JuE Wong became CEO of Olaplex in January 2020, two months before the COVID-19 crisis hit the U.S. Fast-forward six months, and the brand is having its best year ever. Here, JuE shares with Beauty News the elements of Olaplex’s success, and why stewardship is more important than leadership.
Olaplex, the prestige and professional hair care brand, is having its best year ever, a testament to its robust strength amidst prolonged salon closures earlier this year. In April, Olaplex’s hero sku, No 3 Hair Perfector, was the number-one selling sku in hair care, as well as in all of prestige beauty, according to NPD data.
“This shows that the brand is on very solid foundation and the strategies we have in place are on target,” said JuE Wong, who stepped into her role as CEO of Olapex in January, after global private equity investor Advent International acquired the brand at the end of 2019.
“Any time that a company transacts the year that you transact is usually its best year. The fact that we are now having a better year than our transaction year shows how well the company is doing,” said JuE. “Generally speaking, the years after the transaction are always the hardest because, the year before, everybody gave everything that they had to get the best outcome possible. And on top of that, there is the pandemic. It shows the resiliency of the brand, the product, the people, and the end consumers who continue to support us”.
JuE, who has five CEO roles under her belt, including President of Elizabeth Arden, attributes Olaplex’s success to what she calls “a perfect storm: the situation, the brand, the team, and how I have evolved as a leader have all come together to not only allow us to weather the situation, but to really leverage, optimize and accelerate the opportunities before us.”
JuE is quick to acknowledge the efforts of her team. “I learned much more from them than they learned from me these past six months, and with that learning I was able to accelerate our growth and springboard forward,” she said.
Following salon closures in March, JuE noted that many consumers migrated to other channels selling Olaplex, so the brand never felt the pain of one of their biggest channels shutting down. That same month, Olaplex launched a professional affiliate program, generating close to $400,000 in commissions for its cohort of hair professionals. In June, the brand also launched a gift card matching program whereby for every $100 gift card sold by a salon to a client, the client would also receive $100 worth of Olaplex products. “It was very important to us that we give back to the professional hair community. I believe that when you do well, you also do good,” JuE said.
The brand soft-launched its latest product, No 0 Intensive Bond Building Hair Treatment, at the end of July on Olaplex’s website as well as on Sephora.com. The product is named 0 because it is a “foundation product, a prequel” to the entire collection.
“The analogy for No 0 is, if you want perfect oral health, you have to brush and floss your teeth every day, and go the dentist at least twice a year. So with this introduction, in order to have perfectly healthy hair, you need to take care of your hair in between salon visits,” said JuE. Day one online sales surpassed Olaplex’s most recent two launches combined.
Olaplex was founded in 2014 by beauty industry veterans Dean and Darcy Christal. The brand just had three sku’s for three years, two professional sku’s and one retail sku. Having commercialized a patented technology that protects and repairs hair from damage, Olaplex quickly became known for creating a new category of hair care called “bond-building.” The brand only launched an additional four retail products in years four and five.
Remarking on this fact, JuE said, “We want to make sure that whatever we bring out, we are either best-in-class or best in the category. It is not how many products we have, but how efficacious and high performing we are. What we don’t want to do is proliferate our assortment just for the sake of it. I would rather go deep than go wide. Productivity is the key thing now.”
Olaplex is still laser-focused on innovation, and quantifying scientifically-proven data for all its clinical claims.
“Since I joined the company, I made it my mantra to the team that we are ‘the skin care of hair care’. Our technology has truly differentiated us in trailblazing the prestige haircare category. Whatever we do, we do it seriously. In skin care, people are very aware of the ingredients they use, the performance that it delivers, they want it to be proven. Same thing with hair care. We want to use our technology that is patented and proven in the performance that it delivers, and to amplify that in independent clinical studies in order to validate our claims. By taking a lot of skin care cues, we are transferring and translating them to hair care, so consumers understand the baseline of what we are doing,” she said.
Having focused on retail products in 2018 and 2019, and with No 0 (“a nod to professional”), Olaplex will now be focusing on professional innovation for the professional channel.
With regard to social media, the brand called on its community to share how their hair looked during quarantine. “We asked what they were doing for self-care and showed what their hair looked like using our products. Being able to leverage user-generated content gave a lot of assurance to consumers that they could take care of themselves. A little bit of self-pampering and self-love never hurt.”
With the reopening of salons, JuE believes there is a newfound respect and appreciation for the salon channel. “It was a world without them. After lockdown ended, a lot of people said the first thing they wanted to do was visit their hairdresser. Hair professionals need to see themselves as the rock stars of the hair category. Their artistry is valuable.”
Olaplex’s expansion plans include opening up cross-border business with China. “Asia is definitely a big market for us. I would like to go deeper in that distribution. Our goal, anywhere we go, is to either be the number-one hair brand or the top five beauty brand in any channel we are in. We already have a very meaningful footprint in Europe. We are particularly strong in the U.K., Australia and English-speaking markets.”
The brand dispenses with secondary packaging whenever possible. Olaplex has calculated its positive impact on the environment (based on its current volume of goods) with an independent environmental board: 22.1 mm gallons of water saved; 16,900 trees per year saved; 8,239 acres of U.S. land saved from being deforested.
Olaplex believes its ability to do well is due to its mission to do good. In July, the brand offered $180,000 worth of scholarships to 40 cosmetology students impacted by the pandemic. (Each scholarship was about $4,500). “I really want to transcend from just leading to stewarding. Our purpose, people and product are all top of mind for me as we come out of COVID-19,” said JuE.
“I definitely want to make sure that we preserve the culture that we have. This ‘can do’ culture of ours, that was amplified as a result of COVOD, really tells me that people and culture are paramount to a brand being successful, as well as a team that will continue to give you their 110 percent.”