.”

The Group’s strategy is the same across the board: make consumers the starting point. Being on the ground, says Julia, makes it possible to reach out and speak to women everywhere, even in their homes. “The team’s primary goal is to identify consumer needs.” To do that, L’Oréal carries out large-scale qualitative and quantitative surveys. The quantitative angle yields data about product usage, such as the kind of shampoo used by consumers. Qualitative surveys, meanwhile, hone the findings and shed light on the motivating factors behind different kinds of usage. “The qualitative work helps to further dimensonalise the quantitative findings.”

“We use the feedback received over the course of the process to co-create with consumers. When a product is being developed, we test it with consumers representing different usage types, using various research techniques.” Next, research at the R&I centre seeks to address two goals. In the short term, adapt products that are already on the market to address the identified needs as closely as possible. Second, spot and meet unsatisfied needs.”

Profiling female consumers in Africa

 Obviously, there is not one female consumer profile in Sub-Saharan African. Rather, there are many. Geography plays a big role in differences between profiles. Nigeria has the largest population and tends to be a beauty benchmark in the zone, exerting an influence that extends well beyond its borders. But South Africa is the leading market for beauty consumption.

L’Oréal is developing products that seek as far as possible to address common needs throughout Sub-Saharan Africa because “it is not so much the need as the use made of the same product that differs across regions”.

“Africans have curly and therefore fragile hair – this is a common feature – but that curliness varies from region to region. Ghanaian women have less curly hair than those in South Africa, for example.” That is what the quantitative side tells us. But each country takes a different approach to hair relaxing. Consumer research therefore gleans insights from consumer behaviour in different countries.

Demand is also shaped by economics. “We found that the same products are used differently across socio-economic classes. Take our hair relaxer, which is one of our flagship products. The relaxer is supposed to be washed out by a neutralising shampoo that deactivates the chemical reaction to straighten the hair. We found that lower-income consumers use the relaxer without the neutralising shampoo. This reflects their lack of means but also a lack of education about using the product.”

Haircare is a crux issue in African beauty: “Hair is the number-one beauty concern of African women; it’s a very emotional topic”. Accordingly, most of the money that women spend on beauty goes to haircare.

From drawing board to product: what is the purpose of L’Oréal’s center?

How does L’Oréal harness the center’s observations to develop products? “Once we identify a need, we assemble our formulation team. We then work together to test the prototype with consumers right through to the end of the process.” To ensure that nothing is left to chance, an evaluation team carries out objective tests to measure the new product’s effectiveness. Does it really make hair shine? If not, it’s back to the formulation team. Julia cites the example of Dark & Lovely: “Africa is the world’s biggest relaxer market. But Africans do not consume these products in the same way as people elsewhere. Here in Africa, instead of using shampoo and conditioner every day – washing your hair once a week is considered frequent – women refresh their hair with ‘hair food’. We have therefore developed a moisturising oil that can be used daily in conjunction with the hair food treatment”.

What is next up for the center? “Skincare remains an underdeveloped market, but the need is there. Products exist, particularly in South Africa and Kenya, but many women in this region use the same products for their bodies and faces. It is not a question of availability but of usage”. Efforts to grow this market must therefore focus on marketing rather than products.

What else? In haircare, one upcoming trend is to “go natural”. “This is a niche market for now, but it cannot be ignored because this trend creates specific needs, notably in terms of making hair softer and more manageable”, tells Julia, a fan of the natural look herself.