Ukonwa Ojo CoverGirl Interview
How CoverGirl Pivoted From "Easy and Breezy" to Achieve the Ultimate Glow Up
Remember the morning you woke up and realized that the Olsen Twins were full-fledged adults? Us, too. The sisters went from cracking cases and the occasional "You got it, dude" to embodying fashion icons.
Their glow up was real, and so is CoverGirl's. Subtly, over the past few years, the brand known for easiness and breeziness grew up. It rebranded as a chicer, more mature version of itself, offering a wider range of products and a new look. But it also offered something more important than upgraded packaging: inclusivity, before it was a commodity. CoverGirl named a male ambassador — a CoverBoy — in 2016, and the brand partnered with female engineers in 2014. The ambassadors the brand celebrates are diverse in age, race, and vocation, and much of the credit goes to CoverGirl's powerhouse senior vice president Ukonwa Ojo, who comes from a long tenure in brand management, overseeing the marketing strategy for brands like Cheerios, Durex, and Betty Crocker before accepting the role with CoverGirl almost two years ago. Leaving her parents and Nigeria at 15 for America, Ojo went to college at the University of North Carolina, focusing on business and finance before deciding to return to school for brand management, something she felt more connected with. We discussed her eagerness to join the CoverGirl team, what she hopes to change for the better, and the future of representation in beauty.
POPSUGAR: Did you have any reservations coming into an industry that's perceived as surface level and superficial?
Ukonwa Ojo: For me, no. Not at all. My mom was a fashion designer, so fashion and beauty have been a part of my life for so long. And if anything, I feel like I've been lost. I've been working 20 years, and I'm like, "Beauty, where have you been all my life?" I can be a businesswoman, I can run a profit and loss statement and make my numbers and all that, but I can wear lipstick, I can get glammed up, I can have a stylist, I can have my makeup done.
"This is such a fun industry, because it really challenges me intellectually."
This is such a fun industry, because it really challenges me intellectually. It's really hard to win in this industry. It's very fragmented, it's lots of innovation all the time. It's very fast-paced, and digital is important — it's even more important here. You have to be constantly moving and innovating, so I love the intellectual challenge of that. But then it also appeals to my inner girl in terms of my love of fashion and color. I really feel like I can bring my whole self to work. That's been amazing for me.
PS: Thank you for saying that, because I don't think our industry gets enough credit, especially when you said "intellect."
UO: Oh, this is a hard job. To win in beauty is really, really hard. I don't know how many industries you go to where you're launching collections every five minutes. You're always thinking, "What's the next big thing?" You're always trying to stay ahead of the game from a consumer standpoint, staying relevant for every generation. Because all people participate in the category; it's not just a section of society, especially for a mass brand like us. There's nothing at all easy about playing and winning in this industry, and I love that. I love the intellectual challenge of that.
Model Maye Musk
PS: That's so refreshing to hear, because a lot of times with brands, they focus on one group of people. I know my mom personally feels left out, and I just absolutely love Maye Musk. She's a stunning woman, owning her age. And my mom sees her and is like, "Oh, I can wear CoverGirl still."
UO: Yes you can, exactly. And that is so important that we never, ever, ever, ever, ever walk away from that.
PS: What impressed you about CoverGirl before you got started with the company? And then, when you got there, what did you know needed to change? What were your hopes for the company?
UO: What impressed me was the brand. It's iconic. This is a brand where I'll get into an Uber and you're chatting and then, it's like, "What do you do?" And you're like, "I'm SVP at CoverGirl." They're like, "CoverGirl!" Everybody knows this brand and loves this brand. I personally live that because I get DMs all the time of people wanting to be CoverGirls. It means something to be a CoverGirl. The brand stood for inclusivity way before inclusivity was the cool thing to do. And I think people really give the brand credit for that.
That goes back to our founder who was very visionary, right? In 1961, calling the brand CoverGirl because he wanted the makeup of CoverGirls to be available to every girl. That's the DNA that empowers this brand. Every year, because we introduce new CoverGirls probably on a yearly basis, we're always asking ourselves, "Who has been part of this category but has never been celebrated before?" That really pushes us to introduce new narrative, new dialogue, to celebrate different types of beauty — not the idealized standard of it.
My job is incredibly fun for me personally because it really is aligned with my values. And I'm such a girl's girl. I love the whole thing. Then, to be a part of a brand that has an impact on culture. I can change the way that people define beauty, can change the way people feel about themselves. I've had emotional conversations with people that said, "When you made this person a CoverGirl, I felt like I was part of the beauty dialogue for the first time. And I've been a part of this country forever. I've been a part of this culture forever. But for the first time, I felt like I was part of it." To be a part of a team that does that and has the opportunity to do that, I honestly don't know what other job you would have that would tick all those boxes. So it was an easy yes for me, to be honest.
PS: When I think of CoverGirl, I think you are usually at the forefront of who is going to be the hot CoverGirl or CoverBoy. Obviously, Katy Perry, you guys got her early.
UO: Rihanna, Taylor Swift. If you literally go through the list.
PS: I loved seeing the commercial last year with Nura Afia.
UO: She was the first ambassador to wear a hijab.
