JuE Wong joined Olaplex as chief executive officer just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the U.S.
Despite the global change in circumstances, consumer habits and shopping options, she spearheaded a period of rapid growth, leading Olaplex through the salon shutdown era, while accelerating online and retail sales. Olaplex ended 2020 with a 50 percent uptick in sales, to $309 million, according to research from the Beauty Inc Top 100.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong went on her own Olaplex hair journey — growing her locks to impressive lengths with plans to donate her hair to St. Jude’s. “If I did not see it for myself, I would have said it’s just a lot of marketing,” she said.
“Hair now has earned a place in the beauty category that is not longer fluff and it is materially adding to wellness and adding to self care,” Wong said.
In this edited interview, Wong talks about Olaplex’s strategy to stay close to the professional hair community, shifting attitudes toward hair care, and leading while working from home.
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What propelled Olaplex during a year where salons shut down and people stayed home?
JuE Wong: The salon as a retail business for prestige hair care represents only about 8.4 percent of the total business…it comes down to $2.4. billion in prestige hair care sales.
Even during the shutdown, clients were shifting and finding ways to buy the retail products. The challenge was going to be the back bar — color services, chemical services and bleaching services. Customers were not going to agree to just using box colors. The bulk of women don’t single color process their hair. It created a whole industry of virtual learning and virtual teaching the customers how to do their hair.
Some of the stylists started producing packages and sending them to their customers. When you do that what is the one concern you have as a professional? You do not want your customer to fry their hair. The insurance for the hair is No. 1, that they pre-mix it into the color for the protection. You also send them No. 2, so after they rinse of the color they make sure their hair is not brittle and the bonds are being rebuilt.
That’s why Olaplex never really saw a dip when salons shut down. Business started moving to other retail dot coms, and our professionals needed to use it more than ever.
How are you thinking about Olaplex’s distribution strategy going forward, given learnings from the pandemic?
J.W.: Our business before COVID-19 started was heavily tilted toward professionals. Even during COVID-19, we did not see a drop off from professionals. Coming out of COVID-19, what we are seeing is our business is very evenly distributed. We are about 50 percent pro, North America and international, about 25 percent retail and about 25 percent direct-to-consumer. All we now have to focus on is going deeper in every construct, and we’ll continue to do that. We’re not trying to fix and right size anything, just amplify and optimize.
Olaplex started in the professional channel, but you’ve rolled out a consumer line, too. How do you think about building out the range?
J.W.: Science and technology leads our innovation and our business philosophy. We started really in the back bar with our No. 1, inserting ourselves in the color space. Any time we launch a product, especially if it’s back bar, it needs to add value. Nothing is worse than if you add a back bar service that has nothing to do with professionals incrementally increasing the service value.
In September, we will be launching something that is specifically for the back bar the complements the at-home care. We like to look at it this way: The back bar is like going to your dentist for your regular cleaning, but your flossing and brushing you have to do it every day — that’s your at-home care, just like your at-home skin care regimen.
Since Advent acquired the brand, we launched No. 0. We knew a lot of people were not able to go back to their salons — it was important for them to keep their hair at its healthiest so that the hair professional does not have to over strip the hair of bad coloring.
The professional is the one that defines us. If we don’t create something that will help drive traffic back to them they’re going to say, “you’ve just betrayed us.” No. 0 was very deliberate in helping drive traffic back to the professional.
You now see us launching No. 8, which is a hair mask. We wanted a hair mask that really addressed everything for all hair types. It was the number one most asked-for product in our range, and we constantly sent people to another brand. We are also generating a back bar version of the hair mask for the salons to be able to up their game.
Olaplex created the bond building category, but copycats have emerged. How do you make sure Olaplex continues to stand out as the segment gets more crowded?
J.W.: When you are the category creator and you are iconic in that space, it’s very logical for businesses to say, ‘What can I do to leapfrog the brand that is making history?’ I do not know every bond building company that is out there, but what I do know is at Olaplex we look at the science. We hardly ever spend on marketing, you’ll hardly ever see us anywhere, but what you do see is we make clinical claims, which is very unusual for hair care. We use a lot of our energy reaching out to our [professional] community to really ask them what are they seeing out there, what resonates with them, and having constant dialogue with them.
I always challenge everyone: when you have a product, see what happens when you wash it out? How does your hair feel? At the end of the day, the root cause of the damage has to be addressed. Because we built the bond building category doesn’t mean we aren’t mindful that we have to beat ourselves every time.
What has been top of mind for you as a leader during COVID-19?
J.W.: When I joined, a lot of times, I was the odd man out. I was the one who had never worked from home. Everyone else, the 35 of them — I was employee number 36 — had worked from home, and they all helped me. The team made me feel like they could bring me along with them. On a personal level, it was a bit tougher. What I found comforting is that I took things more seriously. I used to read a book and skip pages, but during COVID-19, where were you going to go? I was rereading books. I also became more empathetic. I’ve always been rush rush, let’s just get things done. When you are working from home and having conversations with people, you open up a Zoom meeting with a little bit of small talk. When you get to know someone as a person the empathy for them becomes more real. When they become a person you bring good things out of them and good things out of yourself. That is very rewarding.