Meet the CEOs behind Naomi Osaka, Gabrielle Union, and John Legend’s brands
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Brittney Griner writes to President Biden, women athletes will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and female CEOs are behind the rise of celebrity beauty and personal care brands. Have a great Tuesday.
– Behind the scenes. The past half-decade has seen the rise of celebrity beauty brands, from the wild success of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty to the more recent emergence of Jennifer Lopez’s JLo Beauty and Hailey Bieber’s skincare line Rhode.
The incessant launch of celeb brands has, in turn, created a new class of female CEOs who are tapping into existing fan bases and creating businesses that, hopefully, can outlive their initial celebrity association.
In April, the Broadsheet spoke with Scarlett Johansson and cofounder and CEO Kate Foster Lengyel about their new skincare brand the Outset. The two candidly spoke about their efforts to carve out a niche in the saturated celebrity beauty space. Recently, I spoke with three more CEOs who are in the early stages of building their own brands with famous partners.
Pamela Cholankeril is the CEO of Proudly, a baby care line cofounded by Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade. Mia Meachem is the CEO running Kinlò, Naomi Osaka’s sun care line. And Kia Lowe will take the reins of a forthcoming skincare brand backed by John Legend set to launch later this year, Fortune is the first to report.
All three are part of A-Frame Brands, a company that builds “talent-led” brands that so far aim to serve people of color. The company identifies a desired market or niche and then brings on a celebrity partner interested in that space. The three brands share operational resources across their companies, and each CEO leads a small team focused largely on brand, marketing, and retail. (Johansson’s brand the Outset, by contrast, is its own company independent of any larger corporate structure.) A-Frame plans to launch one or two new brands annually over the next few years.
The three executives have long resumes in the beauty and personal care space. Cholankeril spent a decade at Estée Lauder, where she led corporate, digital, and omnichannel strategy. Meachem is also an Estée Lauder alum, and was a marketing executive for Burt’s Bees and VP of marketing for the beauty brand Drunk Elephant. Lowe worked in marketing at L’Oréal and Lancôme before leading sales at Kiehl’s.
Those experiences have helped each CEO execute the vision they were tasked with bringing to life. At Burt’s Bees, for example, Meachem joined as a director of global marketing during a high-growth period when the brand was expanding from its well-known lip balm to a suite of personal care products. And working on the Bobbi Brown brand at Estée Lauder gave Meachem some insight into what it takes to be an executive supporting the face of a brand. “I have found it very similar to having Bobbi as part of the brand,” she says of working with Osaka at Kinlò.
Before partnering with a celebrity, A-Frame has usually settled on a category and done some product development. On the executive front, A-Frame looks for CEOs with marketing and branding expertise. With talent, it typically talks to about three potential celebrity partners before deciding which well-known figure will come on board. The conversations are a “self-selecting process” that eliminate partners who are looking for a check rather than long-term engagement, says A-Frame CEO Ari Bloom. “We don’t start with a celebrity and build a brand around that,” he says. “We start with a problem and build a brand around a problem. And then we bring in talent to amplify the message.”
Proudly was one of A-Frame’s first brand launches. “We had an idea based on what we saw in the market as a need. Looking at the basics kids are going to need: diapers, wipes, body wash, diaper cream, moisturizing oil,” says Bloom. “We said to Gabrielle and Dwyane, ‘These are the categories we’d like to pursue. What do you use today? What are the products you love? And why do you use them on [your daughter] Kaavia?'”
Working with celebrity partners in personal care categories creates opportunities for a unique kind of brand-building, says Cholankeril. As a baby care brand, Proudly aims to reach parents. Union and Wade have both been open about their parenting experiences, including Union’s miscarriages and IVF that preceded the birth of their daughter and their experience supporting Wade’s 15-year-old daughter, Zaya, who is trans. “Having Gab and Dwyane at the helm allows us to do a lot of storytelling about mom and dad, and about Black fathers—a story that needs to be told more,” says Cholankeril. “It allows us to expand our storytelling because we know they’re comfortable with those stories.”
At Kinlò, which is sold in Walmart, Meachem updates Osaka on the brand about once a month. (Bloom believes that “DTC is over,” and retail is a major piece of each brand’s strategy.) Legend’s brand hasn’t yet announced its name, but Lowe has spent time visiting skincare retailers with Legend. The brand will be unisex, which Lowe hopes is a differentiator.
The next A-Frame brands to join this portfolio will likely be in new categories like women’s sexual health or adolescent and teen products, says Bloom. And those brands, of course, will bring new executives on board, joining the CEO circle of sorts that Cholankeril, Meachem, and Lowe have built together. “There’s a strong sense of camaraderie among the three of us,” Lowe says.
“I think a lot of brands don’t feel authentic with these celebrities because it comes across as very transactional,” says Bloom. “We’re bringing in the right partner who can talk about what the issues are—and who people listen to.”
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