Innovating to Solve Consumer Challenges in a Post-COVID World: Emily Culp ’06, CEO of Cover FX

A CMO-turned-CEO and pioneer of omnichannel retail shares her insights on how to innovate to solve consumer challenges during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

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“At the core of everything that you do, regardless of whatever type of innovation, to me, the key is to make sure that you’re solving a true consumer challenge.” 

Emily Culp ’06, CEO of clean beauty brand Cover FX, knows a lot about innovating to solve consumer challenges, having a career history that spans the earliest days of ecommerce and digital marketing (“back when display banners still got 99% click-through”), to becoming Global Chief Marketing Officer at Keds in 2015 and now CEO of Cover FX. In a recent talk she gave at Columbia Business School’s and the ANA Educational Foundation’s The Future of Marketing Leadership conference, Culp detailed her thoughts on innovation during the current coronavirus crisis and how developing strong innovation muscles to solve consumer challenges can make you a better marketing leader. 

Corporate innovation, Culp says, can be distilled to three main categories: product, technology, and process. When the coronavirus crisis first hit in Cover FX’s major markets, the company needed to innovate in all these areas to better deliver on the new needs of their consumers. For starters, people’s lives had become more stressful, leading them to want to take better care of their skin. As Culp notes, “One of the largest organs in our body is our skin, and it’s the first place to show and process stress.” Additionally, consumers were spending much more of their time in front of screens, which emit skin-damaging blue light.  

Secondly, consumers’ new behavioral patterns caused by working from home meant that multi-step make-up regimens were out, and getting “Zoom-ready in 5 minutes” was in—a new challenge that many beauty products on the market were not up to the task to do. Armed with this insight, Cover FX developed new products, such as a patent-pending brush with three pre-measured wells for Cover FX’s tinted moisturizer, blue light-protectant primer, and high-pigment foundation that could simultaneously roll all the benefits of a multi-step make-up regimen into a single stroke.  

In addition to new product development, another key way that Culp has led Cover FX to innovate is through the company’s use of technology to reach customers. Shopping in-person for make-up and skincare products has long been the preferred way to shop, due to the need for customers to be able to try products on their actual skin to determine color matching and inspect the texture of the product.  

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, in-person shopping was halted in many areas, and in other areas that did allow stores to remain open, customers were not allowed to try on products in the store. Cover FX thus invested heavily in creating industry-best, virtual try-on tools on its website and on Instagram (as a camera filter). 

“Many of you might recall that with try-on tools, if you’ve done beauty or fashion early in your career, it almost looked like clip art when you tried to try it on—it didn’t quite map to your face, so it wasn’t a great experience.” Cover FX, remaining true to its brand to deliver high quality, high-performance products, exceeded the augmented reality standard for the beauty industry that uses 85 facial touchpoints and pushed their technology vendor to incorporate 200 touchpoints in order to better simulate the real look of their products with their try-on tools. 

Lastly, process was something that Cover FX had to rethink in light of the coronavirus crisis. Culp notes that process is not as “new and shiny” of a pillar of innovation as technology, but remains integral to company success. Culp began to experiment with new strategies that Cover FX had not implemented before. To kick off 2020, they conducted their first fully online product launch with a monochromatic lip color, which also included mailing samples to a core set of customers. 

“We decided for our lip launch, given how COVID was rolling out in the country when our product was ready, to launch it fully online first,” says Culp. “And that, to us, was a new way to go to market. It was also exciting, because it enabled us to get more ratings and reviews, hear from our consumer about what they loved, and also to gather more data on which colors were going to spike as it then rolled into hundreds of doors with Ulta and other partners across the world.”  

After detailing how she has embraced innovation in her role as CEO of Cover FX, Culp sat down with Columbia Business School MBA student Farrell Hanifin ’21 to discuss answer audience questions and discuss an array of interesting topics related to the future of marketing leadership. Check out the video of her conference talk to find out why Culp says brick-and-mortar retail is still relevant, what toolkit she valued most as she transitioned from being a CMO to being a CEO, why a few one-star reviews might not actually be bad for your e-commerce business, why she reads every single consumer comment on Cover FX’s Instagram each week, and much more!

For even more great insights on marketing leadership and innovation, read about and watch our other videos from the 2020 Future of Marketing Leadership conference:

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