Marketing whiz Wil Shelton knows firsthand Black barbershops and salons aren’t just places to get a haircut, they are also cultural hubs.
When the pandemic forced these small businesses to temporarily close, many brick-and-mortar entrepreneurs had to pivot to virtual services to survive. And Shelton, a former stylist-turn-CEO of Wil Power Integrated Marketing pivoted with them.
Shelton’s firm helps the entertainment industry engage with patrons in his network of 100,000 Black barbershops and salons nationwide. According to Nielsen, Black consumers command $1.3 trillion in annual buying power and consume more media than any other group. Personal recommendations are one of the ways they learn about products, Nielsen shows.
But these ad campaigns are a win-win situation for the shop owners, too, as Shelton told the Southern California News Group.
Our interview with Shelton has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you give me an example of how you used to go about your work?
A: We worked with Fox on a show they had called “Empire.” They knew that show was going to be a big hit with African Americans, so they tapped me to spearhead the barbershop and beauty salon campaign. We produced branded items like nail files and T-shirts and even the shampoo and cutting capes that go around you when you’re getting your hair done.
Q: And now?
A: Fast-forward to the pandemic, and here we go with “Coming 2 America.” I had signed a deal with Paramount Pictures to help promote this movie, but when theaters closed, they ended up selling the movie to Amazon (Studios) for $125 million in December. They let Amazon know that I was the one that was going to spearhead the barbershop and beauty shop campaign.
So, Amazon hired me as a consultant to connect with the African American consumer authentically and culturally. We’re doing a massive social media campaign with the top barber and beauty influencers across the country and a little in-shop. We’re sending out some nice swag items so they can give them away.
Q: How do these grassroots campaigns benefit the shop owners?
A: They actually help their businesses become trendsetters in their communities. When you’re the one shop that has the “Coming 2 America” swag, you become a hot spot very quickly.
Q: The pandemic took its toll on many businesses, not least of all the grooming service industry. How did it impact people in your network?
A: It was catastrophic! Black hair salons and barbershops are like an ecosystem where the Black community flourishes. They blowdry the stress and anxiety away. They’re able to brush through the hardships of life. They detangle the obstacles that stand between you and your destiny. It’s very personable. So when the pandemic came along, these shops felt like they lost their structure professionally and personally.
Q: What did you do to help?
A: My message was, let’s be concerned but not consumed by this so we can open up the aperture of our minds and find out ways to help stay profitable during the pandemic. I created an Instagram Live show called ‘The New Normal With Wil Shelton’ where I interviewed stylists and shop owners from Southern California to Atlanta. We would talk about what strategies they were using.
Q: Can you give me an example or two?
A: They talked about Facetimeing with clients on how to mix-up color or trim hair. A lot of shop owners and stylists travel the country for workshops on the latest hairstyles. Now they do it virtually. One shop in Atlanta put together what she called the Quarantine Hair Kit. She ended up selling over $50,000 worth of products to her clients.
Q: How did you pivot?
A: I’ve had to practice the same thing I’ve been telling shop owners. A lot of our marketing efforts were in-store, in-shop. We distributed branded items and did salon takeovers and experiential things that you couldn’t really do during the pandemic, right? So we started to set up social media campaigns where our clients can still reach that African-American audience on those platforms. Some of our shop owners are like micro-influencers with anywhere from 5,000 followers to 200,000 followers on their Instagram pages.
Q: A shop owner with 200,000 followers?
A: I know, it’s almost incomprehensible. One guy, he’s a barber, has over 600,000 followers. Look, these barbers and stylists and shop owners are very engaging. They don’t just shape hair. They shape the culture one haircut at a time.
About Wil Shelton
Title: President, CEO and founder
Organization: Wil Power Integrated Marketing
Residence: La Mirada
Education: To prepare for his California state board license, Shelton completed 1,600 hours of ROP vocational cosmetology classes in Bellflower.
Prior work experience: Shelton worked for two years at a Beverly Hills salon with a celebrity clientele before opening up his own Wil Power Hair Designs in Bellflower in the mid-1990s. It closed a decade later. But he’s still licensed.
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