'The beauty industry had really moved on': CoverGirl's Ukonwa Ojo takes us inside the company's biggest ever rebrand

  • The proliferation of beauty on social media has dramatically changed the category in recent years, says CoverGirl’s Ukonwa Ojo, prompting the company’s biggest ever rebrand.
  • In this interview with Business Insider’s Tanya Dua, Ojo talks about how diversity, inclusivity and accessibility have always been a part of CoverGirl’s DNA.
  • She also explains how the makeup giant continues to make diversity a priority, not just in its marketing and communication, but also behind-the-scenes.
  • She also talked about how marketers must be “absolutely obsessed” with listening to their consumers, and how that led it to open a flagship store in New York City’s Time Square this fall.
  • Check out Business Insider’s full list of the the 25 most innovative CMOs in the world in 2018.

Following is a transcript of the video, which has been edited for clarity.

Tanya Dua:So tell me about the rebrand. 20 years you stick with one, you know, tagline and then you revamp it entirely – from product to packaging to the branding. What was your motivation behind that?

Ukonwa Ojo:It wasn’t an easy decision. Every time you join an icon that’s always the challenge you have, right, because it’s an icon, because there are a lot of things that are awesome about it. So I spent the first part of my job just really listening. Listening to our employees, listening to our customers, listening to our retailers and I think the biggest thing that we learned was a lot of people loved our positioning at the time, “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful,” but the reality is that the beauty industry had really moved on and the more we talked to people we learned that beauty was a lot more complicated than it used to be in the past. And while sometimes, yes, it’s a very easy look but most of the time what they told us was it really wasn’t easy and it really wasn’t breezy cause there were tons of products and techniques and beauty has really exploded on Instagram and on YouTube with tutorials and things like that.

And the reality of it was everyday as she looked in the mirror with her makeup bag she was literally creating whatever version of herself that she wanted to show the world. And sometimes it was easy, and sometimes it wasn’t. And for us to be able to move with her and keep up with her we really landed on this insight that led to the work “I Am What I Make Up,” which is that every day she has the opportunity with her creativity, and makeup is a tool to really express herself and to create whoever she wants to be and who she want to express to the world. So that’s really where the new work came from and everything really sprung from that … We launched a ton of innovation because we realised that there were a lot of products that she needed that we didn’t have in the portfolio, and we designed the way that she shops in stores,. But it really also started with that insight and then everything else came from there.

Dua:There’s also been a shift in that you’re looking at cosmetics not as a makeup product. You’re looking at it as a tool for self-expression. Why was that so important a shift to make for CoverGirl?

Ojo:Yeah, it was really interesting because the more that we talked to people we realised that makeup actually didn’t get the credit that it had in people’s lives. And I think for us we think of it as a cosmetic – most people do. But for people, and for women in particular, it was an extremely powerful tool for confidence and she would talk about going into, whether it was a meeting that she had that day or maybe it’s a blind date and she’s meeting, you know, someone for the first time and makeup really becomes an armour for her. And if you asked her to go into those situations without it, she would, in some cases, be terrified because she was like, “No, no, no, that’s my face.”

It’s almost like getting into costume for a play, like that’s how she gets into the mode that she needs to be in for the day. And that was such a powerful thing that I don’t know that she thought about initially. But as we uncovered that and kind of played that back to her, she would go, “Oh my god, that is exactly what I do everyday. I look in the mirror and I go, ‘What do I have today and what face do I want to show to the world today and what is going to give me confidence?'” And when she does that and when she gets it right, she arches her back a little bit more and she stands up a little bit straighter and she’s ready to take on whatever she has for the day and so we wanted to really bottle that and encapsulate that and share that with the world and that’s what we did with the “I Am What I Make Up” campaign.

Dua:It’s also very, very strong on diversity and inclusion. You work with James Charles who’s a male makeup influencer. You work with a range of other really powerful icons. So why is that an important thing for your brand to do, and in general for abrand to stand for something, to stand for values like that?

