Brand lessons: Gail Federici


A while ago I was invited to tea at Claridges to meet Gail Federici. Although I’ve cut down on the meet-and-greets, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to grill this dynamic beauty pioneer on the rise of female entrepreneurs and the very modern culture of self-branding. As we bonded over smoked salmon finger sandwiches and scones, Gail filled me in on her epic back-story.

Starting out in advertising and marketing for a professional hair care company, she met hairstylist John Frieda when his own hair care business was in its infancy. Looking for a new challenge, she went into business with him and used her branding insight and guidance to help make revolutionary products like Frizz-Ease and Sheer Blonde household names. In 2002, they sold the company to a Japanese firm for $450 million.

The pioneering Federici then created Federici Brands, embarking on other launches; a skincare line with (Frieda’s ex-wife) Lulu called Time Bomb, the brilliant Myface cosmetics line with Charlotte Tilbury (five years before Tilbury’s own name-in-lights range), and recently, Color Wow hair products. Federici’s business strategy has always been to look for needs that haven’t been addressed, thinking primarily about the consumer and what the market wants. This overrules any flaky ideas of making brands out of personalities even if we seem to be in the midst of a very celebrity-focused era.

A key strength of hers is a finely tuned antenna to pop culture and the current zeitgeist. Joining us at tea were her sister and two daughters, who were the stars of the early 2000s John Frieda Sheer Blonde TV commercials and now work in the music business. “Make it fun” is a big Federici philosophy, hence the youthful iPod-esque branding of the Myface products and the conversational tone of many of her products’ branding. Originality is another biggie, “we’re not interested in copying Moroccan Oil,” she says emphatically.

As such, she’s very proud of Color Wow, a range designed to address the problems that come with colour-treated hair – colour-fading, root touch-ups, dullness. And this month, her other big brand, Time Bomb arrives at Selfridges. It came about because people would constantly ask what miracle surgery and treatments Lulu was using. The answer was none, so the opportunity-spotting Federici called on the same chemist who had created the Frieda products to formulate a skincare line for Lulu too. Now the secret weapon of many a beauty editor, don’t think this is yet another personality brand because as we know, that’s really not The Federici Way…

DISNEYROLLERGIRL: Do you feel we are in a particularly entrepreneurial time for women now? How is it different to your early days?
GAIL FEDERICI: I think it’s a very different time right now than when we started John Frieda in ’89. The internet has helped to level the playing field. There are more ways to start your own business with limited resources today. You can promote and sell products online, on your own site. Bloggers and vloggers are building successful businesses while working from home. Women are blogging/vlogging about fashion, make-up, motherhood, recipes, social media, technology etc and in the process they’re garnering massive followings and generating advertising revenues. These personal sites can create opportunities to become a brand spokesperson or to build a brand. Plus, these women inspire their followers to believe they too can start their own business. The goal of starting your own business as a woman now seems more achievable.

In addition, today we have many more women leaders who inspire our young women. Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, and while still small, there’s a growing number of women in charge of Fortune 500 companies globally, so the landscape is changing.

DRG: Is it easier to market a new product or brand now (with the wealth of online platforms, social media)?
GF: The short answer is no! The market is now highly fractured; it’s more difficult to capture the consumer’s attention. There are many social media platforms, but posts on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook don’t necessarily translate into sales. It’s also extremely time-consuming and an added expense to constantly be creating content. Today, it becomes critical to analyse where it’s best to invest your resources.

DRG: Of course there are a lot more entrepreneurs and start-ups now; everyone has a new business idea. How do you know that your product is really needed? Do you do a lot of market research or do you instinctively know?
GF: Unlike many companies that are ingredient-led, we have always been led by the consumer. Our approach has always been problem / solution. We identify a problem i.e. frizzy hair and we set out to find a solution. We know we have an audience for the product from the outset. As long as we can develop a product that really solves the issue, we know we definitely have the potential for success. And as for instinct? I think arriving at the right thought idea is the result of constant, conscious analysis that eventually causes the light bulb to turn on. It’s not an idea or thought that mystically pops into your head!

