It was only the beginning of New York Fashion Week, and Bimpe Onakoya was a long way from home. She was about to embark on a journey consisting of days of backstage appointments: painting models’ faces for shows like Jonathan Simkhai, Cushnie et Ochs, Lacoste, and Opening Ceremony. She would be on a team of many talented hopefuls working under the now-legendary Yadim, Maybelline’s global makeup artist.
Back home in Nigeria, Bimpe is a household name — among the fashion followers, anyway. This became obvious when Maybelline began documenting her every move on its Nigerian Instagram account: Comments like “#PatMcGrath us,” “Am so proud of being a Nigerian with you,” and “You go, ma’am!” showed a heartwarming sense of national pride and a support that’s rarely (if ever) seen for U.S. for European artists. Bimpe’s arrival in New York spurred the magical thought: If she can make it here, she can make it anywhere.
In countless boardrooms, many a beauty executive has echoed this sentiment over the past few years. Only, it wasn’t about the Empire State. “To be totally honest with you, if we did not find success in Nigeria, this would be a different conversation,” says Karen Buglisi Weiler, the brand president for MAC Cosmetics. “Our success there was the catalyst for our continued expansion in Africa.”
The country is something of a final frontier for beauty companies. “Everyone has started to realize Nigeria’s potential,” says Sekou Coulibaly, Nigeria general manager for L’Oréal. “It’s very rare to find countries that show a strong growth potential, especially in this market. More mature countries are harder to break into. But, Nigeria is the biggest country in West Africa, it’s the most populous of the whole continent, and it has the highest GDP, which is still growing,” he says. “That potential is huge.”
Many of the big beauty brands started expanding into the Nigerian market just a few years ago, at a particularly crucial time in the country’s development. The early aughts marked years of controversy and social unrest, but the government has significantly stabilized since 2007, thanks to a newfound trust in the general-election system. Earlier this year, Nigeria even earned a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
But, drastic growth doesn’t mean everything is smooth-sailing. Many reports point to poor economic conditions and low literacy rates in the country’s North, which is home to Boko Haram, the terrorist group that was responsible for the kidnapping of over 300 young girls this past summer.
Still, the beauty giants are betting that Nigeria will pull through, despite being mired in controversy. And, they’ve been able to show that its women are ready to express themselves in colorful, exciting ways.
“The trends are different here,” Coulibaly says. “You see a mixed influence. In the North, there’s a different woman because of the Muslim population, so she happens to be very interested in the eyes and nails. For example, our Kajal liner went into a major store in the North and sold out almost instantly.”
But, the urban Nigerian woman tells a very different story: “She’s interested in what’s happening in New York, but also what’s going on in London and Paris, and then the traditional Nigerian influences,” Coulibaly says. Among those are the local designers who are making a splash at Lagos Fashion & Design Week, and “Nollywood,” which is exactly what it sounds like (with a little more melodrama).
All of this boils down to one thing: color! “Ruby Woo [a matte, true red] is the number-one-selling product in Nigeria,” says Weiler. “Also, Candy Yum-Yum [a neon pink]. Of our top-10-performing products, six are specifically driven by makeup and trends — she wants lined eyes, mascara, and a bold lip. That’s very different from our stores in other African countries.”
But, there was one makeup need that had to be addressed before any of the brands moved into Africa: foundation. Maybelline developed more shades of its Clear Smooth All in One Powder foundation, which is not yet available to U.S. consumers. (It’s also adding more vibrant colors to its lipstick collection.) And, MAC is seeing a lot of success with Studio Fix Powder Plus Foundation, a 50-shade line which is expanding thanks in part to the Nigerian customer. (“Nigeria has hot, humid weather conditions,” notes Coulibaly. “Powder is essential.”) The brand also developed a special, weatherproof primer called Natural Radiance to address the needs of skin in the Sub-Saharan region.
Clinique’s entrée focused on fragrance, but extended rapidly to skin care. “We noticed the customer is heavily influenced by word- of-mouth or recommendation,” says Agnes Landau, the brand’s senior vice president of global marketing. “There are also visible skin-care concerns, ranging from acne or clogged pores to sun damage. Since makeup is so popular in the country, we’ve done a lot of proper education on effective and gentle cleansing. We’re seeing that start to resonate, especially with our three-step system.” And, considering the brand has plans for nine more freestanding boutiques, it’s safe to say things are going pretty well.
Beyond adapting their products for the brand-new consumer, the companies have also had to update their visuals: “We have 36 different visualizations around the world on average, so we customize by region,” Weiler says. Maybelline’s ads also feature noticeably darker-skinned women than its American counterparts. Hopefully, the Nigerian consumer’s influence will eventually be powerful enough to extend outward to other countries, where women of color are still vastly underrepresented in fashion and beauty imagery, as well as product offerings and shade ranges.
But, the most interesting thing about the Nigerian woman is that she’s not just shopping — she’s participating. MAC and Maybelline have both hosted master classes to educate consumers and makeup artists about their products. (Bimpe has attracted an audience of over 1,000 people.) The response has encouraged MAC to elect Marco Ackers, a native Nigerian, as its very first National Makeup Artist from the country. Clinique also sees that the customer spends much more time at the counter and is interested in learning more about the brand — something that’s a little different from the e-comm savvy U.S. woman.
All of this success amounts to a lot of attention, but will also end up attracting more prestigious brands to Africa as a whole. “When we entered Nigeria last year with two freestanding stores, we had incredible results,” Weiler says. “We were blown away — they over-delivered in terms of expectations so much, that we’re getting ready to enter our third store in November, and we’re going to open another three by April 2015: Zimbabwe, Kenya, and the Ivory Coast.”
The thing about having a beauty presence abroad — beyond providing jobs to locals and educating them about trends and technology in the industry — is that it reinforces the idea of not just a fully global consumer, but also global brands. (Just think about how far we’ve come since American companies started bringing us products that were popular in Korea and Japan!) And, the more Bimpes we have backstage, the more people we have across the world who feel like they’re able to actively participate in and, hopefully, change the landscape of, fashion and beauty.
As evidenced by MAC, Maybelline, and Clinique so far, it’s easy to see that the brands are listening to what women want in what has been a largely ignored part of the globe. It’s only a matter of time before that turns into real, positive change around the world.