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The Success of Jen Atkin's Hair-Care Brand Ouai Is a Testament to the Powers of Influencer Marketing and Sephora

A catch-up with the hairstylist and entrepreneur as the company approaches its two-year mark.
Photo: Courtesy of Ouai

Photo: Courtesy of Ouai

At a time when beauty corporations are struggling to get Gen-Zers and millennials excited about buying hair products, Ouai — hairstylist Jen Atkin's nearly two-year-old brand — is thriving. For its initial 2016 launch, it was stocked in a small selection of Sephora stores and online. Fast forward to 2017, and Ouai's shampoos, stylers and supplements are carried in 351 U.S. Sephora doors, as well as in a variety of other retailers across the country. Its global footprint now extends to Canada, the UK, Australia, France, the UAE, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Though the brand has not disclosed specific sales figures, experts estimated $15 million in net sales for the year. Then there's the social clout: Ouai has racked up 316,000 fans on Instagram, and Atkin herself boasts 2.1 million followers on the platform. Ouai took home the award for Best Beauty Brand at Revolve's inaugural influencer awards. And that's all been achieved organically, without paying influencers to post — they just happen to love it (and its chic packaging, no doubt).

The brand has focused on building its community, investing in tools to help shoppers feel even more connected to the product. In November of 2016, Ouai launched an on-site consultation service in which users can take a quiz that leads them to product recommendations. To date, the quiz has been taken approximately 70,000 times, enabling the brand to collect first-person data and feedback from customers while moving product. Purchases from those who take the quiz now account for approximately 20 percent of the site's total sales.

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​Up next, Ouai is launching its first product outside the hair category: a limited-edition fragrance set, which features three rollerballs filled with each of the scents found across the line of hair products. All that success is hard to ignore, but Ouai is still very much a fledgling brand by industry standards — it will celebrate its two-year anniversary in January. Ahead of that milestone, we caught up with Atkin for an update on the state of the business and where it's headed in the future.

Take me back to the beginning two years ago, when Ouai first launched. What were the initial goals you set out to accomplish with the brand?

It's crazy, we just shot our new campaign images this week and had half of the same crew that we had the first time, so we were all reminiscing about how much has happened in two years. Really, the goal was to be a fresh voice in hair care. Here I am, a 'celebrity' stylist, but also when my clients were in my chair, I was teaching them how to do their own hair and showing them tricks that I'd learned throughout the years. I really wanted products that looked really pretty, that were photographable. I wanted something that smelled more modern. That was the one thing I was most obsessed with was scent and being able to cover up skin smell or cigarette smell. 

I had dreamt of having a brand that was socially connected and did a lot of crowdsourcing, and just felt a little bit more realistic than a lot of the brands that I had worked with over the years. I think at the time I was really naive about what was about to happen. 

I don't think I realized the global presence of Instagram at the time; I was so excited that Sephora was interested in carrying the brand in a small [number of stores]. They had a few stores for us, and they were going to let us sell on the website and I was so excited about that. Once we launched in January, it was very exciting, it was overwhelming — really quickly we had to, as a small team, figure out how to get product out globally. We had fans in the UK and Canada and Australia and the Middle East. Everyone was so excited to be a part of the brand and try it.

That's a pretty exciting thing, to be able to partner with such a big retailer like Sephora from day one. What was that like and how has the relationship changed since the initial launch?

I had met with Sephora through [Ouai co-president] Andrew [Knox]. We literally just had the meeting with renderings — one of my best friends of 20 years did the renderings for us. My husband [photographer Mike Rosenthal] shot what bottles we did have since we didn't have all the SKUs at the time. So I took that and presented it to Sephora. For years, through Mane Addicts, I'd asked people what their favorite curl shampoo was or [what their favorite shampoo was] for volumizing. So when I sat with Sephora, I really was like, 'I just want to continue to build this brand with our followers and have this sense of community.' Of course it was a risk, but I'm really thankful — they put in their order before we even had product, it was crazy. They've been so supportive and amazing for us, especially as we expand outside of the U.S.

Photo: @theouai/Instagram

Photo: @theouai/Instagram

What has scaling the business and going international been like?

It's been really exciting. I just got back from Singapore. We had a meet and greet at the store and I got to meet probably 150 girls who came just to talk about how much they like the brand and take a picture and that, for me, is so fun. I view social media and Snapchat like nobody's watching, and for me to connect with these girls and for them to appreciate what we're doing is surreal really, it's awesome.