Ojo:No, I completely agree. That’s a great question. The beautiful thing about CoverGirl is that it’s always stood for inclusivity. I mean CoverGirl was for inclusivity before inclusivity was cool and became something that people really talked about and that’s something that I’m really proud about and that we’re really proud about. But when you think about where the brand actually came from, a lot of people don’t know that the name CoverGirl actually comes from our founder wanting the makeup of cover girls to be accessible to every girl, and so that’s whyaccessibility and inclusivity has always been in the DNA of the brand.

Fast forward to CoverGirl now being a part of Coty. The mission of Coty as a company is to celebrate and liberate the diversity of beauty. So all of a sudden, we are now also part of an organisation whose entire mission is to stand for diversity and is to celebrate the diversity of beauty. And the combination of those two things really unleashed the power I think of CoverGirl as a brand to stand tall as the most powerful brand in beauty, as the most iconic. We could really have not only a strong point of view, but I think a lot of people in the industry and a lot of people in culture, really look to CoverGirl as like what’s the next thing that we should be looking at, standing for, fighting for. So for us, ethnic diversity has always been extremely important for us. For us, age diversity has been really important to us. We are so excited to have Maye Musk as part of our line of CoverGirls. She’s 70. She’s the oldest CoverGirl we’ve ever had and she just recently joined the family and we’re so thrilled to have her.

And then the other thing we wanted to make sure we celebrated from a diversity and inclusivity standpoint was vocational diversity, because we realise that a lot of people felt left out of the beauty industry because historically it focused on models, singers, and actresses. But the reality is as we talk about “I Am What I Make Up,” women play so many roles in society and in today’s modern world, we wanted to really celebrate that. So we have Ayesha Curry who’s a businesswoman. We have Shelina, who’s a motorcycle racer and the first to race the Indy Raceway. We have Maye Musk who’s a model. We have Katy who is an artist and you know we have Massy Arias who’s into fitness. We love that women can look at this full diversity of ambassadors and go, “I see myself in her, oh no, I see myself in her.” And that’s just a different lens of diversity that really hasn’t been tapped in the beauty industry. We’re excited to also bring that to bear.

Dua:Yet that remains a concern in the advertising and marketing industry at large – diversity. There’s a lot of CMOs out there that are trying to move the needle on that. Are you doing something? You know, maybe your agency teams or internally? Tell me more about those efforts.

Ojo: I’m very passionate about making sure that we not only we have diversity in front of the camera. I’ve talked quite a bit about the diversity of our CoverGirls, but it’s really important that we have diversity behind the camera. And the reason why that’s important is because we’re able to tell stories that are really authentic to the people we are trying to relate to. And so, whether it’s from an ethnic diversity standpoint or even from an age diversity standpoint, we want to make sure that the people that are telling their stories on the brand, the people who are developing the products, are actually from the communities that we are trying to serve.

So one of the new products that we’re launching, for example, is TruBlend Matte Made. It will be the first time en masse that a beauty brand is launching 40 shades all at once. But the reason why it’s being so well-received and the product is so well-received is because the team that actually developed that product was a very ethnically diverse team. And so they are able to develop a product that can delight people of all shapes and tones and skin types, because they were part of telling that story. And so diversity for us is extremely important not just in the way that we communicate, but in the people behind it from an agency standpoint, having a really diverse team.

Dua:Two of you are creative directors were…

Ojo:Yes, exactly. So we had Grace Mellin and Shannon, who are part of creating the work that everybody is now seeing in the world. Also, of ethnic background, which is very rare in this industry. Shouldn’t be, but it is and we’re super proud that once again, the story’s been written by people who really get the communities that they’re trying to reach and have a passion for telling stories that will connect in an emotional way with them as well.

Dua:What are some of the other issues out there in the industry that concern you, that you really want to do something about, and are keeping you up at night?

