Had someone told Délphine Viguier-Hovasse during her university years that one day she would run L’Oréal Paris, the world’s largest beauty brand, the executive would likely have been extremely surprised.
“My background is a scientific one: I am an engineer in agronomy,” said Viguier-Hovasse, who graduated from the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon, with a specialty in the genetics of plants and vegetables. “My passion is biology in general, and it started very early in childhood.”
Studies took her to various tropical and emerging countries, but then she was drawn by L’Oréal’s focus on science, and research and innovation for a career. So Viguier-Hovasse sent her résumé to the group’s laboratories, hoping to land a job there.
“A guy from human resources told me: ‘No, you have to do marketing. I’m pretty sure you’re good for marketing,’” said Viguier-Hovasse, who took a bit of persuading before acquiescing.
That was in 1997, when she joined the group and spent six months in sales. There were stints at L’Oréal Paris cosmetics, Gemey-Maybelline and Gemey-Maybelline Garnier in France. She served as general manager of LaScad for four years, during which time Cadum was purchased and integrated.
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Viguier-Hovasse was president of Carita and Decléor International, and Garnier’s global brand president for more than four years, while repositioning it in the natural space. She became general manager of L’Oréal Paris in June 2019, marking the first time a woman held the role.
Here, the executive discusses the mass market, key goals and what she loves best about the beauty business.
L’Oréal Paris returned to growth in 2020, despite the sluggish makeup segment. How is each product category performing now?
The brand is beating the market this year, clearly, and accelerated in the second semester. Hair color has really been the driver, followed by skin care and hair care. The only category which remains difficult is makeup.
Unfortunately, most of the salons have been closed in the world during the pandemic. For me, it has been a wake-up call to see how much consumers are attached to the hair-color category. People who decide to fight their grays move from salon to at-home hair color very quickly.
We are starting to develop a lot of digital tools to explain how to use hair color at home. We very quickly rolled them out. The market took off extremely quickly. It has been a fantastic digital transformation.
Skin care and hair care were dynamic, and not so much affected by the pandemic. People tend to buy more on e-commerce, because some drugstores have been closed. But still we stay on a very good trend in hair care and skin care, especially in China, the U.S. and Brazil. The three big countries have been dynamic.
Of course, we struggle on makeup. You wear a mask, stay at home, and so put less makeup on. I realize how much long-wear is important — non-transfer lipstick and foundation. We put our energy back on the long-wear makeup category and also on makeup that becomes more caring — adding hyaluronic acid in our True Match Foundation. I hope to turn makeup very quickly back to growth again.
How are you seeing the mass-market channel evolving for beauty overall?
The mass market will stay very dynamic because having accessible beauty products is a right for everyone.
We have a lot to do in the emerging and developed world. We will transform the consumer experience with more online plus offline. Very often, the consumer, even before buying a product in brick-and-mortar, is searching, Googling, trying the products with virtual try-on tools. So we have to make an experience which is much more integrated.
E-commerce is booming everywhere, so we accompany this trend by having products well-adapted to the channel, with a lot of added tools for the consumer to try and discover products.
What does the huge acceleration of e-commerce due to the pandemic portend for mass-market beauty overall looking ahead?
There’s a practical reason you buy your beauty at the same time you buy your food in brick-and-mortar stores, so it will last. And I think we have many opportunities to make a better experience there.
I often compare that to the music industry. Sometimes you hear [prerecorded] music and sometimes you go to a concert. When you go to a concert, you have a 3D experience, which is very different and you never forget. For a consumer that has a physical experience with a brand it’s something she’s more likely to remember. So that physical contact with the brand is still very important, and we have to make this experience more pleasurable for the consumer, whether it’s having some specific retail store branded L’Oréal Paris in China or a fantastic pop-up. Brick-and-mortar still has a future.
We have to make e-comm more sustainable, making sure that we group consumer purchases in one box, made with sustainable packaging, delivered with electric transportation.
It’s more difficult to make the consumer discover new products online. Very often on e-commerce people are buying star products they know very well. You want to make the consumer navigate into the range and discover new products, but by definition new products are smaller at the beginning. So they aren’t ranking high in the algorithm of our clients in e-comm. It’s where I need to find a way to make the consumer discover new products and have a great experience.
There’s a premiumization of mass in the U.S., like with the deal between Ulta Beauty and Target. What are the ramifications of this for mass-market beauty players?
We are observing a valorization of the U.S. market with specific lines that are more expensive because they are more concentrate or professional, or differently formulated. We are seeing a kind of stretch in the price scale of the U.S. beauty market.