I remember I spoke at a fireside chat that Glossier had toward the beginning, probably within the first six or eight months. There was a girl who asked Emily and me something like 'how do you guys plan on scaling globally and still keeping your authentic voice?' and I said to her, 'wish us luck.' Because I think what's interesting about the brand is our message resonates so much with the modern day girl and girls who are on social and who expect more from a brand than just, here are a bunch of products thrown at you. Because of Sephora and their support, we've been able to get quality products and we haven't had to sacrifice anything, which is awesome. We trust them — they're a force. They're so credible. So they've helped us be able to get our product to so many girls. 

It still pains me, though, because every day we're hearing from girls in Saudia Arabia and Ireland who are saying they want the Rose Hair & Body Oil. And it does take time to be able to get products by boat over to Singapore or to the Middle East. So that's the hard part for me, because I want to get it out there as quickly as possible, but we also have to abide by so many rules and testing. But we still have a lot more countries to get into. We're doing really well in the UK, in Canada, in Australia. The Middle East is a really great market. My dream is to get into Mexico and South America. We have a ton of followers down there that have been asking for it. And there are other parts of Europe that I'm dying to get into.

The new Ouai Fragrance Set. Photo: Courtesy of Ouai

The new Ouai Fragrance Set. Photo: Courtesy of Ouai

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Now that you're a couple of years in, what perspective do you have that you wish you'd known in the beginning?

One thing that I've been surprised by is that I'll meet with some retailers and they'll ask us, 'What's your SKU list until 2019?' And I'm like, 'What do you mean?' Other brands will give them a full list of what they're coming out with, and I'm like, 'I have no idea.' Our timelines are really hard. We aren't sitting in a board room deciding what we're going to do for the next two years. We're really having more conversations and crowdsourcing about packaging and color and scent. We're deciding what product to do next by what our followers are asking for. But because of that, the minute we do decide on the next product, it's blood, sweat and tears to work on it, test it and get it out in an appropriate amount of time. We don't have the cushion of a year's planning for marketing and social pictures. We're all just running around like chickens with our heads cut off. 

But I love that we're doing things differently. I can't complain, because at the end of the day, we're just the hands. We're crowdsourcing and everyone's helping us decide what products to come out with.

Photo: @theouai/Instagram

Photo: @theouai/Instagram

What inspired you to create the loyalty program, and how do you see building up that type of community benefitting the business in the long-term?

Outside of just creating products, we really do listen to what everyone's needs are, and one thing a lot of our followers were asking for was they really wanted some kind of a prescription. I get probably between 150 and 200 consultation requests personally every week, so we wanted to figure out a way to give a personal consultation online. Now it's been taken 70,000 times. Then the second thing was the loyalty program. 

I think Sephora's been so smart about really catering to their community — their shoppers are so loyal. We worked on the loyalty program probably for close to a year. We started mapping it out last year. Basically what we wanted to do was to encourage people to follow us on social and leave reviews and to get them to sign up for our emails. We wanted to kind of give our followers and our loyal customers rewards: free shipping, travel size products, full-size products, merch.

In addition to fragrance, merch and the hair supplements, are there any other product areas you're planning on expanding into next?

For me, fragrance was so, so exciting. We have a lot of girls who love the products, but we still have a lot of hair products we need to kind of get out. We have so many innovative things coming up. In December I'll be in New York for a new launch that we have that I can't really speak to just yet, but right now fragrance is really what I'm focusing on. It's our first venture outside of the hair category and I feel like the Ouai girl is just all about lifestyle. 

There's still some amazing products that we have mapped out in the next six months that I'm really exited about, but I also still feel like there's a lot of things missing out there in the marketplace.

One thing you talk about a lot is that you're not really into the concept of competition and you think there's room for everyone to succeed. How have you been able to maintain that philosophy while building such a successful business? 

It's funny that you're asking that now because, really for the first time ever, one of our competitors is coming out with a product very similar to ours around the same time. I had to take a dose of my own advice. I was so upset. But we're very public about a lot of stuff. We're on Snapchat all the time. So I'm sure our competitors are watching. 

I've always been the type of person that just stays in my lane and works really hard. I try to just spread positivity. I just think jealousy and competitiveness are really toxic. But here I am with the brand and I'm so protective of it, it's weird, it's almost like a motherly thing now. It feels like my baby. And everyone gives 120 percent on our team — it's not just about me now, it's about this little family. We talked about it yesterday in the office and I was like you know what? We're us. We're working so hard, we're doing everything we're supposed to be doing and we're having fun. So I kind of have to just have to let it go. 

I do feel like there's enough out there for everyone. I've said that to hairstylists my whole career: There are enough heads for everyone to curl. There's no need to be jealous. And I feel the same about this scenario.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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