CMO of the Week: Soyoung Kang, CMO, EOS

Most companies were hit hard by the pandemic. But Soyoung Kang, CMO of lip balm and personal care brand EOS, had an additional challenge for her company: She had to launch a product line in April – the height of lockdowns and sheltering-in-place orders – and again less than two months ago.

The product line launched in April, which was the second installment of EOS’ Flavor Lab, “happened to launch exactly when COVID happened,” she said, noting that foot traffic in retail stories precipitously dropped, making it challenging to launch a product that was being sold exclusively at Target. “It was very tumultuous to be launching a product in April. Nobody knew what was going on.” But the brand pushed forward with the plans.

Its other major launch less than two months ago was an expansion into body care, beyond its existing shave cream, with body lotion and hand cream under the Shea Better moniker. 

“We had no choice but to forge ahead and just go,” Kang said of both the Flavor Lab and Shea Better launches. “The product is there, the retailers have bought in, so we’ve been in the challenging position of launching into important strategic categories in the midst of a global pandemic that is hampering foot traffic in our top distribution channels. That’s not an easy thing to handle.” 

Flavor Lab’s launch this year, according to Kang, was a success. Flavor Lab, a project in which EOS develops lip balm flavors with influencers, uses a much more involved and long-term partnership structure than the typical sponcon relationship influencers tend to have with brands. The first Flavor Lab, launched in April 2019, was with a number of influencers from around the world who were brought together to develop unique flavors that are atypical of the lip balm category, Kang says. The first line introduced flavors like watermelon frose and lychee martini.

But this year’s flavors revolved more around the health and wellness trend. The naming convention for Flavor Lab 2.0, as it’s called, was similar to the idea of a juice bar: EOS, which was founded in 2007, used names like Boost (which has a mango melonade flavor) and Chill to convey different sensations and to help set specific moods associated with wellness. 

Despite the decline in foot traffic at retail stores during the launch, people were still going to Target, and Kang says the launch ended up being more successful than the first one in 2019. “The collection was incredibly well received because it was a time that people needed a bit of self-care, even if it’s in the form  of a lip balm,” says Kang. “People wanted something to give them a little pick-me-up.” 

Aside from unusual product flavors, EOS – an acronym for Evolution of Smooth – has become known in the marketing world for being  among the first to invest heavily in the platform, getting ahead of many marketers as it sought to connect en masse more directly with Gen Z. 

Kang came to EOS in 2018 as its first CMO to – in addition to launching Flavor Lab – help reboot the brand (more on that below). Prior to that, she spent more than a decade at Bath & Body Works, where she worked her way up to SVP of brand. Before that she worked at Bath & Body Works’ sibling Victoria’s Secret, and Prior to that at their parent company L Brands (formerly known as Limited Brands). Earlier in her career, she worked in some startup and consulting roles. 

Brand Innovators caught up with Kang from her home in North Fork, NY, to discuss her career path, rolling out new products during the pandemic and EOS’ approach to working with influencers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has COVID and the recession impacted your overall strategy, especially regarding your brand revamp you’d been working on and your expansion into body-care products?

When I first came in, I was the first CMO at EOS, and the reason they created the CMO role was because the business had not been seeing the kind of growth that it used to have. I was brought in to do a turnaround and a reboot. That rolled out through the end of 2019. Flavor Lab was the earliest thing I worked on that hit the market, and a lot of the heavy-duty brand identity work was all meant to roll out 4th quarter 2019. 

The painstaking work we did to reboot, revamp and refresh the brand, included tightening the focus on our core audience of Gen Z, revamp our entire innovation pipeline and our approach  to go-to-market, and really drive a reviewed focus of diversifying and launching into new areas in the future – all that work kicked off a year ago. And then COVID hit. We were basically in-market with this whole strategy for five months before the pandemic hit. Which is not a long runway to reap the rewards, but we were already seeing double-digit growth just in those few months. 

We’re a business driven by predominantly brick-and-mortar retail and we’re a low price point impulse purchase, which is impacted when foot traffic to retail stores drops off. But people are still going to stores, they're just buying more in fewer trips than before. As a business that thrives on foot traffic, that’s a tough uphill battle for us. And prior to COVID we’d been working on diversifying the portfolio because the vision for our brand  is to be a diversified, multi-category personal care brand.

How has your media mix changed this year? And what’s the most important platform for you?

We definitely had to pull back on media investments, even though we had new-product launches. What remained was our tried and true channels like social media and video in places like YouTube, where we haven't pulled back and therefore it’s grown as a percent of the total spend.

We didn’t want to pull back on our influencer activations on TikTok and Instagram because that’s where we felt we were getting the most direct engagement with our consumers. We wanted to maintain and protect that money. 

As we re-fund the other parts of our media plan, we’ll be adding back a more diversified mix, which will include things on OTT and streaming audio that we had to pull back on because of COVID.

You spent about 10 years at Bath & Body Works. What attracted you to making the leap to EOS?

I spent 10 years at Bath & Body works, and before that, another four years in other parts of the enterprise, including at Victoria’s Secret. Back then, it was called Limited Brands, so I was at Limited Brands for close to 15 years total. I learned so much about the personal-care category and the beauty-care category. I learned what it means to run a best-in-class retail business, and a lot of those retail practices are transferable into other types of businesses. Bath & Body Works has a best-in-class speed-to-market infrastructure built in place, and a strong mentality around thinking through not how long will this take, but how fast can we make it? It is really  just an incredible mindset that can serve a lot of other brands that aren’t necessarily in that retail model.  

