Health, Wellness & Biotech

Q&A: Dianna Cohen Of Crown Affair On Hair Care, Daily Rituals And Starting A Consumer Brand Right Before A Pandemic

Skin care and hair care have been on many of our minds for a while now, given the increased amount of time at home over the past year. In fact, startups in the hair care space have raised at least $240 million in the past few quarters, as we previously reported. New York-based Crown Affair is one of those companies.

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I came across Crown Affair last year on Twitter, and was interested in the concept. There are a lot of conversations around skin care routines on social media, but I didn’t see as many conversations around hair care.

The idea for Crown Affair came about roughly two-and-half years ago, and CEO Dianna Cohen began working full time on the company in August 2019. Crown Affair, which raised approximately $1.8 million in funding from investors including Brand Foundry Ventures and Montage Ventures, launched in January 2020. Then a couple of months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Cohen is no stranger to the world of consumer brands. She’s held positions at brands including Away and Into The Gloss, but Crown Affair was born from her own hair care routine. I sat down (virtually) with her to learn more about the company, where she sees hair care going, and the challenges and silver linings that came with launching a consumer brand right before a pandemic.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about Crown Affair and why you wanted to create products for a daily hair care ritual.

Dianna Cohen, CEO of Crown Affair

Cohen: I’m just the person who’s been obsessed with and has really loved hair for a long time. I was traveling a lot, and the girls on the team I was working with would ask: “What are you doing with your hair? You’re the only person I know who carries a brush with them or this oil.” It’s just such a mindful part of my own personal ritual, and it took me a really long time to figure out what worked for me. So I put (my ritual) into a shared Google Doc and it got shared beyond my network. I had random people (reading) it, requesting access and commenting. And, being in consumer for the last decade, that was kind of the light bulb moment for me; these conversations are happening. As I looked around and got deeper into the conversation space, it became clear how few brands existed in a specific category in beauty that were thoughtful, clean and effective. 

You officially launched in January 2020, and the pandemic hit soon after. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like launching a consumer brand right before this big change happened in the world?

Cohen: It’s obviously been a challenging time for the world in general, personally and professionally, but there also have been some really wild silver linings. On the positive side, I could not have planned, in any universe, that everyone wouldn’t be able to go to the salon. Our slogan is Take Your Time, and all of our messaging and language is around daily care. We had a mountain ahead of us in terms of converting people because it’s hard to change those habits.

I think this time at home has been a catalyst for our core messaging around time and care. Conversely, it’s hard having been an early employee. (There are) so many consumer brands, it is clear how important it is to be on the ground, spreading the gospel of what you’re doing. Figuring out how to scale the same amount of surface area digitally when all these channels are being super noisy requires a lot of creativity, and I’m proud of our team and the types of concepts we came up with.

There were challenges: Supply chain is very real. All of our brushes are handmade in Italy and, at the time, Italy was in lockdown and it was super scary. But the most important thing is the well-being of people. That’s the core and DNA of our business. Even when it comes to fundraising and building this team, it’s people first. And I think coming from a lot of brands — where I learned so much — we’ve been able to be super thoughtful about all of our customers, every interaction, what we’re putting into the world. 

Where do you see the hair care space as a whole going?

Cohen: The category has exploded across different sectors, maybe with the exception of styling. Obviously, at-home color has exploded as have different treatments to take care of your hair at home. I love hair care, but in truth I always felt it was the “other” thing in beauty.

When looking at the retail landscape on the beauty side, it’s color, cosmetics and skin care, and then the hair care section in the back. Fragrance even has a bigger space. So the fact that there is this new invigorated conversation around hair care is exciting to me. 

There are a lot of legacy brands, both on the drugstore and luxury side, that are changing their messaging, which is great. I think that’s really hard in this category; if your stuff’s been on the shelves for a long time, it’s really challenging to change your formula. There is an awakening around the quality of ingredients and hair care that I believe didn’t exist before. Ultimately, a huge part of our brand is we don’t use words like tame or control,  just the entire idea of good hair. I’m really hopeful the industry is changing in that way. 

Do you think people are more conscious, when it comes to their hair, about what ingredients are going into their shampoos and conditioners, and anything else they’re putting on their hair?

Cohen: I do. But I think it’s a slow and steady process. Again, it’s an interesting category; there are so many layers to it. One of the reasons I started Crown Affair was because I tried everything at Whole Foods, all the natural stuff, but my hair still didn’t look great. It’s a balance.

Hair is fascinating. It’s such a cool fiber that’s a huge part of our identities. When you demystify it, it’s a fiber that needs a certain level of moisture. You want to treat your hair as if it were silk, to be kind and gentle to it. I think putting fewer, better products into the world and things that people can really relate to is totally the future of this category. 

Do you think skin care has had more of a head start in terms of education and messaging about getting to know your skin and products you shouldn’t shouldn’t be using.

Cohen: Yes, 100 percent. You have to look at this holistically. Think about social media influencers and storytelling and YouTube, and all these channels. It’s like the entire world around consumers changed. And in the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a massive online democratization around skin care and color cosmetics, with people sharing what works for them and hoping it works for you. 

Early days at Into The Gloss, I joked that I was born in the comments section. I used to moderate the comments on ITG, or even working at consumer brands, is the most important thing is the product reviews; when you go to the product page and it’s not something that happens in a vacuum or in a boardroom. There’s been a lot of conversation around color and skin and hair care, and it’s a totally different tradition and ritual. 

If you look at Vogue in the 80s, it was all makeup and very little skin care. Then people realized that if they take care of their skin, they can use less makeup. And for the last however long everyone used the same care product to cover, fix and prevent (needing makeup). Taking better care of the thing in the first place requires fewer things to fix it. I always joke that we’re like the no-makeup makeup for hair. 

What we’re doing for hair care is exactly parallel to what I believe happened in the relationship between skin care and makeup. That’s not to say that makeup can’t be super transformative and empowering and fun in the same way that getting an epic blowout makes you feel like Beyonce, but there’s days you’re not getting (a blowout). Since you’re not doing your makeup every day, you really want to take the time to invest in skin care: it’s the same concept for hair. 

Illustration: Li-Anne Dias

Photo courtesy of Crown Affair

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