Oke Maduewesi has been working in the cosmetics industry for a little more than a decade, and through the years, she has been very focused on delivering sleek premium quality products at affordable prices to enhance the lifestyle needs of African women.
Backed with her knowledge and skills as a former Zenith Bank Manager, and an MBA holder from the University of Leeds, Oke Maduewesi built a contemporary innovative cosmetics brand that has grown to have over 25 franchise outlets and 800+ distributors in Nigeria and other African countries, whilst also contributing to the socio-economic development of Nigeria through job creation, enterprise development, strong corporate social responsibility and a business ethos anchored on reputation and trust.
Today, she is currently the Founder/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Zaron group of companies, comprising Zaron International Limited and Zaron Cosmetics Limited.
In her interview with Business Insider Africa, Oke Maduewesi shares an exclusive sneak peek into the world of cosmetics, great advice on how to build a successful cosmetics brand and the 3 women she would want to see wear her products.
BI Africa: How did Zaron start and what motivated you to create your product line despite the huge selection of cosmetics in the market?
Maduewesi: The Zaron story was conceived in Leeds whilst I was doing an MBA at Leeds Business School.
Prior to that, I was working in one of the leading Financial Institutions in Africa. I felt the need to grow but wasn’t sure of what exactly, except perhaps I thought to grow in managerial skills to elevate and dominate in the same sector. I remember selling everything I owned before moving to the UK with my two daughters who were 4+ and 2+ at the time; in pursuit of the next chapter.
Back to school and I remember vividly sitting in discussion groups and reviewing different case studies and having this restlessness within knowing that all the cases being reviewed were foreign businesses and I knew that that narrative had to change. My next step was to put pen to paper on what I thought I could do about it; what space could I play in, and all the how-to’s surrounding this. The only thing I was sure of then was that I would name the business after my daughters, so I started making different combinations with their names (Ona and Zara), and Zaron seemed more brandable; so the business name is a fusion of my daughters’ names.
The next step was to determine the space, and the Beauty and Wellness industry, which was one of the fastest-growing, seemed interesting. Plus, no prominent African brands were dominating that space. I immediately went to work by using my business proposal as my dissertation, and that was the start to what we see today.
BI Africa: Increasingly, in the past years, Zaron has become the most profitable product category for many top luxury fashion brands. What are the key ingredients for success, nowadays, when it comes to cosmetics?
Maduewesi: The Key ingredients for the success of the Zaron Brand is the reputation and trust we have gained over the years in creating and providing quality products at affordable pricing.
From inception, we have been focused on presenting quality products for the woman of colour recognising that we are best equipped to understand our skin tone and texture; taking into consideration our environmental conditions in creating the most suited products for us. One of the things we have been most proud of is that the Zaron brand is about products made for the woman of colour by the woman of colour.
BI Africa: What is your strategy towards the effective distribution of Zaron products?
Maduewesi: In Nigeria, Zaron currently has 25 franchisee outlets, and the brand’s products are sold in almost all the cosmetic retail stores nationwide, with a growing number of online Independent Beauty Consultants and with presence in 10 African countries, North America and the UK.
The vision from the start was to create cost-effective ways of widespread distribution.
Being a local brand trying to penetrate a market where there was little or no trust for local beauty brands, one of the first things we did was to lower the barriers of entry, grant favourable credit lines, and source for franchise partners that were driven and passionate not only in retailing beauty products but ensuring that the business created a livelihood for themselves and their families.
Starting with franchising helped reduce the capital required to set up stores, and we were able to widen our reach by leveraging on the network of our partners in the various cities. We were also able to gain access to their key distributors so we can collectively better manage the relationships.
BI Africa: In today’s world, what are the most effective communication/marketing channels for your brand?
Maduewesi: Our communication and marketing channels in this ‘new normal’ have become heavily reliant on social media and the internet.
When we first launched Zaron, we did a lot of field marketing including visiting markets and potential sales partners, hosting live demos across regions, offering makeup artistry using our products, organising roadshows and promoting collaborative events. Our strategy was creating awareness and connecting with our target market one-on-one. Field marketing is still a channel we employ; however, digital marketing provides that opportunity to get even more eyeballs on the brand and a sale at the mere click of a button. A 2020 report by GSMA put the number of mobile subscriptions in Nigeria at 172 million, and a recent Jumia Nigeria report estimates 44% of these are using 3G technology, providing forward-thinking businesses with a reach unprecedented.
With the advent of COVID-19 and its effects on consumer behaviour, trends and digital markets, Zaron has fully embraced direct and in-direct communication/marketing channels.
After the past intense months, we now begin to see optimal results from resources put into a combined marketing strategy as consumers fully expect businesses that they interact with to offer options for multiple engagement channels; the multiplier effect is in full play.
The Key ingredients for the success of the Zaron Brand is the reputation and trust we have gained over the years in creating and providing quality products at affordable pricing – Oke Maduewesi
The Key ingredients for the success of the Zaron Brand is the reputation and trust we have gained over the years in creating and providing quality products at affordable pricing – Oke Maduewesi BI Africa
BI Africa: Can you share with us some of the things that you take into consideration when creating new products?
Maduewesi: When creating new products, our first focus is on market consideration. What are our consumers asking for? What gaps are there to fill? What product would we like to add to or improve in our range? The answers are determined by a thorough market survey carried out by ouresearch & Development team.
The research process lays the foundation for the next phase, which is product formulation. Here, we decide on ingredients, texture, colours, packaging and all that is needed to complete the look and feel of the product.
