Chief Marketing Officer of M.A.C Cosmetics, Ukonwa Ojo, speaks to WARC’s Anna Hamill about evolving with customer behaviours during COVID-19, pivoting to digital brand experiences, and being accountable on Black Lives Matter and diversity during a time of cultural upheaval.

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WARC: We’re now five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and we're transitioning into what is tentatively a new phase of this situation. What lessons have you learned so far, particularly from the initial stages of the crisis? What's top of mind for you right now?

Ojo: The biggest lesson has been that, at the end of the day, empathy always wins. If we're listening and taking a journey along with our consumers, we will continue to pivot our organisation, our products, and our capabilities to be relevant for our consumer. That’s old school in that it’s a very fundamental tenet of marketing, and even though there's so much about the world that has changed, that hasn't changed. That's been a really great learning for me, and I think for our entire organisation.

Our job is to be completely obsessed with our consumer and to evolve with him or her. We've learned a lot of lessons as we've evolved through this process and then evolved a lot of our initiatives, activities, investments, and capabilities (with the customer). We've seen an impact in the business as a result. So the biggest learning is that the most important, foundational core of marketing really hasn't changed.

We had to close our stores for the safety of our employees and for our consumers. We saw the consumer shift spending in a physical store to spending online, and then pivoted with them as they made that transition (by) looking at what they were buying in this new world and pivoting our content and our investment to be aligned with that. It's just about paying attention to the people we serve, and making sure that we're evolving everything we're doing to stay relevant.

You say what has always been important to M.A.C Cosmetics is the idea of customer focus. Has this period reinforced that for your brand?

For sure. The M.A.C ‘Viva Glam’ campaign – which is a tentpole campaign for us – actually started during the last big global pandemic, which was the AIDS crisis. We were getting ready to launch the M.A.C Viva Glam campaign for this year – the original launch date was April… Very quickly, as an organisation, we decided that we were going to pivot it to be relevant for COVID-19 because there were a lot of organisations around the world that needed incremental support to serve their communities in this moment. We decided to donate US$10 million to 250 organisations around the world. That came with really focusing on what's happening in culture and what’s happening around us, instead of being focused on what we wanted to say in the moment.

Another example is that as the consumer moved from the physical store to the online store, we recognised that the way they shop for makeup is going to be very different, because makeup is so sensorial. They're used to going in and trying or playing with different colours. How do you do that in an online world? We were able to pivot a technology that we already had – we had a virtual ‘try-on’. We made it more front and centre and upgraded it to include new subcategories. We've seen a 3x increase in engagement with that tool, post-COVID. Once again – adapting, pivoting and optimising to be relevant to where consumers are today and where the category is going to go in the future.

Across all of this work, in terms of your marketing processes, what has the biggest change been? What lessons will you implement from what you've learned after the COVID-19 period, whenever that may be?

Some of it is quite foundational… We were always social listeners, but in today's world you really have to be because you have an entire lifetime of change happening in a day or a week. Your ability to listen, and the tools that you have to listen, becomes even more important. And then, being able to action that.

We've also significantly condensed our processes, so the way that we work with each other. You start operating almost on a ‘sprint’ basis, which a lot of people associate maybe primarily with start-ups. You are probably touching base daily, whereas (previously) maybe you talked to your partners in the regions quarterly or monthly. As the world moves toward this new reality, the way that you work has to change so that you can be relevant within that context. Daily scrum teams become the norm, and weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with regional partners become the norm, and that becomes a very important way of how you're going to market.

The way that you create content really changes. When you go from physical stores to an online store, the level of storytelling and content that you need to be relevant in an online universe is totally different. The way that you create content in the middle of a pandemic is totally different. You’re really looking at everything and pivoting to be relevant within the moment – that's why the way that you work has to change, or else you won't be able to keep up with the level of change that's required to win in the moment.

As you've been evolving over the course of the last few months, what does your media mix look like? How do you anticipate it continuing to change?

