There's digital, then there's what Marie Gulin-Merle calls "deeper than digital." The chief marketing officer of L'Oréal USA has pushed for data-driven personalization, which among other things led its Lancôme brand to develop a new custom makeup line with 72,000 combinations of shades, versus its 40 standard ones.
The Gulin-Merle has been driving digital marketing at L'Oréal since straight out of business school when, in 2001, she was appointed global webmaster for the Vichy brand. As VP of global integrated marketing, she led the 2014 launch of L'Oréal Paris' Makeup Genius virtual sampling app (which now has 20 million downloads).
"She has incredible foresight into emerging digital trends and the talent to translate them into meaningful marketing campaigns that connect with our consumers," says L'Oréal USA CEO Frédéric Rozé. "She's a creative force that inspires everyone around her."
Putting a digital native in charge of marketing has enabled L'Oréal to thrive despite the onslaught from digitally enabled cosmetics startups. In the past year, rival Procter & Gamble has exited color cosmetics, fragrance and hair color entirely, while other big incumbents Coty and Revlon saw organic sales fall 5 percent to 6 percent in the first half. L'Oréal, by contrast, saw organic sales rise 4.3 percent globally and 3.1 percent in North America.
L'Oréal also has benefited in recent years from acquisitions of emerging brands such as Urban Decay, Nyx, It Cosmetics and Carol's Daughter, which it provided with corporate support in manufacturing, sales, logistics and syndicated data while otherwise leaving founders and their teams in place. Gulin-Merle at the same time works to transfer learning from those newcomers in such areas as influencer marketing across L'Oréal USA's more than 30 brands.
It's a big difference from when Gulin-Merle started as a lonely pioneer on the digital-marketing frontier in 2001. "For a long time, there was a debate about whether we should embrace digital media," she says. "Now there's no choice."
To make sure that happens, Gulin-Merle has been focusing on "upskilling"—working with training firm General Assembly, for example, to test L'Oréal managers and to create a curriculum to help them keep up with rapid digital change.
One big trend she sees is the merging of content, product and services. But she sees an attendant paradox as well: The increasingly complex and fragmented media market that influences people's purchases is combining with a "see now, buy now" environment that makes the final decision incredibly quick.
The journey from brand awareness to actual sale "is getting more complex and fragmented, but at the same time the path to conversion has never been so short," she says. "We need to think about content that's going to drive conversion in a heartbeat."