By now, most makeup junkies are familiar with Milk Makeup, the beauty brand founded by Milk Studios’ founder Mazdack Rassi and his wife, Zanna Roberts Rassi, a fashion editor and E! News correspondent. It also checks off all the popular millennial-branding boxes: It’s minimalist, gender-neutral and vegan.
But rather than its industry-figure founding or trendy brand values, its name recognition can largely be contributed to Sephora, its biggest retail partner.
“As a new brand starting out, it provided us with a platform, and it’s been our largest brand awareness vehicle by far,” said Milk’s chief marketing officer, Nicole Frusci.
Although Milk Studios — a photography studio that moonlights as a show space — is well-known among the fashion circles in New York and Los Angeles, the beauty brand was going to need more than that association to expand beyond its bubble, said Frusci. Hence the brand’s decision to launch exclusively on Sephora.com and in 50 of its doors two years ago.
Since then, it expanded to selling on its own website, and at select Urban Outfitters locations, but Sephora remains its most lucrative channel. It’s now in 279 of the retailer’s doors and has plans to roll into more this year.
“Sephora is the leader in the industry — it’s a no-brainer to be front and center with a retailer like them,” said Frusci.
Milk isn’t the only brand thanking Sephora for its industry prominence. Ouai, the buzzy haircare brand founded by celebrity hair stylist Jen Atkin, has seen similar success since it launched exclusively with Sephora in 2016. It’s now sold in 1,000 of Sephora’s U.S. doors and has expanded internationally with the retailer, to locations like Canada and France.
“It’s really helped to spread brand awareness for Ouai with audiences all over the world,” said Atkin.
Annie Lawless, the founder of Suja Juice, said that when she debuted her newest project, Lawless, a clean lipstick line, on Sephora.com on March 9, it sold out within an hour. Although Lawless is an influencer in her own right (with 181,000 followers on Instagram), her brands’ presence in the central “New Arrivals” gallery on the site’s front page (unpaid, she said) likely contributed to its success.
For newcomers to the beauty industry, hitting it big with Sephora has become the barrier-to-entry for overall success.
Beyond the obvious
Indeed, it’s not simply Sephora’s status or widespread distribution that matters, it’s what the company does for the youngest brands it partners with — namely, featuring them prominently across its website and social content, as well as in its popular sampling program.
As the business intelligence firm L2 recently pointed out in its Indie Index report, younger, independent brands accounted for half of all brand mentions across Sephora’s social channels and newsletters in the third quarter of 2017. The retailer also tends to place these indie brands above their more established competitors on its shopping pages in exchange for exclusive launches, à la Milk, the report found.
In Milk’s case, that extra exposure was rolled into its initial exclusive partnership plan with the retailer, said Frusci.
The same is true for Hush, a new hair-care line launched by the private label manufacturer Mana. Since it launched its Prism temporary hair dye on Sephora.com in late February, Sephora has regularly promoted it on Instagram and kept it rotating in its homepage website galleries, like its “Top Rated” and “Recommended for You” sections.
According to Hush’s chief marketing officer, Louise Hewlett Butler, the brand saw an immediate spike in views and followers on its own website and Instagram account as a result.
Some of the brands that are promoted heavily across the retailer’s site and social channels, however, prefer to stay mum on any behind-the-scenes relationships. Huda Beauty and Ouai, for example, refused to comment on whether or not they had made a deal with Sephora to go this extra mile for them. Sephora representatives, for their part, were not available to weigh in.
Still, Atkin confirmed that whenever Sephora shares Ouai-centric content on its own social channels, it has an impact: “It [helps with] product education and [acts as a] teachable moment for their audience.”
For many brands, especially those without the star power of Ouai, that kind of sharing can be a game changer, said Maya Mikhailov, the chief marketing officer of GPShopper, a mobile retail app developer. “A simple re-gram from Sephora could be what moves the needle for individual brands to get consumers curious, and maybe even head to a store to try them out,” she said.
Brands we spoke to were far more willing to open up about their participation in Sephora’s online sampling program, which allows shoppers to choose from a selection of mini products and add them to any purchase for free. (In-store samples are available for purchase using Sephora’s Beauty Insider loyalty points.)
Milk and Ouai are both regular participants in the program, the success of which they didn’t understate.
“It’s been incredible; it’s the main way that we continue to grow our client penetration,” explained Frusci, pointing to the regular follow-up sales they see from samples, as well as increased traction to the brand’s Sephora page overall during Milk’s sampling periods.
Atkin, too, said she sees a direct lift in sales for each product the brand samples, and attributes the program with helping Ouai become one of the top-selling hair brands at Sephora.
Knowing this from industry chatter and their experience with other brands, both Lawless and Butler are keen to experiment with the program for their respective new brands (Lawless and Hush) soon.
“They have an outstanding sampling protocol and do a really great job of converting sampling into sales,” said Butler, who has experienced this first-hand with some of Mana’s other brands, like Make Beauty.
Although Sephora offers samples in stores, too, Lawless believes it’s especially key for converting shoppers online. “When purchasing makeup online, people love having a chance to try the product first, and that often pushes them over the edge to purchase,” she said.
The extra mile
Sephora facilitates these purchases even further for certain products with alternative channels like its Virtual Artist app, which allows customers to virtually try on different eye and lip products, as well as its “First Look” program, which alerts its loyalty program members to new product launches before anyone else.
These factors may make the retailer more appealing for new brand launches than competitors like Ulta or Target, say some in the industry. (Ulta is playing catch-up, however; it launched it’s similar though lesser-known Glamlab app in late 2016, roughly a year after Sephora).
“In many ways, Sephora’s customer base is made up of what we could call early-adopters,” said Mikhailov. “Not only are they more willing to try new products, but they’re also more open to interacting with brands in different ways, like via AR activations on its mobile app.”
What’s more, said Kelly Jo Sands, the evp of marketing technology at the Ansira agency, Sephora’s ever-expanding platform allows many of these upstart brands to operate outside of their normal budgetary constraints: “They’re creating a fun, memorable customer experience that startup brands might not have access to otherwise.”
Of course, this kind of merchandising helps Sephora, too, positioning it as a product discovery destination that beauty fiends can count on for learning about the latest finds. It also gives the retailer a leg up on the ever-looming Amazon, with its beauty assortment (however easy to order and receive it may be) that is not known for its newness. This may be intentional: One brand manager told us, on background, that Sephora refuses to take on any new brands which have sold on Amazon. The retailer itself declined to comment. If true, it’s certainly a smart way to assure that they have the lock on beauty’s more prestigious or buzzy brands.