DRG: What about marketing yourself as a brand, is that something you notice women are doing more?
GF: I believe that marketing yourself as a brand is only worthwhile if it adds value – it is not an end in itself. You must reflect the brand values and positioning and give credibility. When launching something into the market place, especially on a limited budget, you have to ask yourself what you have to leverage to add value to your brand and establish a point of difference. With someone like Charlotte Tilbury, she is undeniably top of her game, an expert in her field with a great body of work and a celebrity clientele. She is her brand. It’s her expertise, her experience, her status that sets her brand apart from the others. That is her U.S.P.

DRG: You have worked with John Frieda, Lulu and Charlotte Tilbury. What is your top tip for launching a brand when the person/personality behind it is a main driver?
GF: First and foremost, it’s about the product. The product is always the main driver. Always. This is what sells. A product has to have a real reason for being. That is what I think is different about Federici Brands. I have never thought of myself as a ‘marketeer’ – I see my company as more of a think-tank for new ideas, for genuine solutions to genuine problems. What has no-one solved yet, and can we solve it? When you have a “personality” associated with the brand it’s important that they add validation, credibility, and a new reach to your brand. It’s critical that the person is authentic, that they are really passionate about the product, that they are well informed. It’s also important when marketing the ‘person’, that the persona you are marketing is authentic, not manufactured.

DRG: What are your thoughts on bloggers and ‘tastemakers’ collaborating with brands?
GF: I think that tastemakers can help get the product on the map. They can help give the product cachet, but in the final analysis, it always comes down to the quality of the product, the positioning, the marketing. Attaching a product to a ‘name’ is only as good as the product itself when all is said and done.

DRG: Do you see yourself as a brand? Are you careful in how you portray yourself more now than say, 10 years ago?
GF: I don’t see myself as a brand. I am more of a strategist and behind-the-scenes kind of person. I obsess over the development, marketing, creative strategy of every product we have ever launched. That’s my area of expertise. The products are the stars, the way we approach product development is different to most companies. We are not marketing-led, not ingredient-led, we are consumer-driven. We are problem solvers. Because I believe so much in our team, our approach to research and development, the integrity of the mission, and because John is no longer able to communicate our message, I am becoming a bit more visible. We are both so passionate about what we create so we are probably the best ones to deliver the heart and soul of the brand. And of course I am not comparing us to Apple but I do feel it is similar to Steve Job’s approach – his own personality was so much part of what Apple meant, it made sense for him to put himself out there so consumers knew how much personal integrity and blood, sweat and tears went into every product. Much like Apple, we don’t want to put anything out unless we think it’s insanely great!

DRG: In terms of visibility and personal branding, is there a benefit to holding back or must you put yourself out there a bit? For a new entrepreneur, is it in their interest to be super-active on social media etc?
GF: This goes to what your brand is – who you are. You must work to your strengths. I am not a natural performer and I don’t try to be. I do think the consumer has the right to know who you are and what your pedigree is, and more and more consumers do like to ‘look under the hood’. When you are a small company, your corporate culture can help you to resonate more strongly with the consumer, so I think it’s important to be active on social media. It’s harder to relate to the corporate behemoths.

DRG: What has been your biggest learning curve as a businesswoman?

GF: There are always going to be ups and downs in business. The most important thing is, to quote Bill Gates, “bad news must travel fast”. Many things can be fixed, as long as you recognize the problem in time. Develop a culture of not shooting the messenger but rather rewarding them. However, there are times when everything just seems to conspire against you, when you can’t strategise your way out. It happened to us when the economy crashed in 2008 [it affected the Myface business]. Hard as it may be, you have to have the ability to face unpleasant truths in business. If you constantly keep hitting your head against a wall, it may be time to regroup. “You gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them”. It is difficult when you feel you have an ‘insanely great’ product that is being praised by industry experts and editors alike but market forces sometime conspire against you. But no-one said business was easy!