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Deep Dive 22 Mar 2021 - 6 min read

Woman and machine: Mecca founder Jo Horgan on headlining Dreamforce after reinventing beauty through hybrid CX – and why she's bullish on high street retail

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne

Mecca founder Jo Horgan: If we can find a way to totally engage our customer in an absolutely absorbing experience – they will make the pilgrimage.

Not even a global pandemic could stop Mecca's followers making the pilgrimage to its new flagship store at Sydney's Gowings building. The numbers are as if Covid never happened. Founder Jo Horgan says she's going to launch more physical stores while reinventing online beauty retail via a hybrid approach to customer experience that is powered more by people than machines. Then she wants to headline Salesforce's Dreamforce conference. You wouldn't bet against it.

What you need to know:

  • Mecca’s flagship Gowings store has shrugged off Covid – the numbers are as if the pandemic never happened, per founder Jo Horgan.
  • “Never underestimate a customer's appetite for a new, all enveloping, exciting, personalised experience that gives them what they want – and how they will travel for that,” she says.
  • As such, Mecca “may be the last retailer bullish on bricks and mortar” and is planning to roll out more physical stores.
  • Horgan also aims to harness technology to align online and offline sales and customer experience while reinventing the beauty category globally. Crucially, with Mecca’s staff – or hosts – at the heart of digital retail.
  • Salesforce is tasked with building that solution. Local lead Jo Gaines says the marketing cloud giant is a different beast post-Covid, and has acquired the agility and creativity to deliver.
  • Meanwhile, after 23 years, Mecca has finally started advertising, tapping OMD, run by another Horgan, to show exactly what it has been missing.

I watched a world where both the manufacturers and the retailers were run by men imagining a woman's journey or woman's shopping experience. I tried to reimagine it.

Jo Horgan, founder, Mecca

Beauty retailer Mecca never advertised. Since late 1997, when Jo Horgan sold her house to start the business, it’s been entirely about customer experience. Her approach has paid off in spades, with fervent customers returning in droves to beauty's holy land, creating a nine figure empire.

More remarkably, Mecca has done it largely without marketing tech. Horgan attributes growth entirely to the quality of its people.

But the retailer now aims to harness technology to combine online and offline sales while reinventing the beauty category globally – crucially with real people remaining “the beating heart” of the digital process.

Horgan has tasked Salesforce with making that happen. She wants to headline Salesforce’s own marketing Mecca – Dreamforce – within three years. Jo Gaines, the marketing cloud giant’s local lead, reckons she can do it in two – and insists that the tech firm has the agility and creativity to deliver.

No pressure then. But you wouldn’t bet against Horgan being on that stage sooner rather than later.

Experience is everything

In the nineties, Jo Horgan worked with global beauty brands. But there was one slight flaw in their set up.

“I watched a world where both the manufacturers and the retailers were run by men imagining a woman's journey or woman's shopping experience – because at that time, 95% of customers were women,” she says. “I felt that it was an experience run on numbers rather than the customer.”

So Horgan literally bet her house that she could change the game. She sold up and started the company from scratch.

“I tried to reimagine it so that the customer felt from the minute they stepped through the door that they were in control and that they were empowered," she says. "From the beginning, my entire goal has been, how can we make people look and more importantly, feel their best?”

Some two decades later, Horgan opened the biggest beauty store in the southern hemisphere at Sydney's iconic Gowings building – in the middle of a global pandemic.

But not even coronavirus could hold back Mecca’s disciples. Beauty services on every floor have been 80% full since launch and the store is on track to achieve “what we dreamed we could achieve even before we knew Covid was on the horizon,” says Horgan. Customers have “voted with their feet”, and they continue to make the journey.

 

I think there is a future for CBD stores. You just have to reimagine what they will be.

Jo Horgan, founder, Mecca

“Twenty three years ago, Mecca was started with the idea to be literally the Mecca; that all roads lead to beauty in its most comprehensive form. And standing in front of Mecca at Gowings, it felt like we had poured all of our dreams and wishes into one location,” says Horgan.

“We thought we were playing the long game. At a time when CBD traffic was down by 50%, when so much custom had moved online, we thought we would step gently into this experience. But Mecca at Gowing's has proved to us that you should never underestimate a customer's appetite for a new, all enveloping, exciting, personalised experience that gives them what they want – and how they will travel for that.”

As such, Mecca plans to keep building more stores in city centres and high streets.

“We may be the last retailer that is very bullish on bricks and mortar,” says Horgan.

“If we can find a way to totally engage our customer in an absolutely, totally absorbing experience - we know now that they will make the pilgrimage,” says Horgan.

“So I think there is a future within the CBD for stores. You just have to reimagine what they will be.”

People powered personalisation

Mecca’s ultimate goal is to meld digital and physical retail – and Horgan is backing people-powered personalisation to remold the category.

“Our hosts have been the beating heart of Mecca since the outset – and I'm very clear that our people will continue to provide the unique Mecca experience,” she says.“Technology for me is all about how we magnify that human connection.”

“The early experience of Covid has shown us that if we literally put a human being into the centre of a digital experience, our customers will respond so much better than if it's just a website,” she says.

“In five years’ time, I want people to be talking about Mecca’s people and I want technology to have made that a totally snag-free experience.”

 

If you have previously had a digital experience with Amy for example, you will get a message on your phone that tells you Amy is back in store. At the click of a button you can talk to her.

Jo Horgan, founder, Mecca

Mecca’s hosts will be available online “at the touch of a button” to help customers through sales “with the backdrop of the store behind them so that they can provide the full beauty experience,” says Horgan. “That is how you bring beauty to life.”

