On June 3, Sephora will announce its third “Sephora Squad” class, a group of 73 influencers who will partner with the beauty retailer in a year-long contract that comes with perks like free product, exposure and mentoring.
The programme launched in 2019 and has since become the cornerstone of Sephora’s robust influencer marketing strategy, driving higher impact and micro-influencer conversations than competitor programmes. According to data from influencer marketing firm Traackr, since the beginning of 2021, there have been 1,653 Instagram posts mentioning the Sephora Squad from influencers alone, compared to 275 with the hashtag for Ulta Beauty’s influencer program, #UBCollective, which debuted in 2020.
Sephora and Ulta’s influencer marketing programmes have similar mission statements and formats, engaging a diverse set of influencers and retail associates in a year-long partnership with multiple campaign deliverables rather than through one-off activations. Both also offer campaign and collaboration opportunities as well as early access to new products. But at least on social media, customers still seem to gravitate toward that of Sephora.
Nearly every major fashion and beauty brand employs influencers, but Sephora’s programme, which engages audiences early and creates meaningful relationships with its ambassadors, is designed to outlast the terms of the individual partnerships.
“The Sephora Squad just garners a huge amount of organic activity that goes well beyond the Squad themselves,” said Evy Lyons, vice president of marketing at Traackr. “It’s really this ripple effect where [a few dozen] individuals are able to create this groundswell of activities throughout the year which you just don’t see with Ulta.”
Looking Beyond Typical Talent
When tapping influencers for social media activations, many brands work with third-party platforms that use algorithms to match a company and talent that has an aligned audience or can help the brand reach its goals, usually building brand awareness or driving sales.
To build its Squad, Sephora took a different approach, looking for nascent talent that might not even be included in influencer databases. Creators are asked to apply to the programme, framing the process as a contest that engages both the influencer and their existing audiences. Sephora worked with the influencer marketing platform Fohr to help sift through more than 30,000 applications it received in 2021.
“The first year, [Sephora] flew everyone from the Squad to LA. I was like, ‘We wouldn’t have picked a single one of these people if we didn’t have their application,’” said James Nord, founder of Fohr. “Instagram alone has close to 1.5 billion people now on it, so there is no platform or directory or agency that can look at all of those users and say, ‘Who really is the best person for this?’ That’s why the applications are so transformative because you’re seeing people that you just wouldn’t have had access to.”
Since the Sephora Squad launched in 2019, the retailer has increased its Squad size from 55 members in the first year to 73 members in 2021, which includes a selection of 25 Sephora retail associates that were admitted to the group.
Sephora, which in 2020 was the first major retailer to sign onto the 15 Percent Pledge requiring it to carry more Black-owned brands, said creating a diverse Squad was a chief consideration. Jacobs said that 79 percent of the 2021 Squad are “BIPOC” creators. Within that 79 percent, 30 percent are Black and 24 percent are Hispanic or Latino.
This year, particular priorities included finding more Spanish-speaking influencers (as such, 23 percent of the 73 new Squad members speak Spanish) and influencers who can reach a wide variety of hair care consumers, ranging from those with straight hair to those with 4C curls, Jacobs said.
“It’s crucial to get the curation of partnerships in a programme like this right because authenticity is what will make this really resonate and drive returns,” said Julianne Fraser, CEO of digital marketing consultancy Dialogue New York.
Sephora also leverages the application process as a marketing event in itself, providing applicants with assets — photos that have the Sephora Squad hashtag imposed over them, for example — that helps to encourage posting and facilitate sharing, said Nord. Sephora also requires applicants who qualify for later rounds to ask for testimonials from their followers, giving them a vested interest in seeing who makes the cut.
“You can be an influencer with a tonne of fans and followers but the engagement is really what matters,” said Abigail Jacobs, senior vice president of integrated marketing and brand at Sephora. “If your audience is saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the person I look to for all of my beauty needs, you should totally be in the Squad,’ that helps us say, ‘Okay, not only is this a person with great numbers on paper but their audience loves them and hangs on every post that they do.”
Investing In The Talent
Many Sephora Squad applicants exist in the nano, micro or mid-tier influencer range, making the possibility that they could be exposed to Sephora’s 20 million-plus Instagram followers if selected an exciting prospect that almost guarantees audience growth.
And that’s exactly what happened. From May 2020 to February 2021, Sephora Squad members saw an 18 percent increase in follower size on Instagram and 15 percent increase in total growth on YouTube, according to Sephora. And on TikTok — where it is comparatively much easier to grow quickly — the Squad’s combined follower count over the same time period increased 93 percent.
To be sure, working with brands, in general, helps influencers build credibility and grow a following. But Sephora’s focus on providing influencers with business resources and education — an investment many brands do not make in the talent they tap — that helps the retailer foster deeper relationships with its Squad influencers, even beyond the terms of their one-year partnerships. (Partnerships can be extended beyond the one-year mark, which at least a handful of creators have experienced, though Sephora declined to say how many.) As part of the Squad membership, Sephora says it offers influencers peer and professional coaching, network events, focus groups and access to Sephora executives.
“[Influencers] are small businesses, so it’s interesting to think about the diverse needs that they have and how we can support them with the resources that we have available as a retailer the size of Sephora,” Jacobs said.
Whitney Madueke, a member of Sephora’s inaugural 2019 Squad whose contract was extended into 2020, said that in the first year of the programme, she did not receive mentorship training per se, but that she did develop relationships with other Squad members, particularly when they were flown out to Los Angeles for group events. Madueke said she also received advice from Sephora about how to legally disclose partnerships and branded content opportunities of which she was not previously aware.
“It just makes for a much more valuable programme that really will build loyalty over time,” said Fraser, referring to the investment Sephora makes in the influencers themselves. “That’s what seems to stand apart from what other beauty brands are doing.”