PS: Is there one category that you guys are hoping to tap into this next year that you haven't yet?
UO: I wouldn't say we haven't yet, but I think we're just scratching the surface. We've always stood for ethnic diversity, we've always stood for age diversity. And I think now, nobody really embodies that more than Maye. I personally love her, but she just really embraces her age and allows us to be able to talk to all women.
The third piece that we've been really been trying to establish, and I see us doing more of, is vocational diversity, which is particularly important for girls. Historically, in the beauty industry, we only celebrated entertainers. You had to be an actor, a singer, or a model. Literally, almost 100 percent of the CoverGirls in the entire industry came from those three vocations. So what happens to all those other millions and millions and millions of women? Vocational diversity is one area where I think we've led the charge on.
We continue to push, so that's why in our slew of CoverGirls, we have a model, we have a singer, but we also have a businesswoman in Ayesha Curry. We have a motorcycle racer and a fitness enthusiast with Shelina (Moreda) and with Massy (Arias). We have a director and an actor with Issa. With the Clean Matte collection, we were able to launch with Girls Who Code for female engineers and females in science. Once again, so many women who participate in that never, ever thought they would be part of the beauty conversation ever. So we've gotten so many positive responses from females in science who are like, "Oh my God. I've never seen myself as part of beauty. This is first time ever." I think there's so much more that we can do.
PS: Let's talk about I Am What I Make Up. It spoke to me when I first saw it on television. I'm sure that was a huge task when you guys were thinking about the rebrand. What were the goals, and what was important to achieving that?
UO: It was a blessing for me that I wasn't a part of the beauty industry before. I joined a year and a half ago, and when you join, you get the opportunity to listen a lot. You listen to the people who love your brand. You listen to the people who don't love your brand. You listen to your team. You listen to your retailers. You listen to all your partners.
One thing that we realized was makeup was not getting as much credit as it deserved. A lot of women don't realize this, but every day with their makeup bag standing in front of the mirror, they are creating a version of themselves they want to show the world that day, and with that came the confidence that they needed to take on the world. We talked to so many people. They were like, "If I have a big presentation, I need my red lipstick." The only other thing that they talked about that was even close was high heels. She would talk about how her makeup for a wedding was very different than her makeup with girlfriends, versus if she's going to the club and it's like, "Well, why is that?" "Well, because I want to project different aspects of myself and different aspects of my personality to different people." That was the insight really underneath it all. And in the spirit of what I wanted to change, because our slogan was "Easy Breezy Beautiful," it was a handcuff, because when she's navigating all of those different dimensions of her personality, she needs different types of makeup for all of those. And they're not always easy.
"Because our slogan was 'Easy Breezy Beautiful,' it was a handcuff, because when she's navigating all of those different dimensions of her personality, she needs different types of makeup for all of those. It's not always easy."
UO: CoverGirl in the past would make the choice not to participate [in certain looks or events] because we would say, "That's not easy and breezy, so that's not CoverGirl." And our perspective was like, "We should never judge that." If that same woman says, "I want that look for this occasion," we should give that to her. Because we're her partner, and we're her ally, and we want her or him to have everything that they need to succeed. When we looked at our portfolio, we realized that we had gaps. That's why in our Spring collection, we launched 114 new items. There are lot of products that I have on my face that we literally didn't have before Spring, and now we do. So in the morning, when I just wanted to lay low in a hotel, I could do that. But if I'm talking to Kirbie and I know she's going to come in with a beat face, I better show up, right?
PS: You better show up.
UO: That's why we love I Am What I Make Up, because it allowed us, as a brand, to really stand for equipping her for whatever version of herself of himself they wanted to project to the world that day.
PS: You came to America as an immigrant when you were 15. What advice do you have for the 15-year-old right now that wants to fill your shoes and thinks, "I can do it, I just don't know how to get there." What is your best advice?
UO: I would say when you're younger in your career, you wonder if you can really do what you love as your vocation. I spent my first five and a half years in finance. While it taught me a lot, and I got really good at managing a business and running a profit and loss statement, I realized I didn't want to wake up and do that every day. It just wasn't me. I took a risk to quit my job at the time and go back to business school and study brand management.
It was a huge risk because I had a good-paying job, and I was doing really well in it, but I just didn't see myself doing that for the rest of my life. So I would say take the risk to lean into who you are, because I wholeheartedly believe that your gift is wrapped up in that. I don't think you can separate the two of them. And I don't think you can show up as your best self if you're doing something that is not core to who you are, who you want to be. I wish I had known that a little bit earlier, but I'm glad I realized it, and I made the choices that I wanted to make.
When I was at 15, my dad was a pilot. He said, "You can go anywhere in the world to study in a university." I said, "Well, I want to go to America because I want to run a business, and it's a capitalist country." He said, "OK, go." I came here without my parents or anything, and it was a risk, but it worked out. I took another risk when Coty [CoverGirl's parent company] came knocking and said, "Do you want to run CoverGirl?" I'd never worked in beauty before, but it sounded like it would be a heck of a lot of fun. And it turned out to be a heck of a lot of fun! So, I think just being superopen to just leaning into that piece that you feel like, "This is totally wrapped up in who I am, and I think I'll do well there."