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Risking New Backlash, Dove Acquires SheaMoisture

By Published on .

Two marketers that faced racially charged social-media smackdowns this year over their ads are joining forces: Unilever, marketer of Dove, announced Monday that it's agreed to acquire Sundial Brands, marketer of SheaMoisture.

Dove faced a wave of social-media criticism last month over a Facebook video for its body wash that appeared to show a black woman turning into a white woman. Sundial faced a similar backlash over ads in April that showed SheaMoisture hair-care products being used by white women, which was seen by many on social media as moving the brand away from its core African-American consumers.

The companies didn't address those controversies in announcing the deal, but did reveal steps that could help thwart more backlash. This includes a $50 million New Voices Fund to back women-of-color entrepreneurs, with a goal of attracting an additional $50 milliion from outside investors.

Sundial will continue as a standalone unit within the global packaged-goods behemoth, led by founder and CEO Richelieu Dennis.

The companies didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Bonin Bough, who became chief growth and marketing officer of Sundial last month, will remain in that role. Bough is a prominent African-American marketing executive, alum of Mondelez and PepsiCo, and host of the Cleveland Hustles show on CNBC. Reached by phone Monday, Bough declined to comment.

In announcing the deal, Unilever did say that Esi Eggleston Bracey, one of the most prominent African-American executives in the beauty business over the past decade, would join the company in January as executive VP and chief operating officer of Unilever's North American personal care business. Bracey left Coty last year, where she was president of the consumer beauty business, and previously headed Procter & Gamble Co.'s global cosmetics business. She'll succeed Tamara Rogers in that role. Unilever and Rogers didn't immediately responde to requests for comment on her next move.

In reporting the news on Monday, Essence said the deal raises "questions about how big general-market brands influence black-owned companies. Similar sentiments were felt when L'Oreal USA bought Lisa Price's Carol's Daughter in 2014." But the site said Dennis remaining at the helm of Sundial brings "promise that the company will positively influence Unilever's venture into the multicultural space."

The deal so far hasn't stoked any major social-media backlash.

The companies didn't disclose terms or sales. Essence reported Sundial is expected to generate $240 million in sales this year. Besides SheaMoisture, Sundial also markets the Nubian Heritage, Madam C.J. Walker and Nyakio brands.

"The Sundial team has built differentiated and on-trend premium brands serving multicultural and millennial consumers," said Unilever President, North America Kees Kruythoff in a statement, where he likened Sundial to a portfolio of "purpose-driven" companies that includes Ben & Jerry's and Seventh Generation.

It was general-market brands like Dove and P&G's Pantene, which in recent years launched products that go after SheaMoisture's base by better addressing hair-care needs of women of color, that appeared to prompt SheaMoisture to respond by reaching out to white women with its April campaign from VaynerMedia. Those ads were widely criticized on social media and pulled the same day.

"We should make sure our core African-American consumer always feels represented in everything we do," Dennis said at the time, "because we are not moving away from her."

Dove's controversial Facebook ad was meant to show Dove body wash is for every type of skin. It was decried as racist due to a 3-second snippet showing a black woman taking off her top to reveal a white woman underneath. Unilever apologized and dropped the ad.

Dove found a defender in Brad Jakeman, the outgoing PepsiCo executive who faced his own social-media thrashing in April over an ad featuring Kendall Jenner. Speaking at the Ad Age Next conference earlier this month, Jakeman cited Dove's years of doing things to promote positive self-images for women.

"Somebody extracts just a few seconds out of a much longer piece of content, and suddenly the world is prepared to believe, 'Ah ha! Now we have a prenetrating insight into the darker soul of Dove.' That is terrible that we live in a society that does that," he said.

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