So after having such a rich career there, I wanted to take what I’ve learned and apply it to a startup-like workplace, because earlier in my career I worked in that space. I wanted to be part of a smaller company and be able to chart my own territory. 

When the opportunity for EOS came up, it felt tailor-made for me because I knew I was ready to try something with more of a startup model. It was a great opportunity to be at a company that has a startup mentality while also having infrastructure and resources. 

EOS in 2019 announced Flavor Lab, a collection of products co-created with influencers. How has that gone since it launched, and did it need to be shifted or pivoted at all because of COVID?

When I first joined the company, one of the things I realized was that this brand had a heritage in influencer marketing before it was a big thing. And it has stayed with us. Influencer continues to be an important part of our strategy and how we reach our core audience. But we wanted to try something new. We had never done any sort of behind-the-camera work with influencers and we thought that could be interesting because as a global brand, we have a wide footprint of influencers around the world we can tap into.

We thought, wouldn’t it be great to bring these influencers from across the globe – who have very sophisticated palates and tastes – to co-create the flavors that would define our limited-edition collection. We brought in people from Poland, Sweden, German, Mexico and elsewhere, and we had them come in for a three-day event to mix flavors. We decoded what they mixed, narrowed down flavors and then launched eight months later.

It was such a fast speed-to-market. I started at EOS in June 2018, and we went to market in April 2019. So everything from the idea to the collaboration to the production to the marketing to the exclusive launch at Target all happened in 10 months.

It was also really successful. We had great partners with Target. We had this collection, which was not filling an existing slot, it  was just something Target really believed in with us, and it quickly increased our business by 20% – so much so that for a limited-edition product that was only supposed to be available for a couple months, we ended up keeping it in-market through the year until we could get to Flavor Lab 2.0. 

What was the strategy and timing behind Flavor Lab 2.0?

We launched Flavor Lab this past Spring, and coincidentally we had been doing flavor trend work, and the big trend we foresaw was the idea of flavors that are typically more associated with health and wellness. The idea for Flavor Lab 2.0 was about this idea that if there is something called aromatherapy, why can’t there be flavor therapy? We launched as being a wellness-driven collection and we went with micro-influencers because we wanted experts in this space.

Now we’re working on Flavor Lab 3.0, which we expect to launch in about 6 months.

What have you learned from this effort, and is there anything you would do differently?

Influencer marketing was an interesting learning curve for me. The degree to which the authenticity impacts the collaboration is huge. The process of bringing people in behind the scenes to be a part of it not only created a deeper connection to the influencer, but that deep connection showed in their communications to their audiences. Through the process, they were also offline giving us feedback. It was clear they were so invested in this. Their audience, who had been following along, got to see the progress as well. 

We really saw the power of authentic collaboration versus using a sponcon kind of approach. When we did the second  Flavor Lab, we asked our partners to do full cycles of product usage -- so we used all of their feedback as a marketing strategy and they were also our consumer insights panel, which just made the whole product line that much better. 

Because foot traffic went down, Did EOS make any major changes to its e-commerce strategy in 2020 to grow sales online?

A couple of our top 10 customers shut down. We’re not only in food and drug retailers, we’re also in specialty retailers like Ulta. So that did impact our business. We definitely saw a shift happening at volume going into e-commerce. We were seeing 4 to 5x growth on the e-commerce penetration within our retail partners. I manage our DTC and our Amazon business as well and had a front row view of what was happening. We saw things like 600%  to 700% growth in those channels. 

Starting in March and through July,  the level of growth in e-commerce was unbelievable. I was like nothing we’d ever seen. It’s come back down, but it’s settled into a higher-than-pre-COVID level. 

How are you planning for 2021 and the future in general when there are still so many unknowns?

That’s the million dollar question. We’re planning flexibly, we’re back to pre-COVID levels of marketing-resources allocation. But we’re staying flexible to be able to pivot. Which means we need to have our strategies focused in chunks at a time. So we’re thinking about Q1 now and then we’re sketching looser plans for Q2 and Q3. We’ll just continue to be as scrappy and nimble as we can.

We have long term strategies but short-term action plans. 

EOS was one of the first brands to advertise on TikTok. What are some tips you’d give to other marketers about how to run a successful TikTok strategy?

Paid versus organic has been a very different learning experience. Our campaign in September 2019 was one of the earliest examples of a brand embracing a big TikTok campaign. Since then we’re run two and are poised to run another one for the fourth quarter. It's become  a fundamental part of our strategy and media mix. 

And with each campaign we test something. Each time we vary the work because the goal should be to learn. The dynamic of the TikTok community and business is changing all the time. If you're not testing and learning, you're missing an opportunity to maximize what you can get out of it. My advice is not to be afraid to try things. It takes a bit of an iron stomach to do it because you're letting go of so much of your own brand story and letting the community participate, and you have no idea what you're going to get back.  

Maureen Morrison is a consultant for Brand Innovators and is the founder of the consultancy Irving Park LLC, based in San Francisco.

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