2021 Brand of the Year: For Sephora, beauty is in the eye of the customer

The retailer is transcending beauty standards and giving a voice to diverse communities.

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This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2021 Brands of the Year. Check back throughout the week to see the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, including Harry Rosen and TelusThis story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy.

By Gregory Furgala

The hero spot for Sephora’s latest iteration of its “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign kicks off with rhythmic clapping and percussion, as a voiceover asserts, “We were always here. We had diverse cultures, and we were stripped of them.”

The voice belongs to Indigenous filmmaker and activist Sarain Fox, who acted as a special advisor and creative director for the project. On camera, she’s joined by Indigenous influencers Shina Novalinga and Michelle Chubb. Just as important are the people behind it: exclusively Indigenous talent across wardrobe, styling, makeup and videography. “We’re still here,” continues Fox.

The campaign debuted in early June for National Indigenous History Month. The fact that it launched at all is a testament to the brand’s ability to work with the communities it serves.

Days before the launch, the remains of 215 children were discovered at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. – a number that would balloon to over 1,000 across Canada.

The story shocked Canadians and dominated the news cycle, forcing Sephora to pause “We Belong to Something Beautiful.” But it didn’t cancel it. SVP of marketing Deborah Neff says that decision was out of its hands. “It was a decision for the Indigenous community to help us make.”

A conservative approach might have seen the campaign pulled entirely – out of fear that it could be seen as insensitive or risk blowback. But Sephora, which has engaged with diverse communities for years and has reoriented its messaging, operations and company culture around inclusiveness, was able to pull it off.

“When we started our journey many years ago, we wanted to be more inclusive, and we wanted to understand if we’re changing perception,” says Neff. “The work we’re doing in this space is to ensure all people see themselves represented in the beauty industry, and a byproduct of this is that more Canadians feel welcome in our stores and experience a beauty offering that is truly for everyone.”

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The brand’s goodwill has translated to business success. The retailer performed well in the first half of 2021, despite the pandemic prompting the closure of its 500 stores worldwide. In Canada, Sephora recently announced it will open 50 more stores in the next two to three years – a figure that represents a 60% expansion of the business here. And parent company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesey has predicted Sephora’s global growth will accelerate and said DEI will remain a core part of its strategy, calling it a “major priority.”

Over the years, the retailer has worked to disrupt the notion that beauty aspires to a prescribed, exclusive ideal, asserting instead that it is found in confident self-expression. Along the way, inclusivity has served as a core component of its brand messaging.

The company’s support of self-expression is perhaps best demonstrated by its use of collaborators. More than just an internal relabeling of influencers, Sephora’s preference for collaborators goes back to 2018 ahead of its “#WithSephora” campaign. As Neff and her team discussed how they would develop the campaign’s messaging, they realized that “influencer” was an insufficient term for what they had in mind. The brand didn’t want their endorsement; they wanted to tap into their expertise and talent.

As a result, when it launched, the campaign featured 16 locals from Toronto and Montreal, each of whom shared their stories and participated in developing taglines that appeared in OOH advertisements and on all digital channels.

“The reason we operate with collaborators [as opposed to influencers] is they work with us to shape a story and message that’s based on their experience,” says Neff.

That thinking has influenced its approach to everything from large-scale marketing efforts to smaller multicultural campaigns. The following year, the first iteration of “We Belong to Something Beautiful” featured 11 diverse Canadians in assets that were local to the communities in which they had done advocacy work, with the goal of inspiring others to do the same. Like its predecessor, the “We Belong” campaign sought to highlight beauty in its many forms, from queer-identifying to plus-sized women and drag artists.

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Sephora’s collaborative approach has similarly been applied to campaigns for Lunar New Year and Diwali. When it came to the Indigenous History Month campaign, the approach meant not only featuring Indigenous talent on both sides of the camera, but also giving them a say on whether it was appropriate to launch the campaign in light of the discoveries at former residential schools.

Neff says that Fox, the on-set talent and Indigenous partner organizations said a pause was appropriate – it left time to mourn, to process – but they still wanted it to run. While Canada was reminded again of its colonial past and present, the group said telling positive stories was crucial, too.

“We’re choosing these moments to elevate the voices of those who are traditionally marginalized,” says Salama Dhanani, senior manager of inclusion and belonging at Sephora Canada.

While the decision to place diversity and inclusion at the heart of its communications was based in part on the brand’s DNA and on intuition, Neff says the business case was also solid.

After watching spots from Sephora’s first “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign, respondents said they had a more positive opinion of the brand, were more likely to buy its products and were more likely to recommend the retailer to a friend.

Sephora-Sephora Canada To Dedicate 25 Per Cent of Brand OfferingBut Sephora’s DEI strategy goes deeper than advertising and includes a number of initiatives and programs that are intended to put its money where its mouth is.

Earlier this year, it signed the Fifteen Percent Pledge, a call for companies to help break down systemic barriers across industries by supporting more BIPOC-owned brands. Whereas Sephora in the U.S. was the first major retailer to commit to dedicating 15% of its shelf-space to BIPOC-owned brands, its Canadian counterpart took a year longer, but set a more ambitious target of 25% by 2026 – a target Neff says aligns with the percentage of Canadians from BIPOC communities.

Sephora has also implemented anti-racism and unconscious bias training at the store and corporate levels, worked with hiring managers to better approach recruitment with an inclusive lens and updated internal competencies to encourage inclusion and diversity, particularly at the leadership level.

Last June, Sephora issued a voluntary self-identification survey to its staff to better understand who it hires and, crucially, who it doesn’t and how it can improve. Dhanani says it’s “the foundation that allows us to really not just draw insights, but also create these very tangible, actionable steps or actionable plans to create that change.”

Over the years, the brand has also built relationships with several partner organizations including ACCES Employment and the Native Women’s Association of Canada to further draw on for advice. Its Charity Rewards Program, which sees it partner each month with a new charity committed to fostering inclusivity, has also become a vital part of its DEI strategy.

“Now that we have these community connections, it’s really the foot in the door,” says Dhanani. “It allows us to continue to build and strengthen these relationships, to lean on them for their advice, to hear more stories from those communities, and to be able to incorporate those stories into a lot of the work that we do both internally and for these campaigns.”

Whereas Sephora’s DEI strategy was once guided by intuition, now the brand can pursue it with the confidence that it’s helping it carve out a unique space in the beauty segment.

“We’ve just scratched the surface in terms of the stories that we want to tell and the change we can make in the beauty space,” says Neff. “There’s still a lot more to do.”

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