Growing up in Washington, D.C. as the first-generation American child of Nigerian immigrants, Obinna Keke didn't go on fancy vacations or have a family car. "Our family couldn't afford that," the Director of Innovation & Business Operations for SheaMoisture Men and Nubian Heritage tells Fashionista. But he and his siblings found their own bit of luxury in what we'd now consider simple self-care items: "What we cherished the most were the small, affordable treasures like quality personal care products. The most treasured delicacy was any Dove bar soap or body wash. Though we couldn't afford expensive things, we always valued the nice things, like these products, because caring for our skin and hair really boosted our confidence as kids."
Fast-forward several decades, and Keke has built a career out of making this slice of personal care luxury more accessible to and inclusive of people — particularly people who look like him. "When I entered brand development, I wanted to make sure I made the absolute best products for those families who can't afford the Disney World trip, but wanted small treasures like amazing shampoo or body wash products."
Now based in Harlem, Keke left a career as an M&A accountant to pursue the field of polycultural brand and product development. Before joining SheaMoisture Men and Nubian Heritage, Keke had led Unilever's Men's Grooming Hair portfolio of brands. He has a personal interest in helping to advance underdeveloped segments in grooming and personal care that shapes the way he approaches brand and product development.
He also identified an obvious gap in the marketplace, based on personal experience. "I wanted to make better products for people with skin and hair like me," he says. "I also wanted to ensure that how they were portrayed in media and communications represented who they were and not outdated stereotypes."
Through his work at SheaMoisture Men, Keke and the entire team behind the brand are on a mission to make the personal care space more inclusive of Black male consumers; it's a goal that involves changing broader conversations, shifting mindsets, challenging decades of marketing traditions and even altering retail practices. Armed with research (read: actually spending time listening to Black men about their product needs and the ways in which marketing has failed to reach them), SheaMoisture hopes to set a new industry standard for inclusivity in the men's personal care space. Keke let Fashionista in on how the brand is working to achieve these goals — and what others in the industry can stand to learn.
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Last February, SheaMoisture introduced a series of initiatives to celebrate and cater to Black men. Building off of the brand's longstanding tradition of serving and supporting Black women, its newfound focus on Black men included a $1 million investment program dedicated to helping build wealth in the community, via grants and investments awarded to Black male entrepreneurs working to create wealth in their communities.
"Our mission is to help men break generational cycles of poverty and build thriving communities by providing access, capital and expertise," says Keke of the program. Beyond putting dollars behind supporting Black men, SheaMoisture Men is also working to reframe the way personal care products are marketed to male consumers, upending tired stereotypes and rejecting toxic masculinity that has been particularly pervasive in catering to this community. The brand released a digital documentary series called #MyStoryMyPower to shine a light on the diverse, multi-dimensional experiences of Black men. Exploring themes like mental health and family, the initiative aims to showcase the Black male experience in a way that hasn't been done before.
"Black stories are often told from a place of trauma and typically recycle outdated stereotypes about Black men. They are so much more than that, but currently there is no platform for them to tell their story," says Keke. "Our guiding light was to give these men a platform to take ownership of their narratives. To allow him to step into his power, as complex as it may be, share his nuanced experiences and empower him to reclaim his story, which reveal his multifaceted identities in this day and age."
To better serve Black male consumers, SheaMoisture started by putting its resources toward research. "We first made sure to spend time with men of color to understand what they liked in men's grooming and what was missing. We also touched on their thoughts on how the brand and media represent them," says Keke.
It became clear that the men's grooming space was largely predicated on outdated stereotypes, though, Keke admits, "there is a huge user base of three-in-one shampoo/conditioner/body wash products, but all men are not the same and cannot be looked at with a one-size-fits-all approach."
SheaMoisture's findings confirmed that Black men are passionate about grooming, curating their look and turning to grooming habits as a means of self-expression. But it also showed that, at large, Black male consumers are not engaged with men's personal care brands, mainly because he "doesn't see a true representation of him or products for his needs," as Keke puts it. "The work to be done was clear for us: SheaMoisture Men was going to be the men's grooming brand for men of color."
The brand developed its current product lineup — which includes items like Raw Shea Butter & Marula Oil Moisturizing Shampoo, Avocado Butter & Manuka Honey Deep Conditioner, Raw Shea Butter & Marula Oil Moisturizing Body Wash and Maracuja Oil & Shea Butter Beard Wash — based on the common complaints shared during the research phase. "They highlighted how personal wash products were stripping their skin and how hair products such as two-in-one shampoo and conditioners didn't really work for their hair type," explains Keke. The brand sought to develop cleansing products that lathered (which men deemed as important to the user experience and feeling clean), but were formulated with plant-based cleansers that are less harsh and stripping than ingredients typically used in body washes and shampoos.
When it came to hair care, two-in-ones were not an option. "We created separate shampoos and conditioners. This was intentional; we wanted to create and offer other products than the two-in-ones that result in [consumers] compromising on cleansing and conditioning," says Keke.
Of course, the work is not done once the products are developed. Another crucial component in making Black men feel seen and spoken to by the personal care and grooming industry? Retailers. The stores that sell men's personal care products — in this case, mass retailers — are the gatekeepers when it comes to distribution, and as such, they're an important part of driving change. "To better serve the needs of Black men, retailers can develop, strengthen and prioritize their product offering inclusivity strategy," says Keke, emphasizing that it's crucial for retailers to not just carry products that cater to men of color, but also to "ensure they are putting investment behind this strategy to ensure their consumer knows these products can now be found in their aisles."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, SheaMoisture's research showed that when shopping for personal care products, men value simplicity. "Anytime he can have a one stop shop, that will always be his preference," notes Keke. With this in mind, retailers should reconsider the still-surprisingly-commonplace practice of segregating their personal care aisles by ethnicity. "Giving products [that cater to men of color] equal positioning and placing them next to general market brands will improve his experience," says Keke, who adds that this integration will have to extend to marketing and education efforts to be truly effective.
When he envisions the future of the personal care industry, Keke is optimistic that it's on its way to becoming a more inclusive space. And for its part, SheaMoisture Men is truly just getting started: "We are bursting at the seams with content and solutions for this consumer and can't wait to deliver."
Here's hoping other brands follow suit.
Homepage/main photo: Photo: Courtesy of SheaMoisture Men
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