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WWD’s 10 of Tomorrow: Beauty Innovator Sam Cheow

He’s the one who makes beauty innovations relatable — and marketable.

Gut to shelf.

That’s a simplified version of the formula that L’Oréal USA’s trend guy, Sam Cheow, uses to keep products from the company’s brands on and ahead of beauty trends. Cheow — officially L’Oréal USA’s chief product accelerator, vice president of trends, reverse innovation and incubation for skin, hair, makeup, men’s and alternative retail métier, and head of L’Oréal’s CMO agency — also backs up his instincts with a hefty dose of data and the occasional beauty tutorial before they are poured into packaging.

“Instinct is a wonderful thing, but it cannot be explained or taught or illustrated to anyone else,” Cheow said. “What I do, embarrassingly, [is] take selfies of myself doing step-by-step, for example holographic makeup…or video. It is one way of [me] being authentic in what I do — I need to show them that this is what’s happening outside, and this is how I’m actually experiencing a product.”

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The “them” to whom Cheow refers is a group of L’Oréal senior executives. “When you show someone video, they can see how you apply, how the product actually glides on your skin — sometimes I actually hold the phone on a close-up just to [show] no more pores, or whatever,” Cheow said. “If you don’t allow them to experience it, then you’re not making the trends accessible to anyone else and it’s not relatable. If it’s not relatable, then it’s not a trend you want to jump into.”

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After starting as a strategist in the agency world, Cheow joined L’Oréal in 2004 to take a job in the U.K. at Redken Fifth Avenue New York. From there, he was scouted for L’Oréal’s DMI [division marketing international, essentially global marketing and product development] program and moved to New York — eventually expanding his brand experience to Matrix, Pureology and Maybelline, and joining L’Oréal’s corporate digital marketing team as vice president of incubation and trends, he said. His current gig was one he pitched for, he said. “I actually created the role myself,” Cheow said. “And pitched it to my [chief executive officer], Frédéric Rozé, and he approved it in July 2015 — I remember that because I became the first L’Oréal USA chief product accelerator.”

Cheow was a catalyst behind things such as L’Oréal Paris’ new clay hair line, which ties into the skinification of hair, Giorgio Armani’s new Him/Her unisex products (beauty lines are becoming more gender-inclusive) and Lancôme’s Le Teint Particular foundation (personalization and customization are all the rage).

That last product, which is exclusive to Nordstrom, is on Cheow’s list of favorites. Customers can walk through their color, skin-care and coverage needs with a consultant, and then their custom foundation formula is whipped up by a machine that lives in the beauty shelf space.

“Not a lot of people fit in the standard shade spectrum, so it’s nice for people to have an avenue where they can actually go and get a foundation that really matches their skin tone,” Cheow said. “It also challenged us in a different way — not just from a product point of view, but how we work together cross-functionally in terms of IT, R&I [research and innovation], digital incubation with the Nordstrom partner and with Lancôme in launching this project from the pilot phase in just 10 months.”

L’Oréal is part of a beauty landscape that is being altered by the proliferation of indie beauty brands — which Cheow said he expects to keep popping up, specifying that at some point, the game will shift to become the “survival of the most authentic.”

“Consumers will go back to their roots and start looking at the brands and the influencers very differently. They are going to see authenticity in terms of the heritage of the brand, they are also going to look at it from instant efficacy, immediate gratification and claims,” he said.

Those consumers are also likely to be drawn into the gray areas between product categories, like skin care and makeup, where a host of products live in the middle, providing the benefits of each category. “That is going to change the industry a lot — change the way our supply chain actually works,” Cheow said. And as for beauty services, he’s predicting more and more as consumers continue to crave experiences.

“When we acquired IT Cosmetics, for example, how many women in this company said, ‘Oh my God, I love [Jamie Kern Lima, founder], not just because of her, I love her because of the Bye Bye foundation — it works,’” he said. “So they become an advocate in that sense. Imagine if she were to offer even more interesting services? That could change the whole game plan.”

For 2017, Cheow’s betting on glow — the kind you get from skin care or makeup, or both. “You’re going to see more from makeup in terms of new delivery systems, new concepts, new pigments, new packaging — but the whole point is everyone wants different types of glow,” Cheow said. “Glow is between glossy and highlighting — right in the middle, where you can take a very nice skin-care approach and people will say ‘oh you have really nice skin’ or ‘you’re really dewy’ — that’s why glow could be an even bigger thing.”