Sephora is supporting its first campaign to promote Black-owned cosmetics brands with an effort to make them easier to find online. The beauty retailer wants people to see more images of Black women and men when they search "Black beauty" on Google or YouTube.
As part of its "Black Beauty Is Beauty" initiative that first launched in August, Sephora teamed with Interpublic Group's R/GA on a project to improve the visibility of its content and products for Black consumers. The goal is to make those images easier for search algorithms to crawl and index and to surface them to the top of results.
"The search results and the algorithms are influenced by not only what people are searching for in high volume, but also what's existed in [the] space for the longest time period," said Ellie Bamford, global head of media and connections at R/GA. "There were ways for us to influence that through a really simple but really smart search 'hack,' and that's what we focused on."
Sephora's effort to change search results for "Black beauty" comes amid growing public awareness about racial bias in technology and automation. Press reports and academic research have highlighted how the algorithms for internet search, facial recognition, natural language processing and artificial intelligence can be discriminatory.
'Black beauty' is more than a horse novel
R/GA found differences in search results indicating that Black beauty content and imagery were underrepresented. Unlike searches of "K beauty" that turn up South Korea's influences on makeup and skincare products, or of "French beauty" that result in images of the country's people and cosmetics brands, a search for "Black beauty" on Google typically points to author Anna Sewell's 1877 coming-of-age novel about a horse — or its numerous movie adaptations.
The search results also neglected to help find Sephora's "Black Beauty Is Beauty" short film that is a key part of the retailer's broader efforts to promote Black-owned brands, including Pattern by Tracee Ellis Ross, Briogeo, Adwoa Beauty, Bread Beauty Supply and Fenty Beauty. The 60-second spot presents a collage of beauty trends, products and tools in mainstream culture, and juxtaposes them with Black beauty culture.
"We set up a strategy to try to change that search experience, and to push this 'Black Beauty Is Beauty' content higher to improve discoverability, and improve the search results that people were experiencing," R/GA's Bamford said. "We also created a social film that highlighted the fact that there is a search engine bias."
The 90-second film, titled "What You Need to Know about #BlackBeauty ft. R/GA," urges viewers to mark relevant content with the #BlackBeauty hashtag. Tagging content helps people find it, especially on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, while visual search is becoming a more important part of search engine optimization (SEO) strategies. The tagging strategy aims to influence search algorithms over time so that they recognize Black beauty content, images and links over content related to the horse.
On YouTube, R/GA tried to drive discoverability by targeting the same search terms and keywords as on Google, using video watch and search results formats, to push "Black Beauty Is Beauty" content higher in listings.
"Our focus is to create some momentum behind the fact that 'Black Beauty' should stand for the real Black beauty and not the horse," Bamford said. "It's really just a very simple change, and the big insight for us is that media has such an ability to change people's experiences. What you discover through search and what you find through YouTube has a big influence on how you feel and how you see the world."
15 Percent Pledge
Sephora in the past few years has worked to improve the in-store experience for Black customers, commissioning a study that found shoppers from minority groups were more likely to shop online to avoid racial profiling while browsing stores. The beauty chain in 2019 closed all of its locations to provide diversity training to employees after singer SZA complained she was racially profiled while shopping at a Sephora location in California.
Sephora last year expanded on its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts by becoming the first retailer to accept the 15 Percent Pledge challenge. It promised to set aside at least 15% of its shelf space for products of Black-owned companies. With this year's first Black-owned brands campaign, Sephora introduced a variety of programs to support those businesses improve the in-store experience for all customers, according to an announcement.
Now, RG/A's effort to extend Sephora's campaign online and make it more visible in search results is designed to lay the groundwork for longer-term impact on the retailer's consumer experience.
"This just really positively influences search algorithms over time to start to recognize what is real Black beauty content and images," Bamford said. "There are very simple ways to change the experience people have through media that don't require massive paid budgets, and that can be really meaningful in changing people's experiences."