This Coty marketer runs her billion dollar CoverGirl brand like a founder. Here’s how

Coty's Ukonwa Ojo (left) and CoverGirl model Issa Rae at an event in New York City in October 2017
 Craig Barritt | Getty Images

Since beauty company Coty bought Procter & Gamble’s beauty brands for $12.5 billion in October 2016, it has been working on “fixing and improving” them, according to chief executive Camillo Pane.

The brands the company bought include Max Factor makeup and Clairol and Wella hair products. They also include CoverGirl, the billion-dollar cosmetics brand founded more than 60 years ago, and famous for its tagline “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful.”

Now the makeup line is run by Ukonwa Ojo, promoted this week from senior vice president of CoverGirl to chief marketing officer (CMO) of global CoverGirl and nail brand Sally Hansen, as well as CMO of Coty's U.S. consumer beauty division.

Joining Coty just as the P&G acquisition completed, Ojo’s task was to relaunch the brand, and fast.

Coty executive Ukonwa Ojo (left) with actor and producer Issa Rae (right) at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France, June 2018
 Dominique Charriau | Getty Images 

She hired ad agency Droga5 — previously, Grey had handled CoverGirl’s advertising for years — and got to work on finding out what people thought of makeup in a world where upstart brands such as , which started as a blog, are attracting the attention of younger consumers.

“One of the things that I learned was there was untapped opportunity in the beauty space — which is hard because it's very fragmented, so you would think there wasn't a lot of untapped opportunity there,” she told CNBC.

“But the biggest (learning) was that makeup was seen as a cosmetic, mostly… but we weren't actually giving it enough credit for what it really does for people, because the more that I listen to our consumers, I realize that it was really for them a very powerful tool of self-expression.”

Research told Ojo that a red lipstick might help a woman prepare for a big day at work, for example. “They're like, if I have an important meeting, I need my power red lip (and) once I put that on, it's game on.”

Mass-market makeup brands have been criticized for attempting to reach many people with bland advertising campaigns, or for simply portraying women using makeup to be sexually attractive. “Traditionally, in the (beauty) category, it had always been women being transformed for very superficial, vain reasons. In a lot of ways, it was because the category had been stuck in a male gaze. So we wanted to rewrite a lot of those conventions,” Katy Alonzo, Droga5’s group strategy director, told Fast Company in October.

Ojo, a longtime marketer of consumer packaged goods (CPG), with stints at General Mills, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever, approached the CoverGirl relaunch as if it was her own company, scouring social media for conversations about the brand.

“I believe that's for everybody on the team, not just the junior people on the team. I'm the crazy SVP (senior vice president) who reads all of the comments, who watches all the influencer videos. I think we all have to operate that way… (Coty’s) culture for employees is that we should have a founder’s mentality. So I don't run CoverGirl like an SVP. I run it like it was my own business,” she said.

“So I ask myself, what would I do if I was a founder? I would probably read every single comment, I would want to respond to people, I would want to reach out to influencers who are working with the brand and have relationships with them. That's how you stay ahead because if you keep your ears close to the ground, people will share feedback with you.”

Ojo also encouraged her team to think in a similar way. "In CPG sometimes, the way that they've been trained, they are paralyzed when they don't have all the data and they're so afraid to make a decision. And you ask them one simple question and it will bring great clarity. If you are the founder of this business, what would you do? And it brings great clarity. They don't even need data," she said.

Musician Queen Latifah at the launch of her CoverGirl cosmetics line in New York City in September 2005
 Jemal Countess | Getty Images 

Over 11 months, Ojo oversaw an update of CoverGirl’s packaging and logo, how it was presented in stores, as well as its advertising, introducing the tagline: “I am What I Make Up,” aiming to show the products as “tools of self-expression.” She also appointed new faces to advertise the brand, including motorcycle racer Shelina Moreda, 70 year-old model and dietician Maye Musk and “Insecure” writer and creator Issa Rae.

For Ojo, ethnic diversity, a mix of ages and women with a variety of vocations were important when choosing brand representatives, in an industry that has traditionally used young, white women to advertise products. (Indeed, when CoverGirl was under P&G, its chief brand officer Marc Pritchard said he realized several years ago that the models were “too young, too skinny and too white,” and introduced new faces such as Queen Latifah and Ellen DeGeneres to front it.)

“As we talked to a lot of women, we recognized that a lot of people were feeling left out of the beauty category because all of our cover girls (previously)… basically came from three fields, they were models or actresses and they were singers. And the reality is, women play a lot of roles in society today and we needed to represent that,” Ojo said.

Along with using women from a variety of backgrounds to front ad campaigns, CoverGirl has this week launched a foundation range in 40 shades to meet demand, with a 13-minute ad crediting the names of people who contacted Coty asking for a wider range of makeup that matched their skin tones.

Makeup brand Covergirl is set to open its first store in New York City in fall 2018
Business Wire

It is also set to open the first store in its 60-year history in New York’s Times Square this fall, after seeing the number of people who would wait in line at its stand at industry events Gen Beauty and Beautycon. “There would be a really long line of people trying to come to CoverGirl and you would be like that's weird, this brand has been around forever. Why are they all standing in line to be a part of this event?

“And you realize that's because they've never tried our products before, because we’re sold in mass (retail) or we are sold online and they've never been to a place where they could just play with the full assortment of our products,” Ojo said.

Ojo won’t be drawn on specific results of the relaunch so far, as Coty is in a quiet period ahead of reporting its quarterly earnings. “A whole new slew of people are getting introduced to the brand for the first time… So far, we've been encouraged by the improvements that we've seen since the relaunch hit the market.”