Innovation involves more than just a groundbreaking idea brought to market. It requires an organizational structure that fosters such a culture and is backed by bona fide commitment, according to L’Oréal’s Rachel Weiss, who, as VP of digital innovation and entrepreneurship, demonstrates that the beauty brand pays more than just lip(stick) service to the concept.
Weiss, who joined L’Oréal in 2007, is charged with vetting new ideas, potential partners, and technologies. In this exclusive interview with CMO.com, she talks about her process for spotting innovative ideas, where digital innovation fit into L’Oréal’s overall business strategy, how she fosters innovation throughout the company, and some specific technologies that have captured her interest.
CMO.com: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your career in marketing? How did you end up where you are today?
Weiss: I’ve always been interested in storytelling and how to distribute content since I was a child. I still remember sending my first email in the college computer center as an undergraduate in the early ’90s and thinking, “Wow! How we will communicate in the future through computers is going to radically shift our culture and future of work.” I formally studied cinema and media as a grad student at NYU. When I started working in the mid-1990s, I don’t think anyone thought of digital marketing as a full-time job, and the internet was a novelty–a way to connect with strangers through groups on AOL, play games, and for brands to set up websites. Although the industry hadn’t fully matured, I took jobs with “new media” in the title, even at the assistant level. I had a career adviser tell me when I was in grad school that great jobs for women were going to be in marketing and new media, and I took that advice very seriously.
I legitimized myself in the field in the late ’90s while working at Sony Online Entertainment. Sony provided us with coding classes, and, at the same time, I was also moonlighting as a stand-up comedian and decided to build a website to promote myself. The process was really fun. I learned a new skill that also helped drive people to my shows, so I saw a business benefit. It ultimately lifted my career.
I never would have dreamed the job I have today even existed when I was in my early career. I’ve worked in entertainment, publishing, and financial services, advocating that the advancements in technology and digital behavior can drive sales and build businesses. Seeing some of the biggest companies in the world adopt these tools has been thrilling and rewarding.
CMO.com: What’s your role at L’Oréal USA? What’s your mandate?
Weiss: My title is vice president of digital innovation and entrepreneurship for the company’s U.S. operations. L’Oréal is more than 100 years old, and we’ve managed to remain relevant to our consumers by continuously evolving with emerging technologies. Innovation, technology, and science have always been central to how we develop and manufacture products, and it also heavily influences how we approach advertising and digital.
My job is to look at how people are behaving and interacting with brands, and then figure out how L’Oréal fits into that changing landscape. I’m always trying to anticipate where we need to be next. My job is to figure out how we should be evolving based on new technologies, recent trends, and consumer behavior. I encourage my team to look to other verticals and industries to see where we should be partnering and aligning. Then our teams have to bring our ideas to life.
CMO.com: How does digital innovation fit into L’Oréal’s overall business strategy?
Weiss: Our mission at L’Oréal is to be where the consumer is at all times–and I think we’re typically on point. We’re a company that thinks about how people behave and are able to get two steps ahead of where they are going. Innovation is key to making that happen.
CMO.com: What have been some of L’Oréal’s top digital innovations this year?
Weiss: Makeup Genius, an augmented reality app that allows consumers to virtually try on makeup, was a top innovation for us. Additionally, L’Oréal was a very early partner of Snapchat, and over the past two years we have created augmented reality filters that have played really well with consumers.
We also recently released the La Roche-Posay My UV Patch, a stretchable skin sensor that measures and educates consumer on UV exposure.
We’re always testing and exploring new ways of shopping and piloting new programs. We learn what works and what doesn’t and then see how we can implement the best-performing strategies across our brands.
CMO.com: What makes something innovative? How do you define innovation at L’Oréal?
Weiss: Innovation can be defined in so many different ways, but for us it means anticipating where the consumer is headed before they even know where they, themselves, want to go. Change management, trend prediction, and pattern recognition are all a part of innovation. But theory is not enough, so we need to always test, learn, and analyze results.
CMO.com: How do you foster innovation throughout the organization?
Weiss: There are a few different ways. Externally, we work with different investors, startups, and partners to see how we can advance not just our own products but also the broader beauty industry.
We also created a program called “L’Oréal USA Women in Digital,” where we work with female entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing the beauty industry. As part of that program, we launched the “NEXT Generation Awards”–we just closed our fifth entry period for female entrepreneurs who have ideas about how they can work with us to foster innovation and new ways of communicating with customers, especially our core female audience
CMO.com: What do you see as some of the major trends in digital in the next 12 to 18 months?
Weiss: I’m really paying attention to virtual and augmented reality right now. We’re at a zeitgeist moment where marketers are talking about it conceptually, but it is slowly becoming a very tangible opportunity. The implications of how people can learn and educate themselves with the addition of AR/VR are really interesting and important to watch.
There is also a lot of conversation around artificial intelligence. I think having an understanding of the do’s and don’ts for your business as it pertains to AI is going to be extremely important.
The last thing I’m keeping my eye on is the rise of messaging apps. We recently launched a project called “Beaumoji,” which is a suite of beauty-centric emojis. Emoticons are a visual language that everyone is using on Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and more. We developed Beaumojis to give our digital consumer a visual way to communicate about their passion for beauty.
CMO.com: How much of your innovation strategy is based on work that you do with the startup community?
Weiss: A big part of my job is actually working with the startup community. To give you an example, the Beaumoji project was made possible by working with a startup called Snaps that was funneled through our “Women in Digital” program. It’s a great example of how the startup community is helping us build these great user experiences.
For me, Snapchat was a startup that is now an important digital partner. Startups help us reach our consumers at scale, and they help us build different kinds of experiences than what we can build on our own. Working collaboratively with those kinds of partners is extremely important to continue learning and adapting our strategy.
CMO.com: How do you vet partners? We all get those emails, right?
Weiss: Yes, especially in this role. I like to take a venture-capital approach, looking at all the teams, evaluating what they can build, and envisioning real use cases. I specifically look to female entrepreneurs because they really understand our products.
CMO.com: How are you organized for innovation?
Weiss: I sit within our CMO group, which also includes our insights, media, retail, and product innovation teams. We work in a collaborative fashion, which is reflected across our portfolio of brands. My focus is on go-to-market innovation, which is changing all the time as technology, consumer products, and services collide.
CMO.com: What haven’t you solved? What challenge is on your plate?
Weiss: I’m thinking really deeply now about what machine learning can do for our business. There’s a lot of talk about bots–what can and can’t they do. Is a computer smarter than a person? I don’t have all the answers, but that’s the nature of this job and what makes it so exciting.
For me, it feels like I’ve come full circle, and we’re at a stage in technology similar to the one that initially drew me to the space–we’re once again in an extreme time of change. There’s a ton of possibility right now, and it’s empowering to witness it and be able to embed it in our work at L’Oréal.
CMO.com: If you can give CMOs one piece of advice as it pertains to digital innovation, what would it be?
Weiss: Things won’t always turn out the way you planned. Marketing is changing so quickly right now, so be prepared for the unexpected and shift your mindset to a continuous state of learning. Being a lifetime student is the only way to keep up with the speed of innovation. Just remember it’s OK to not know it all.