We'd never been a traditional brand to begin with – I would say our tool box has always been experiential, social, and digital. In that respect, our investment hasn't necessarily changed. We've made sure that we have a predominant focus on our online business, either via retail comms or in our brand comms. But the tools and the platforms themselves haven't dramatically changed because we've always been the brand that was more social and digital than most other brands. We've just seen an acceleration of that in the post-COVID-19 world.

Do you feel as though this crisis has made you a more efficient and more effective marketing team?

For sure, and it’s made us closer because we are talking so much more than we used to. We always were great, astute listeners to the consumer. But now you're doing it at a much higher frequency than you used to, and then you're also really poised to respond very quickly – whether it's responding to the changes with COVID-19, or responding to changes with Black Lives Matter.

Those are things that you would have discussed and agonised over for maybe months – for some companies, it’s years – and now you're doing within days or weeks. I think that makes you a better marketer because it makes you really focused on the person and the groups of people that you're serving, and it makes you very empathetic to make sure that you are meeting their needs in a very challenging moment for everyone.

Obviously diversity is a huge issue within the beauty industry. But also, perhaps historically, the beauty industry has been responsible for some of these stereotypes around what beauty means. How do you navigate that at M.A.C, specifically in the context of the current moment?

M.A.C had always been revolutionary when it came to this. Back in 1984, the motto and the mission of the brand was ‘all ages, all races, all genders’. So that's always been the credo of the brand.

I think for us, it's really like “what's the modern, present day interpretation of that?”, but it's been so healthy to be within an organisation that has believed that from the start, and has always designed for that, and always led the industry from that perspective. As we've been having a lot of conversations about diversity and inclusion, and equity and equality, it's been within the context of an organisation that believes in that at its very soul. That's been really critical for us.

On the second aspect of that, it's making sure that, as we're designing for our products and as we're hiring creators in front of the camera and behind the camera, how can we make sure that that community is reflective of the communities that we serve? As we started to look at that within the current environment, we found that there were certain places where we were doing a good job and there were certain places where we had gaps, and we needed to make some changes. We're very transparent about that.

We launched a seven-point action plan to our community. In that action plan, we talked about the things that we did well that we wanted to continue to do. For example, the fact that 12.7% of the US population is Black, but 60% of our employees are people of colour and 18% of our employees are Black employees. From that perspective, we are making sure that our employees are reflective of the communities we serve. We looked at our executive leadership team, with Black Lives Matter for example: 17% of our executive leadership team are Black employees. From that perspective, we feel pretty good about that. However, from director to executive, we had a significant gap. We had 4.5%, compared to 12.7% . That was one area that we called out and said “this is not good enough”. We're going to put very specific actions in place to make sure that we rectify that.

We've always been a brand that trained our make-up artists to serve all consumers – they have to be able to serve all genders and all races. We wanted to make sure that we are continuing to train people and prepare people for any issue there.

It's something that we really care about, but also are humble and transparent enough to know that we haven't gotten it all right and there are very specific areas that we need to work on and fix.

In the last couple of years, gender diversity, racial diversity, and LGBT+ diversity is something that's been talked a lot about. There is increasing recognition that some marketing industry initiatives have not gone far enough, or they haven't had enough impact. Why do you think that might be and why are companies now committing to this in a different way?

We know more now, and I think – with being in the middle of a pandemic, being on social media – people have more time to actually pay attention to what's happening in the world. We were able to really stop and see the impact that some of the inequities were having on us as a society and as a people, and made a decision to make a difference from a business perspective, but also from a human perspective.

There's no way as a human being that you watch the video of George Floyd and you choose not to participate. It was a human response, in addition to being a business response, and I think that's what's different now. M.A.C has always been a brand that understands the human response and business response, and I think for some organisations this has been an opportunity to not just intellectually understand the business aspect of it, but the human aspect as well.

A lot of leaders are showing up to the table as allies, as human beings wanting to work with other human beings to drive equity in the culture and in the world that they live in. I think that's really, really powerful. That's what's making a significant amount of difference. What's going to allow that to be sustainable is just greater accountability from our communities – our consumer community and our industry community – and just holding each other accountable to create the world that we all want to live in and be a part of.