You still need to have accessible products, but we saw in the U.S. that the valorized range of L’Oréal Paris is doing extremely well. For example, on hair care we have a sulfate-free range called EverPure. It’s more expensive to produce because of the formulas. It is between one-and-a-half and twice the price of a current shampoo by milliliters.
We have skin care, which is also stretched to a more expensive price, because we’ve launched a serum highly concentrated in retinol and hyaluronic acid. We just launched in the U.S., and it already has 1 percent market share. It’s sold between 25 and 30 euros.
The U.S. is a very expert, competitive market. Women there are super aware of what’s happening. There is a need and a demand from the consumer to have efficient and very specific products in the mass market, but they are at an accessible price compared to the other channels.
E-commerce globally has blurred the lines. You used to have consumers buying only in selective or professional channels for hair care, for example. With e-commerce, everything is a bit mixed — on Amazon, some Ulta e-comm platforms or even in Ulta brick-and-mortar — consumers also discover new brands that could be more accessible or expensive.
We have seen the consumer is circulating much more from one channel to another. The mass retailers saw that, so they are also wanting to have different brands — more expensive — to really animate that and follow this trend.
It’s a bit the same in China, where the competition between luxury and mass market has existed for a long time. L’Oréal Paris is really navigating from a luxury consumer to a more mass-market consumer. We are the luxury brand of the mass market.
How is L’Oréal Paris’ e-commerce activity developing in the U.S.?
We are growing by triple digits over there. We are ahead of the market, but also surfing this massive wave of acceleration of e-commerce in the U.S. It’s true the U.S. were much less developed than China on e-commerce, but they are catching up.
What are your top three priorities for L’Oréal Paris in 2021?
The brand’s mission: women’s empowerment — that we aid women to achieve their goals — is for me the number-one priority of the brand. The pandemic has been very difficult for many women on the planet. They have been the ones who very often provide home-schooling, who sometimes stay at home in a very difficult context.
The reason that I came on the brand, beside the science, was its mission of women’s empowerment. We have this cause Stand Up Against Street Harassment. My new goal is to train 2 million people by the end of 2022 [on the issue].
My number-two priority is skin care. In this pandemic moment, restoring the skin barrier, making sure you have skin in the best condition possible, is very important for the consumer.
And then hair color, hair care and returning makeup to growth. But I’d rather say I will create strong, innovative products in every category. More than thinking about categories themselves, I’d rather think about the big star products that can be bestsellers in e-commerce and brick-and-mortar. People are not buying categories. They are buying good products.
I really want [my teams] to work on star products, on pillars even if they have existed for a long time, making sure they are widely distributed, that we renovate the formula and ensuring they are very strong on e-commerce.
If other products of the category are struggling, they have to be compensated by these top 15 or 20 products globally worldwide.
The consumer is not buying a brand, she’s buying products she loves within a brand.
L’Oréal Paris has been expanding with its own retail doors in some markets and in travel retail. Do these remain relevant channels looking ahead for the brand?
We don’t want to compete with our retailers with our retail stores. They are a communication tool. For the consumer, it’s the way to experience the full brand. There is not a lot of opportunity for my consumer to see the brand as a whole, with all the categories.
Travel retail is important to me, because L’Oréal Paris is the only accessible mass-market brand in the channel. It’s a way to show that L’Oréal Paris is a different mass-market brand. We are a player on the field of luxury with accessible prices.
Is travel retail booming this year? Of course not. But it will come back, and we will be there.
What do you love best about the business of beauty?
The power you are giving to the consumer. You are giving women armor. My mission is to give them products to make them stronger.
Do you have any mentors?
At L’Oréal we work in partnership. When you struggle in your business, the worst thing to do at L’Oréal is to isolate yourself. That is why when I had difficulties transforming the Garnier brand — it is a natural brand for everyone, but that was not the case six years ago — I was helped by many people. By my labs that transformed the formulas, my managers like Nicolas Hieronimus or Alexis Perakis-Valat, who help me a lot; Alexandra Palt, who taught me about sustainability and helped me so much with the Stand Up mission, and by Lubomira Rochet, [the chief digital officer]. I would say more than mentors, I really have supporters.
How do you relax?
I’m afraid I don’t relax so much. I read a lot, do a lot of sports. I have the chance to have a great family — great kids. I don’t know if I “relax” with them, but for sure, they give me energy, youth and courage. And my husband, of course.
What is your favorite question to ask during an interview?
I like to ask: “What have been your difficulties, and how did you face them?”
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