bevel product display
Bevel founder Tristan Walker explains the decision to partner with Procter & Gamble was for their help in accelerating Bevel's vision to become a number one trusted brand. — Bevel

Men’s personal care is becoming big business, forecast to reach $166 billion by 2022, according to Allied Market Research, and evidenced by the success of startups from grooming brand Harry’s to wellness disruptor hims.

Within the personal care category, however, products specifically designed for the needs of consumers of color is just beginning to be meaningfully explored by mainstream brands.

Walker & Company, founded by entrepreneur Tristan Walker, and parent company of shaving brand Bevel, is on a mission to fuel this growth. Bevel began as a six-piece line of shaving tools and accessories designed specifically with Black men in mind, inspired by Walker’s own lifetime of experience with shaving irritation.

Walker says he’s well on his way to achieving his original vision for Bevel: to create the number one trusted personal care brand for Black men. The brand was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 2018 and has since expanded into skincare, body care and hair care, found online and on the shelves of Target, CVS, Walmart and Sally Beauty.

As the company grows, Bevel has also unwittingly managed to capture a larger audience. “At retail, over half of our consumers are non-Black and 30% of our consumers are women,” Walker told CO—. “We didn’t have to do anything other than make a product that works.”

Respecting — and serving — the $1.2 trillion purchasing power of African Americans

Walker’s success comes at an important moment for people of color in the U.S., as Black Lives Matter activism illuminates their experiences and places new focus on Black-owned businesses. Though the dominant culture of white America and mainstream corporations may not have previously been focused on the specific needs of consumers of color, this cultural moment has created a new urgency for diversity and inclusion and is poised to shape the future of consumer culture.

“[We] want to walk down a retail aisle and not be treated like a second-class citizen by a company that does not respect [our] purchasing power,” Walker says.

That purchasing power is not to be ignored: In 2018, Nielsen reported African Americans spent $1.2 trillion annually, a number forecast to rise to $1.5 trillion by next year. These consumers also overindex in personal care categories. “African Americans make up 14% of the U.S. population but have outsized influence over spending on essential items such as personal soap and bath needs ($573 million) and men’s toiletries ($61 million),” the report found.

According to Mintel, Black male consumers are the most likely to say they feel self-conscious if their skin is not clear. Walker emphasizes the importance of products that can tend specifically to these needs in a world where many African American men and women face unique pressure to appear “professional” according to largely white standards.

There was a wide-open opportunity to build something very special for an audience that had to suffer from this issue for way too long.

Tristan Walker, founder and CEO, Walker & Company Brands

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From moment of inspiration to DTC darling

While attending business school at Stanford University, Walker got a firsthand look at the breakaway successes among Bay Area startups. After stints at early iterations of Twitter and Foursquare, the idea for his own company came naturally.

According to Walker, roughly 80% of Black men and women, and 30% to 40% of everyone else, suffer the same issues of skin irritation related to curly hair. “There was a wide-open opportunity to build something very special for an audience that had to suffer from this issue for way too long,” he said.

Despite some resistance from the venture capital community, which is traditionally less interested in funding businesses led by women and people of color, Walker’s persistence and vision ultimately raised $33.3 million, according to Crunchbase.

“I knew it was going to work because [the product] worked,” Walker said with a laugh. “It was the first time in my life that I got to use a suite of products where I could use it and wake up the following morning with no irritation or razor bumps on my face."

Don’t call it a niche market

As more men start to see the results of a well-thought-out grooming regime, “there will be a bigger opportunity to speak to niche markets like men of color, men's makeup and getting even younger consumers established with beauty products,” Michael Fisher, trend forecaster and vice president of menswear and culture at trend research firm Fashion Snoops, told CO––.

But despite often being labeled as such, Walker disputes the idea that Bevel is a niche brand or speaks to a niche audience. “People of color make up the majority of the world, and people of color will be the majority in this country by 2030,” he says. “That is a train that has left the station, and if you choose not to hop on that train, too bad.”

Walker also believes that American culture overall tends to be led by Black culture, whether retailers have recognized that or not. Academic Cynthia M. Frisby backs up Walker’s belief: “Research…informs us that Black consumers define mainstream culture and shows that buying habits of Black consumers also influences how non-Black consumers spend their money,” she writes in Black and Beautiful: A Content Analysis and Study of Colorism and Strides toward Inclusivity in the Cosmetic Industry.

“When you consider all those things,” Walker said, “it’s not very niche.”

 tristan walker headshot
Tristan Walker, founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands. — Bevel

Maintaining authenticity post-P&G acquisition

“The reason why we decided to partner with Procter & Gamble is because they could help us accelerate our vision a lot sooner to become that number one trusted brand,” said Walker of the 2018 acquisition by the consumer products giant.

According to Walker, it was important to both him and P&G that Walker & Company and its suite of brands remain as autonomous as possible, to preserve the authenticity that had driven its success in the first place. He remains the CEO and maintains that he still doesn’t even have a P&G email address.

The merger has provided Walker and his Atlanta-based team with a unique opportunity for innovation and expansion led largely by employees of color, he said. “Our innovation process really starts with us, and then certainly is validated by research,” Walker said, with a hat tip to P&G’s $2 billion-plus research and development budget. “We already know the problems that we need to solve for ourselves, and there are a lot of people who look like us or have the same needs that we do.”

Despite increasing Bevel’s distribution into over 10,000 retail doors in the 18 months since the merger, Walker says he’s most excited about reaching the millions of consumers who still don’t know his brands exist, and the potential of reaching the longevity of a business like P&G itself.

“These won’t be our last products, and these won’t be our last products that we need to solve,” Walker said. “Think about where we’ll be 150 years from now.”

Imagining the future of the personal care aisle

Despite important growth in options for the needs of people of color, Walker sees less division and more personalization in the personal care aisle of the future.

When Walker founded the company in 2013, his focus was on meeting the needs of people of color. At the same time, he said, “being a Black man is also not a monolith. There’s diversity in that as well. I envision a world where everyone’s unique needs are respected.”

“You’re you,” he said. “And we need to get you what you need in service to your problem set. That future will be realized whether you believe it or not.”

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Published August 14, 2020