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Covergirl is marking its territory in the increasingly fragmented global beauty sector with a number of bold investments: a line of branded merchandise, hi-tech trialling systems and its first foray into brick-and-mortar stores.

The Coty cosmetics business has distributed its products via traditional retail for the best part of 57 years. However, the launch of a 10,000-square-foot “experiential makeup playground” on New York City’s Times Square represents the first time it has created a dedicated destination for fans of the brand.

Inside, the store is equipped with a host of state-of-the-art technology. An AI-powered hologram named ‘Olivia’ greets customers to the store, answering questions and directing shoppers with the help of Google’s conversational Dialogflow platform. Customers can virtually try on makeup simply by picking up a connected product at an AR ‘glam station’, while lipsticks and makeup bags can be customized at a dedicated counter.

The Midtown store is also the only place to house Covergirl’s new line of merchandise – a range spanning athleisurewear, handbags and makeup brushes – and the company’s squad of ‘Covergirl BFFs’ – makeup artists trained in the Covergirl ethos of 'I Am What I Make Up'.

The store is a substantial investment for the brand, which is now competing not only with heritage high-street rivals and designer beauty counters, but with the likes of direct-to-consumer (DTC), e-commerce-led scaleups such as Glossier, Beauty Pie and Kylie Cosmetics. The squeeze on market share has seen Coty’s consumer beauty unit marked down by analysts for its ‘weakness’ (although, recent disruptions in the supply chain did not help matters either).

But rather than retreating, or badly imitating the business models of her rivals, Covergirl’s top marketer continues to be guided by what she knows best: empathy for consumers. Ukonwa Ojo, senior vice president of Covergirl and chief marketing officer of Coty’s Consumer Beauty division, is evangelical about acting reactively “like a founder” and putting her team in the customers’ shoes.

It was when she was doing the latter that she realized a huge swathe of her consumer base had no way of trying on Covergirl’s products in-store before purchasing. Unlike their European counterparts, retailers in North America do not carry product testers as standard.

“If you really geek out on who your consumer is and why they do what they do ... so many things come out,” she told The Drum. “So, you're like, ‘oh my God, she has to find a foundation that she can't try on anywhere, that must suck’.

“I have limited ability to solve that problem anywhere else, but I can open a store in a high traffic area which [offers her] a place to [test our products].”

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However, the Times Square store won’t just act as a product testing hub for consumers – it will loosely double as a laboratory for the Cover Girl brand too. Ojo’s team will be able to test beta lines before launching them in international markets and monitor which products are receiving the most love and ambivalence from its target audience.

This format has the potential to travel to other markets, Ojo said. It will also inform Covergirl’s traditional retail campaigns, rather than divest spend away from them.

“We actually see it as a great place for learning, to make the traditional retail work harder,” she said. “Now, we can go to our retail partners with insights, and say: ‘these are the products that are doing particularly well’ or ‘here's some technologies that you can bring into your store to elevate the shopping experience’.

“I think this actually serves as an investment ground, not just got CoverGirl the brand but for cosmetic retail.”

For the CMO, the store and the tech it houses represents a brand unconstrained by its heritage. The glossy brick-and-mortar flagship is a PR exercise favored by e-commerce brands, for instance, while cracking the code of makeovers in VR is an endeavor attempted by larger rivals such as P&G and L’Oréal.

Meanwhile, Covergirl's newly inked Leaping Bunny certification puts it in a league with ethical competitors, and with yesterday’s (4 December) official launch on Times Square, Ojo argues her brand is now direct-to-consumer in the truest sense of the term.

“One of the biggest things I say to the team is, never define yourself by the standard industry compartmentalization. We have done a lot of things that the industry in the past would have said ‘that's what indie brands do’ – people are now a little bit surprised because the most iconic brands in beauty are also doing them.

“If you start from a place of, ‘what are my consumers seeking and what am I serving them?’ you will go to a lot of places that people will traditionally say are not for big or established brands or established brands. And you can be more relevant for the consumer of today.”

Ukonwa Ojo has been nominated for the World Federation of Advertisers' Global Marketer of the Year award. You can vote for her, and the other finalists, on the WFA website.