In this process, samples are sent, and repeated testing is done until satisfaction is achieved. Product testing involves sampling on different skin types and through different weather conditions to ensure that the product wears well through hot, humid, rainy, dry and cool weather conditions.
This is an exciting process for us as we get to come up with products that are not only unique to us but also highly suitable for our market.
BI Africa: How has Zaron performed so far in 2020, and what are your expectations for 2021?
Maduewesi: 2020 has by far been the most interesting year that nobody saw coming. When the pandemic started, there was a bit of a panic and so much uncertainty giving that we were all locked up in our cocoons and the last thing anyone was thinking about is coloured cosmetics.
We spent the first month of lockdown doing online training and a bit too much Zoom meetings mapping out our strategy on how to navigate the pandemic and how the business would survive and still be able to keep and pay its human resource while meeting its running costs.
The second month was probably the toughest because, at that time, everyone was in different emotional states and had gotten tired of Zoom meetings, so we took some time off to manage our psyches, reflect and recalibrate. By the third month, we were ready to go back into our physical working space because we were in dire need for social interaction and it was amazing the level of vigour, drive and passion we all exhibited trying to combat the challenge that was set before us.
We focused on Ecommerce to gain direct access to our consumers and recognising that so many people were losing income and out of jobs, we introduced an online sales avenue called the Zaron Independent Beauty Consultant. This is a digital platform where individuals can use their smartphones, sign up online as retailers and earn income with zero capital, zero product handling and order fulfilment handled by source.
The goal was to survive 2020, learn and grow and we were fortunate to have achieved all of our set goals and meet our obligations especially with regards to the emotional and financial needs of our human resource. We are very pumped about 2021 with some exciting new businesses, products and marketing strategy in view. With hindsight, reviewing 2020, we can say we definitely made the most of it.
BI Africa: What do you regard as the most important disruptors in the luxury industry today?
Maduewesi: The most important disruptor in the luxury business in Africa is mainly a lack of spending power. The top of the wealth pyramid is very thin in Africa, so the luxury goods market suffers because there are not enough consumers of luxury goods in Africa.
Also, lack of infrastructure is probably at the top of the list. This impacts everything negatively from stable power to transportation, health care, internet and education. As long as we fail to invest heavily in infrastructure, we will not be able to efficiently and effectively move goods and services from one place to the other, and the cost of running businesses will erode the profit margins and inhibit (long-term) survival of businesses.
Most ideas don’t get off the ground because we never take action. The difference between a dream and a goal is active timelines. You must always make a move and commit to the goal; otherwise, those same ideas will be executed by someone else – Oke Maduewesi
Most ideas don’t get off the ground because we never take action. The difference between a dream and a goal is active timelines. You must always make a move and commit to the goal; otherwise, those same ideas will be executed by someone else – Oke Maduewesi BI Africa
Foreign Exchange Fluctuation / Unfavourable Government Policies
Africa suffers from foreign exchange fluctuations combined with unfavourable government policies leaving the economy in dire straits since no nation is self-sufficient and will always be dependent on foreign transactions. Demand for luxury goods increase when wealth/income increases, ergo a struggling economy leaves its citizens vying for needs rather than wants and the luxury industry without viable consumers.
BI Africa: If you could get Zaron in the hands of 3 women who would it be?
This is a no-brainer, she is a world-class, global Icon with one of the largest fan bases which would give the Zaron brand access to hundreds of millions of extremely loyal fans.
There is not a more respectable, trendy and passionate black icon that it will be an absolute privilege to have her interact with our product.
“ONA” and “ZARA”.
These are my two teenage daughters. Technically, they have already engaged with the products, but they are a generation that I hope will buy into the vision and continue with the legacy only because I know they will be exceptional at it.
BI Africa: What can you advise entrepreneurs who want to start a cosmetic business?
Maduewesi: I would say, “Go for it if you are passionate about being successful.” You don’t have to have had any prior experience of makeup artistry, at least I didn’t. I just saw an opportunity and was driven and passionate about being a success and a role model.
There are three basic concepts that I use when I mentor new and young businesses;
The Power of the Mind: Your ability to see possibilities is the start of everything, and it’s a big determinant on whether a venture will be successful or not. I always start by working from the “being able to see the finished goods” in my mind then I start working towards it. Research shows that the outcome of a venture is 80% in the mind, while 20% is the actual work done.
Taking Action: Most ideas don’t get off the ground because we never take action. The difference between a dream and a goal is active timelines. You must always make a move and commit to the goal; otherwise, those same ideas will be executed by someone else.
Making it work: This is possibly one area where most people fall short, and they give up easily. The day to day running of a business, especially in Africa requires smart work and plenty of hard work, and it’s important to be determined to put in the work.
Young businesses must recognise that running a business in Africa is tougher than in other parts of the world because of the lack of infrastructure, access to capital and political instability. However, in the same vein, businesses in Africa will give you higher returns. Because we are still a developing economy and the fastest-growing, there are way more business opportunities. Africa needs to grow beyond dependency for foreign products, and the fastest way to grow Africa is for Africans to rise to the challenge.
BI Africa: Kindly share 3 important business lessons you’ve learnt in your journey as an entrepreneur?
The three most important lessons I have learnt so far;
You are only as good as your team and your ability to invest in them.
Your business must be impactful and not necessarily only about the profits but growth and contribution.
Business owners have a huge role to play in bringing about change in Africa. For every business that is not nurtured, the business owners have deprived Africans of a chance at wealth creation and stripped the livelihood of one or more persons and especially denied the next generation of worthy role models.