Viori Beauty — Cultural Appropriation in The Name of White Saviorism

By now, you have probably heard of The Mahjong Line. Their tasteless attempt to westernize the traditional Chinese game of Mahjong has baffled and upset the Asian community, and rightfully so. The thing is; founders of The Mahjong Line made no effort, whether out of ignorance or apathy, to do Mahjong the justice it duly deserves. Their attempt to revamp the game was so atrocious, one could only hope it was fueled by pure naiveté. At the least, negative backlash has forced the company to (somewhat) reconsider its marketing strategy. And that is how The Mahjong Line has come to be the new poster child for Asian cultural appropriation.

https://twitter.com/christinacyoung/status/1346606884145553412

Yet still, there are countless more cases of Asian cultural appropriation; many, more crafty and calculated. Such brands manage to fly under the radar, thanks to “tactful” marketing, but really, more like “hyper-authentic” marketing. In relation to its Mahjong Line counterpart, Viori Beauty is a company landing on the opposite end of this cultural appropriation spectrum. (See video below)

In some ways, Viori resembles The Mahjong Line: White founders, so enchanted by some singular aspect of Asian culture, they felt it their life’s mission to share it with the rest of the Western world — just so long as it could be monetized. And well, to make matters worse, both their product designs just reek of cultural appropriation.

The ways in which the two diverge, however, highlight the nuances of cultural appropriation. While The Mahjong Line strips the Mahjong game of its traditional aesthetic and some more, Viori heavily retains and emphasizes the aesthetic from which they profit off of. It is a though Viori wants buyers to think it is the Asian villagers, pushed so heavily in their visual marketing, who are running the venture, not its White co-founder(s). If that isn’t enough, Viori takes it a step further, painting these villagers as victims of poverty in need of saving, or in their words, “blessing.”

The Video:

Viori in their Kickstarter comment section

Viori co-founder, Lynsie Galbraith, narrates the promotional video. She talks of her visit to an ancient village in the Longsheng Mountains. She explains how it is so remote and isolated, she had to travel the last few miles by foot to get there. Once there, she was captivated by the beauty of the local, Red Yao tribe women; well more specifically, by the beauty of their “long, thick, healthy, jet-black hair.” She talks of how the women were “kind enough to share their [haircare] secrets,” which involves the use of the native, Longsheng rice and “a special ritual that had been passed down mother to daughter for centuries.” She declares that haircare is “the heart of the Red Yao culture,” and that she was so inspired by these women, she wanted to “share it with the world.”

Viori’s Appropriation of Red Yao Culture:

It is unlikely that Galbraith just stumbled upon the Red Yao tribe and discover their haircare rituals. Rather, I believe Galbraith has it reversed. What probably happened was; she caught wind of this novel phenomena; involving a rich history and, luckily to match, a physical (sellable) product, the Longsheng rice. She knew that a compelling story and a “holy-grail” beauty ingredient, together, would sell in the western market, and only then embarked on her journey — to build a business.

Quite frankly though, the benefits of Longsheng rice in hair care has been already well established in the Chinese market. It is nothing new, and it does not require a spontaneous trip to “discover” this “secret.” The village itself has a healthy tourism aspect; their history and haircare methods are shared openly with visitors. In fact, the Huangluo Red Yao Village made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for “World’s Longest Hair Village” back in 2004. Also, from what I remember, having visited there myself, the Red Yao are by no means so “isolated” that they are “completely away from modern technology.” But truth doesn’t help Viori sell the image of exotic, does it?

Shampoo and conditioner bar each retail for $13 USD. Bamboo holder retails for $10 USD.

As for their visual branding, in the video, you catch glimpses of their product and package design. The shampoo bar is molded to the shape of a mooncake, while the conditioner bar is adorned with a Chinese wax seal. You also get a peek at their soap holder, a traditional bamboo steamer. Yes, — a bamboo steamer. Why anyone would put a mooncake in a steamer is beyond me.

Choosing when to Leverage Asian Representation:

Images of Red Yao women inserted right underneath product line to encourage buyer follow-through.

Viori’s website shows an ever more egregious offense of cultural appropriation. Viori uses the image of the Red Yao women only when it benefits them. Images of Red Yao women are plastered and recycled throughout the site. This is done to convince and reinforce to site-visitors (who have already been converted) of Viori’s authenticity and good-doing. However, when it comes to luring new visitors to their online shop, they use images of Caucasian women — via their blog posts.

