Back Under Black Ownership and Run by Women, Essence Forges On

  • Liberian native who founded Sundial Brands leads buyout group
  • Magazine’s steady circulation underscores loyal customer base

Honoree Emeli Sande performs at the 5th Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Music reception.

Photographer: Frank Micelotta/Invision via Getty Images

The investment value of any print magazine is questionable these days. Richelieu Dennis thinks Essence -- the 47-year-old magazine for black women -- is an exception.

The Liberian native, chief executive officer of the hair- and skin-care maker Sundial Brands, leads a group that bought the magazine and related assets from Time Inc., making Essence a black-owned company once again after almost two decades as part of the publishing giant.

As Sundial CEO, Dennis built a $240 million-a-year business catering to black women with products like SheaMoisture, Nubian Heritage and Madam C.J. Walker. The company, backed by Bain Capital, agreed to be bought by Unilever in November for undisclosed terms. Dennis, who will lead Essence with longtime President Michelle Ebanks, sees similarities between the businesses -- like their loyal customers.

Richelieu Dennis

Photographer: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

“There’s something about Essence that we more than like, that we really love,” Dennis, 48, said in an interview. “The history of the community, the forward-thinking leadership. This is about serving women of color deeply.”

Essence, which began publishing in 1970, has done a good job keeping subscribers over the past decade, especially as periodicals have lost readers and advertisers to online media. Monthly circulation of the fashion, beauty and culture publication tops 1 million, down just 2.6 percent from 2007, and the company reaches about 16 million people through digital, video and social media, including TV specials like “Black Women in Hollywood Awards on OWN.” 

Strength of Essence

Monthly circulation at the magazine for black women has stabilized over the past decade

Source: Alliance for Audited Media

Ebony Magazine, owned by Clear View Group, is down about 9 percent over roughly that stretch, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

The company also owns the annual Essence Festival, which attracts about a half million people to New Orleans each July for music and food. Tickets start at $159, and in 2015 Time’s CEO told the Wall Street Journal it earned more money than the magazine made in a year.

Dennis, who started in business by carrying on his grandmother’s enterprise of making handmade shea butter soaps and co-founded Sundial in 1992 after graduating college, sees empowerment as a theme that can advance all of Essence’s operations.

As part of that agenda, the magazine’s all-black, all-female management team will have an equity stake. Dennis is also backing an initiative to finance women of color entrepreneurs nationwide. He plans to support crowdfunding campaigns and grant program winners up to $50,000 to pursue their business goals.

He’ll have some hurdles to clear. With readership down, magazine industry ad sales have plummeted in recent years and are expected to drop another 16 percent in 2018, according to Magna Global. That’s led some publishers to sell unwanted titles and to even bigger deals, like Meredith Corp.’s deal to buy Time for $1.8 billion in cash. Dennis declined to discuss ad sales and said the company’s multiple businesses represent an opportunity to “grow beyond traditional revenue streams.”

Climate for Publishers

“Like a number of publications, Essence is going to face that hardship of re-securing its audience,” said Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of media at the University of Virginia. “That’s a real-high maintenance relationship.”

So far, advertisers are supportive. Large marketers, including McDonald’s Inc., continue to place full-page ads in the magazine, and the company is still seen as a crucial tool for reaching black consumers.

“It is one of the most recognized brands in the U.S.,” said Rebecca Brown, vice president of marketing at E.T. Browne Drug Co., maker of Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula. The company, known for its lotion products, has been advertising in Essence for more than 35 years.

That type of loyalty gives Essence good odds for success, according to Tamara Jeffries, former executive editor who wrote a cover story on Oprah Winfrey last year and is now an associate professor of journalism at Bennett College. 

On Twitter, some users reacted to the magazine’s new black ownership by making pledges to renew their subscriptions and posting clapping hands emojis.

“It’s hard to explain how powerful and how close-knit that community of black women is,” Jeffries said. “So if they come out with a mission and they’re able to be smart and nimble, they’ll be fine.”

— With assistance by Gerry Smith

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