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L’Oréal looks to better understand African beauty

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“Beauty is very important to African women. When we see the time spent on hair and skin, it’s very emotional and important for them. So I really have the conviction that if we provide the right products – that allow them to more easily achieve whatever hairstyles they’d like – I think they will stick to it.”

So says Alice Laurent, L’Oréal’s general manager of research and innovation in sub-Saharan Africa. The French cosmetics company – with globally-renowned brands such as Garnier, Lancôme, Maybelline, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren – has recently launched a research and innovation centre in South Africa. It is the group’s seventh research hub globally and aims at studying African hair and skin specifically, as well as the beauty routines and expectations of sub-Saharan consumers.

“The main focus is going to be hair – or at least it is going to be the first priority we address – specifically with relaxers, hair foods and oil moisturisers.”

L’Oréal already has various products that cater to consumers of African descent – such as its Dark and Lovely brand, which is popular in South Africa. But many of these were initially targeted at the beauty needs of African-Americans. According to Laurent, the South African-based research centre will employ scientists to develop products to cater to diverse African consumer specifics – especially when it comes to hair.

“L’Oréal has built a scale of curliness, which is quite good for us to assess which consumers we are talking to. It is an eight-point scale, and in South Africa there is a majority of seven and eight,” she continued.

“If you look at the African-American consumers we are working with from the US, the level of curl is not that high because of the mixing of populations.”

Beyond hair care, the research facility will also focus on developing body and hygiene products.

“Deodorants are also quite a big category in Africa… Smelling good all day is really important and deodorants are also very often used as a substitute of fine fragrance because it is an accessible way to get perfume.”

Foothold in Africa

The new African research centre represents the company’s strategy to better target the continent’s consumers. In 2013 it acquired the health and beauty business of Kenyan company Interconsumer Products, including the locally-manufactured Nice & Lovely brand. The company also has a factory in Midrand, South Africa and last year signed an agreement with consumer goods distributor CFAO to cover the production and distribution of cosmetics in Côte d’Ivoire.

“I would say the challenge is to make sure we take into account the local nuances… The needs and habits of Nigerian women are not the same as Kenyan women, nor South Africans. And I really believe that if we have this consumer proximity and if we manage to provide the right product for them, which we ensure through the development process by working with consumers… then there is huge potential.”

Laurent noted that competition among local players in Africa is fierce, although fragmented.

“Consumers are careful about what they use and like to use products they are confident with – so the brand is quite important,” she continued.

“I also think that consumers are looking at the money they put into beauty products. We need to take this into account and be careful with the price of our formulas while still offering the same level of quality and safety as our international standards.

“So that is quite a challenge for us to compete with local players who are sometimes more affordable.”

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