Procter & Gamble’s latest brand buy is Walker & Company, a health and beauty outfit designed primarily to service people of color. The deal will allow the scaleup to expand its distribution and marketing operations, while providing P&G with a lucrative opportunity to own a category once known as “ethnic”.
Walker & Company’s suite of products currently comprises Bevel, a shaving and grooming brand designed for people with coarse, curly hair in mind, and Form Beauty, a hair care collection crafted to care for women with textured hair. A skincare line under the Bevel brand is also in the works.
The company was launched with a direct-to-consumer, subscription model in 2013 by Tristan Walker, who is now somewhat of an influencer in the entrepreneurial space. Walker & Company soon expanded into traditional retail through an exclusive deal with Target, as well as launching on Amazon and selling individual products on its site.
Today, the retail business is “just as healthy as [the] DTC business”, according to chief operating officer Joanne Hsieh.
“As time evolved we realized that for our consumer, especially when it comes to shaving ... education is probably our biggest barrier to acquiring new customers because historically, communities of color – men of color – have really shied away from putting razors on their faces due to the razor bump issues,” she said. “You either have the population of men who tried it and had really bad results and would never dare put a razor on their face again or you have the other segment that just fears doing it.”
Bevel’s flagship product – a single blade razor that cuts in-line with and not below the skin – was developed to mitigate issues of irritation. Landing it in a typical retail environment such as Target was key to encouraging trial, explained Hsieh. It also showed up the relative paucity of products in the so-called ‘ethnic beauty aisle’ in the US and beyond, which Walker himself lambasted in a recent profile in the New York Times.
“The packaging is very outdated [and] the ingredients aren't necessarily natural or good for you,” elaborated Hsieh. “I think what really set us apart is our team and their personal experience – they really understand what has been missing or lacking and we really tried to address those gaps when we develop products.
“The people on our product development, research and development, and marketing teams are the target consumer themselves”
It’s a lack of this diversity of experience that’s historically held conglomerates such as P&G back in their bid to win over people of color. Despite the fact that African Americans spent $473m on hair care alone in 2017, they have been historically ignored as consumers by the big beauty companies that hold the power to innovate.
Change has only arisen in the last couple years, underscored by LVMH’s investment in Fenty Beauty, the makeup line “created with promise of inclusion for all women” by pop start Rihanna, and Unilever’s purchase of the “multicultural” Sundial Brands in November 2017. Walker & Company is P&G’s first foray into the market, with acquisition conversations beginning not long after its FMCG rival picked up Sundial.
And like Unilever’s agreement with Sundial, P&G will leave Walker & Company to operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary with Walker as chief executive.
In a release, Alex Keith, P&G Beauty’s chief executive, Alex Keith, said his company has “tremendous respect for the work Tristan Walker has accomplished” and believes “the combination of Walker & Company’s deep consumer understanding, authentic connection to its community and unique, highly customized products and P&G’s highly-skilled and experienced people, resources, technical capabilities and global scale will allow us to further improve the lives of the world’s multicultural consumers.”
Hsieh noted that despite its now-bigger budget, Walker & Company’s marketing strategy will not deviate too far from its course so far. The brand currently invests in podcasts, lifestyle content marketing and event activations (including a recent collaboration with the Brooklyn Nets) in lieu of traditional advertising, although she noted P&G would certainly be “very helpful” when it comes to media buying at scale.
The company is now looking to hire across marketing and other consumer-facing platforms: areas “where culture is important" to the company, according to Hsieh.
“We'll be continuing in developing and hiring talent on our own as we were doing before the acquisition,” she said. “It was definitely something we wanted to make sure we preserve ... that's part of the reason [P&G] felt this partnership was aligned – we bring that authenticity."
For P&G the deal will be good for both its bottom line and reputation: it will pull in dollars from the US’s growing multi-ethnic population and save itself from accusation of exclusion when it comes to product range.
One question remains, however: in keeping Walker & Company at arm’s length, will P&G continue to hold inclusive thinking at the periphery of its business?