Ojo:Oh my god, so many things. One is really pushing, yes we have awesome products and we want to be able to connect with people and show them the great quality of our products but we’re also learning that people want to connect with brands experientially and in a much deeper, more emotional, more experiential way. So you’ll actually see that in the fall. We’re going to be launching our first flagship store in Times Square. We’ve gotten so much positive feedback as we’ve taken CoverGirl on the road to a lot of events and people have the opportunity to really see “I Am What I Make Up” come to life to have the opportunity to really play with our products and create whatever version of themselves that they want to be.

And so we’re excited that we’re gonna have this, you know, ten thousand square-foot store that people can come in and experience the brand, really play with our products and really connect with us in a more meaningful way than they have in the past. We also want to make sure that we are really connecting with consumers in a social-first way. As we think about beauty, I think it’s changed quite a bit from the way beauty used to be in the past, and creating platforms from a social perspective that we can have two-way dialogue and co-create with our consumers is what beauty looks like in the future. That will continue to be a part of the brand as well.

Dua:Tell me a little bit more about your innovation efforts. You mentioned the flagship store. You’re competing with the Sephoras, the Ultas, the NYXs, and the Elfs of the world, that have basically been born on social, and you know you’re competing with them being an iconic legacy brand. What else are you going to do to compete with them?

Ojo: I think one of the things that we’re really proud of is we’ve done so many studies. And even through all of the disruption and fragmentation that has happened in the industry, the most loved cosmetic brand is still CoverGirl by far. And I think the reason for that is because as a team, we have to be obsessed with listening, absolutely obsessed with listening. And when we listen, be very, very agile to respond to that. And so, from an innovation standpoint, if they’re telling us that they need certain products we have to be very quick to innovate and have that in market and make sure that the quality is one that they will be delighted by.

If they’re telling us, “You know it’s really hard for me to find the shade that matches me, the colour that’s me, and that’s a struggle,” en masse, for example, we’re starting, we’re setting up this flagship store so they have the opportunity to do that. And we’re also going to a lot of events around the country so that consumers have the opportunity to be able to do that. So I think for us it’s really about paying attention, it’s really about listening and then being very agile to respond in real-time to make sure that we’re delivering everything that they are asking of us.

Dua:OK, so you essentially lead all the brand efforts for the brand, even though CMO is not your title. What do you think is the most powerful tool in a chief marketing officer’s arsenal today and what is the biggest marketing myth out there?

Ojo:The most powerful tool, I talked about it a little bit and it sounds really boring and clich├ęd, but it’s listening. It really is, and it can never get old to spend quality time with the people that choose you every single day and so for me that is such a priority. I spend an incredible amount of time talking to editors, talking to people, talking to consumers, talking to influencers. Like “what is it that you love about this brand, what do you wish we could change?” and instilling that in the team. That can never get old, and we’ll do it through traditional methods, but it’s also spending a ton of time for me personally on Instagram. My team spends a ton of time on Instagram and YouTube. Reading all the different comments. So yeah, it sounds a little bit old school to say you know what, you got to listen but I do think that is what we have to be able to do, whether it’s through a lot of the data that we’re getting, culling a lot of those insights, turning them around into experiences, technology, products that people are delighted by. And that never gets old and it wins every single time.

The myth, I think, is that you can market anything and that relevance is not as important as great products and not as important as they should be and it’s really all about the sexy stuff, right. It’s all about the communication and the marketing, and I think that’s really important. But for me, marketing really comes with number one, really listening and understanding who you’re serving and then creating products, and services, and experiences that absolutely delight them. And then you have the secret sauce that you can really shout about and you can communicate about. And when you can get those things right, my experience has been it works every single time. So that’s what we spend a ton of time on. Yes, we use new-age tools to listen. Sometimes we do it in focus groups, but a lot of time it’s through social listening and culling a ton of data. But at the end of the day, it’s listening to the people that love you to death and then acting on it very quickly and when you do, I believe that’s the formula that’s always gonna work.

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