Marie Gulin-Merle was named chief marketing officer for L’Oréal USA in June 2014 after spending 14 years working her way up through the parent company’s marketing ranks and across the ocean from her native France. Her very first role as a L’Oréal “webmaster” accurately foreshadowed many of the new-age accomplishments Gulin-Merle achieved as CMO, which included a bevy of early-adopter work in digital media: rolling out the award-winning “Makeup Genius” mobile app, staging a Snapchat campaign for Maybelline during Fashion Week, becoming the first beauty advertiser on Pinterest, creating a virtual reality education program for Matrix, and launching beauty services on Facebook Messenger.
But it has also encompassed strategic efforts that made a more lasting, fundamental impact, such as the unique training program she spearheaded with digital learning specialist General Assembly to get all L’Oréal marketers up to speed on best practices, or the development of the beauty company’s first in-house content studio — a state-of-the-art facility dubbed the “Beauty Terminal” that was designed to get new consumer engagement concepts to market at competitive-advantage speed.
Those achievements have been recognized by numerous media organizations in the last few years (Ad Age, WWD, Business Insider). More importantly for her, it was noticed by PVH Corp.’s Calvin Klein, Inc. business: This spring, the fashion house lured Gulin-Merle away from L’Oréal to expand both its brand voice and its global marketing platforms.
CGT recently sat down (virtually) with our CMO of the Year to get her take on the digital past, present and future of the consumer goods industry.
CGT: Can you talk a little bit about your childhood? Were there any defining moments that led you to be where you are today?
I was born in Paris, France, and have always been interested in technology, but also storytelling. Although I am a voracious book reader, I became interested in computers when I was 10 and discovered the Internet when my Dad first bought me access in 1996. I was not yet 20 but was fascinated by the idea of computers finally talking to each other.
CGT: When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in marketing?
I have always been fascinated by brands, but realized that they were going to connect very differently to consumers at the end of the 1990s. I won a marketing award from L’Oréal on the thesis of Interactive Brands (while attending HEC Paris), and then entered the company in 2001.
CGT: You had a long, much-lauded tenure at L’Oréal. Are there any accomplishments of which you’re particularly proud?
I am super proud of the Makeup Genius app (which has been downloaded more than 20 million times) and the first implementation of augmented reality in the cosmetics category. I’m also proud of the work we accomplished with General Assembly and now its Marketing Standards Board, which is redefining key skills for today’s modern marketing.
CGT: Have you had any role models or mentors in your career — or in your life in general?
I was fortunate to meet great leaders and to learn from them. They have taught me resilience, listening and patience as the main skills to possess when running the marathon of a job.
CGT: What would you say are the three most critical skills for a chief marketing officer these days? Which one do you think is your greatest strength?
The top three skills to me are curiosity for the outside world, empathy for the consumer and your own teams, and the ability to be vulnerable and learn from failure. I would say my key strength is that I keep learning from what did not work and why. But in today’s world, things change so fast that there are no definitive patterns. I try not to define too many “marketing truths.”
CGT: What is the best way for brands to keep pace with evolving consumer expectations and changing shopping behavior?
Brands must always keep an innovation mindset and have a budget to be able to test what’s out there — even if premature. They should also invest in shopper insights to understand the consumer during the last miles and moments of truth.
CGT: You’ve received particular praise for being an expert in digital transformation. What would you say is the secret to your success?
It is always risky to talk about success recipes in this fast-changing world. The real secret is that I have been fortunate to be surrounded by amazing talent and teams.
CGT: What digital tools have you found to be most effective in improving consumer engagement? Are there any that are particularly good at directly driving sales?
In general, personalized content providing the right message for the right consumer at the right time is probably the most effective ‘tool’ today.
CGT: How important has technology become to the modern marketing department? Are marketers sufficiently tech-savvy?
Marketers are never tech-savvy enough. The landscape keeps evolving and it is fundamental to stay current. I am always in up-skilling mode.
CGT: Please talk a little bit about the “GMAT for Digital” training program you oversaw at L’Oréal.
The program was done in partnership with General Assembly as an assessment of fundamental skills and knowledge in digital marketing. (Editor’s note: Thousands of L’Oréal marketers have taken the training, which now is also used during the employee recruitment process.) I am now partnering with General Assembly as a member of its Marketing Standards Board to develop the same certification for marketing in general.
CGT: Are you a fan of marketing automation? Why or why not?
I am absolutely a fan, because it will enable greater pace in personalization. But intuition will keep playing a huge role in our ability to connect with consumers and define the right messages.
CGT: What are your thoughts on the need for data-driven insights?
Insights are more than needed — it will be a question of survival for brands. We have so much data, but extracting insights will more and more become a competitive advantage.
CGT: How does the role of the marketing department change when the business objective changes to direct-to-consumer sales? Is that where the consumer goods industry is heading?
The direct-to-consumer mindset has always been the way marketers think. Now we are lucky enough to be able to apply it to a sales channel. Being DTC first will reinforce the role of marketing in organizations.
CGT: What is the role of marketing in the current consumer goods marketplace? How has that changed over the course of your career? Will it continue to change?
Technology has changed everything in the way we do marketing. And I believe we are just scratching the surface of what’s ahead. Voice, for instance, is going to redefine brand equities and connections in an untapped way.
CGT: What attracted you to Calvin Klein, Inc.? What are your primary objectives in the new role?
I believe Calvin Klein has always been a marketing innovator. I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to the redefinition of the brand in this new digital age.
CGT: What lesson would you most like to tell your college-age self?
I think maybe two lessons: “Be patient,” and “Perception is reality.”
CGT: What role will brands be playing in the lives of consumers in 10 years?
I think brands will not be able to function without data, and the winners will be the ones able to best leverage their data. At the end of the day, it will still be a question of marrying art and science using different new tools.
About the Award
For the last five years, CGT has presented “CMO of the Year” to a consumer goods professional who has made a signiﬁcant, demonstrable impact on his or her consumer goods organization through the implementation and successful use of new marketing strategies, technologies and processes.
Through a program that begins each January, CGT solicits nominations from members of the consumer goods community. The nominations are narrowed down to no more than five finalists who are presented to CGT’s esteemed Executive Advisory Council and Editorial Advisory Board for voting. The winner is unveiled and honored each June during a special ceremony at the annual Consumer Goods Sales & Marketing Summit.