The thing about blog posts is that they are easily shareable via social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest. Eye-catching images and grabbing titles will up the click-through rate. This is Viori’s chance to reel in that cyber passerby. For a brand centered around the Red Yao, they’ve chosen not to let the Red Yao women represent them when it matters most to their conversion metrics. Instead, opting for what appears to be stock photos of women possessing distinct Caucasian features and straight hair.

Choosing your Representation or Tokenism:

While on the topic of representation, a look into the ethnic composition of Viori’s founders seems to show a more diverse picture. Apparently, a number of who have Chinese roots or can speak Chinese. If so, it is significantly more likely these members would have a deeper kinship with the Red Yao, and a more genuine interest in preserving the tribe’s village. Thus, it would seem as though these are the people Viori would want to have represent their brand, or at least have mentioned in the video. This further points to the possibility that Viori is picking and choosing who gets representation, depending on the audience they wish to target, and what they wish to achieve with said audience.

Viori in their Kickstarter comment section — Read: “tokenism”

But even more disappointingly, such members are only alluded to using terms like “we” whenever Viori must justify why it should have any business appropriating the Red Yao culture. But considering the fact Viori is chunking their founders’ spouses into their diversity statistic, who really knows what is going on; could it be an act of tokenism?

Viori and their Customers’ Savior Complex:

Galbraith introduces the Beautiful Reason Initiative towards the end of the video. Each month, “[Viori] will reach out and find a cause that [customers] are passionate about supporting,” thereby giving those customers “a reason to feel good, and to feel beautiful as [they] buy and use [Viori’s] products.” The sentiment and wording of that sentence is perplexing in many ways. It is as if Viori is trying to ease buyer friction by unloading their customers’ consumption guilt with the idea that their spending will benefit “a cause” — any cause.

Viori has since replaced the choose-your-charity with the charity being the Red Yao tribe itself — what it should have been from the get-go. Five percent of profits goes back to the tribe to fund projects involving education, elderly care, and well of course, preserving the mountains where their product is grown. In all fairness, I do respect the charitable commitment.

What I do not respect are the constant undertones of White saviorism.

“Every day as you use our products, you are blessing the lives of someone else.”

“Meeting the Red Yao women was so inspiring that we created a business to help preserve their culture and bring their haircare traditions to women around the world..”

“… we feel it our responsibility to share their story with the world.”

The manipulative undertones of Viori’s messaging has even got me conflicted and confused as to whether or not this is a case of some savior complex. I mean, who could disagree with wanting to help keep a small village afloat? But then, I remember that giving to the Red Yao tribe charitably was an afterthought, a PR correction. It was not the original intention of Viori’s Beautiful Reason Initiative, but now that it is, Viori has an excellent opportunity to reframe the picture. Now…, there is a struggling village that customers, with their purchase, can feel good about shielding from the brink of collapse.

I sense that the Viori PR team is well aware of the concept of cultural appropriation. Perhaps, they are hoping that if they lean hard enough into their “authentic” visual branding, people will not notice. Or perhaps, paired with their mission-driven benevolence, they are hoping people will be too confused or conflicted to call them out.

Open to Discourse & Change:

At the end of the day, I think Viori can strive as a brand if they could relax their current marketing angle. Sustainability concerns aside, I do not think what they are trying to accomplish is wrong. Because, even if they are appropriating a culture or imparting some weird savior complex, they are indeed raising awareness to the Red Yao tribe in some way and (according to their statements) compensating them very fairly. Of course, I could be wrong, as I cannot speak on behalf of the Red Yao tribe.

So, if the Red Yao tribe is on board, great, Viori could get away with the mooncake soap bars in bamboo steamers for what it is worth. But with that said, Viori needs to redo their video and reword problematic messaging across their site and social media.

Keep it educational; let people learn about the Red Yao tribe, their rituals, the history of the land, and the benefits/science of Longsheng rice. Sure, go ahead and plug the corporate social responsibility stuff at the end too. But, if you are going to talk a big game, there needs the be the transparency to match.

Besides that, the business seems solid. The marketing has potential. It can do without the fluff. Frankly, you can still sell soap without the White co-founder from Utah going on about her inspiration to appropriate a culture for monetary gain.

Extra: For someone who hasn’t quite yet nailed down the optics of her own brand, Galbraith sure has a lot of advice to offer the BLM movement.

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Melissa Chan

Melissa Chan

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