Salesforce will also systemise personalisation aspects, she adds, with the aim of connecting customers to Mecca hosts – and bringing them back into the virtual store more often. Meanwhile, the brand aims to better to connect customer groups that flocked to Mecca over Covid, when the brand launched Mecca Live and watched 30,000 people join its Facebook chat groups.

“If you have previously had a digital experience with Amy for example, you will get a message on your phone that tells you Amy is back in store. At the click of a button you can talk to her – and she has three more things to talk to you about, if you are interested,” explains Horgan.

“That goes right through to ‘two weeks ago you ticked the survey to say you have suddenly developed [skin condition] rosacea, we are on hand to help, would you like to talk to our rosacea expert or join the rosacea community group on the Mecca platform? Do you want to plug into that group and find out everything they're talking about, whether it's from diet to books to beauty…’ says Horgan. “The list just goes on.”

She distils the strategy as “logical incrementalism”. That is, “we will celebrate if customers come into store more, we will celebrate if they are online more,” says Horgan. “And once you have a customer who's both online and offline, they are by definition a much more loyal customer.”

We have changed as an organisation. What we were 12, 18 months ago is very different to what we are now.

Jo Gaines, AVP, Cloud Sales, Salesforce

From Mecca to Dreamforce?

Can Salesforce, a sprawling software company best known for productised approaches deliver something as bespoke and people-powered as Mecca will need to reinvent beauty retail? AVP for Cloud Sales, Jo Gaines, says it can – and insists Salesforce has become a far more agile beast since Covid reordered the world’s to do list. Which it will need to be – after a cautious 2020, Gaines says 2021 already feels like “the world is coming out of the gates flying”.

Pre-Covid, businesses tended to think in terms of three to five year projections, she says.

“Now, people are saying, ‘we know where we want to be by the end of this year, but we're not really sure by the end of next year. And actually, where we're at by the end of this year might change in three months’ time,’” says Gaines. “So we are having to move with that – and I think we have shown that we can. She points to its rapid release of work.com, Salesforce Anywhere and efforts to speed the vaccine rollout by way of example.

“We have changed as an organisation,” states Gaines. “What we were 12, 18 months ago is very different to what we are now. What we're building is based on what we're seeing in the marketplace and the demand that we're seeing from clients like Mecca. We're building what they want, and that's based on how the world is changing.”

Some kit will be off-the-shelf in terms of helping Mecca build better customer profiles: “Are they happy; how often do they come in store; how often do they go online; what are their delivery preferences; all of those things make up a really important picture. Then how do we market to them, what type of communication,” says Gaines.

“But I know Jo [Horgan] wants to be first, wants to be an innovator and wants to be on stage at Dreamforce. That’s what we want for her too, and that’s going to mean something different to Jo than it is to whatever other retailer we’re dealing with. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

 

Woman and machine

Jo Horgan laughs at the suggestion that Mecca already appears to making a decent fist of connecting with customers from a tech perspective.

“That’s so funny. I think we are nowhere on that journey of how we can use technology brilliantly to help our team members connect so much more powerfully and effectively with our customers,” says Horgan.

“I have a saying, ‘human can-do trumps all else at Mecca’. So for me, it’s about how we can take that idea and underpin it with off-the-shelf elements that Salesforce already has, and how we can create those into stacks that make sense for Mecca. But you’re right, that is not enough,” she admits. “From there it will be how do we come up with something completely different?”

When Mecca first launched, Horgan tasked every team member with writing down three things about every customer visit.

“Was it because they were going on holiday? Was it because they were looking tired? Was it because they wanted a new red lipstick? And what was the why beyond that? Why did they want a red lipstick; where were they going on holiday... And they had to literally go three steps,” says Horgan.

“It's peeling back those layers so that you can actually get the true purpose and thinking and kernel of truth of each customer that makes it a worthwhile and memorable experience for that customer.

“So my question is, how do you use technology to accelerate that process to get there?”

It’s a question Salesforce aims to answer.

We didn’t have the money and we didn't feel that that scattergun approach of that traditional advertising back in the day would work for us in the same way as building custom rapport brick by brick, customer by customer.

Jo Horgan, founder, Mecca

Agency taskmaster

In the meantime, Mecca has also started advertising.  Last year Horgan told an AANA conference – a room full of Australia’s biggest advertisers – that the brand had no need for paid media, to the chagrin of older brother Peter, CEO of Omnicom Media Group ANZ. But of late, it has started advertising. Why the change of heart?

“The reason we didn’t advertise at the beginning comes back our sense that we have to build this customer connection in a truly authentic, personal – and I keep coming back to ‘the beating heart of beauty’ – way,” says Horgan. “The only way we felt that we could do that was through in-store communications.”

On the flip side, she says, “I honestly had no money, because it meant that every single customer experience had to be extraordinary. We didn’t have the money and we didn't feel that that scattergun approach of that traditional advertising back in the day would work for us in the same way as building custom rapport brick by brick, customer by customer.”

Today, personalisation – done properly – means ads can be more relevant to specific customers.

“With that lens, we feel we can enter this space in a way that makes sense,” says Horgan, adding that Mecca has “a duty” to promote the “exquisite artwork” on its packaging designed each year by emerging female artists.

“So we are now OMD’s most complicated, most demanding and tiniest client,” she says. “They are helping us with this tap dance as we work out what works and what doesn't – and what feels Mecca.”

Hopefully an account that OMD retains for some time yet.

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