Sephora chief executive officer Martin Brok is redefining the future of prestige beauty.
The former Starbucks executive’s first exposure to Sephora, which he joined in September 2020, came while working at Nike. That was at a time when the company was shifting from a wholesale to a direct-to-consumer-driven model, with sharp points in the digital space.
“[Sephora] became a reference point for us,” Brok said during the WWD Beauty CEO Summit’s opening keynote speech, in a conversation with Jenny B. Fine, executive editor, beauty, WWD and Beauty Inc.
He drew parallels between the coffee and cosmetics industries — especially “the vibrancy of the markets.”
“What’s impressed me about beauty is how quickly it’s actually changing,” Brok said. “The pandemic — absolutely — only accelerated it.”
One month after Brok started at Sephora, France went into a serous lockdown. “That was pretty difficult,” he said. “But the good news is what the pandemic has brought about is really a change in the industry as a whole.”
That involves a shift in how the consumer perceives beauty and well-being — exercise, nutrition and sleep included.
“It’s all linked together,” Brok said. “The consumer used to treat those as different compartments. And on top of that, the landscape continues to change.”
It’s at a quicker pace than before. “So the need for us to stay connected to that quickly evolving consumer sentiment and expectation is really paramount,” he said.
One key goal is to know the consumer better than she knows herself. That means digging into what’s key. “What she loves, where and how she wants to engage is more important than ever before,” Brok said.
As the competition in the beauty retail and brand scene intensifies, Sephora executives have mined what’s at its core. They spent time with the retailer’s founder Dominique Mandonnaud, a meeting Brok called “super inspiring, but also good validation.”
Some Sephora “superpowers” have been identified. One is its products, which are ultimately why a consumer goes to shop at the store. “And she comes to us with an expectation that we curate on her behalf, and that’s really important,” said Brok, who described the beauty space as “quite overwhelming.”
Sephora’s second superpower is its omnichannel approach. Consumers today expect a seamlessness to transacting — on every channel.
“No matter where they are, they want the same experience,” he said. “It usually starts on a phone and, in the best case, ends on the phone. We are the world’s largest, and quite frankly, only omnichannel prestige [beauty] player.”
Sephora’s third superpower is community, which continues to play an increasingly vital role. The retailer operates across 36 countries and has built a fanbase of 165 million consumers. On a daily basis, Sephora engages 6 million consumers both in store and online.
“You need to understand the community on an individual and personalized basis,” Brok said. “Sephora is a company with an incredible track record of innovating continuously and disrupting along the way.
“Our opportunity now is to take the innovation that is coming from across the globe — whether it’s home chat, same-day delivery, how we drive the personalization engine, the next evolution of the store experience, omnichannel services — and literally integrating those so that we leverage the power of the three regions that we operate in, let them be the drivers of the innovation and then scale across the board,” he said. “The opportunity for us now is to be able to do that faster.”
Consumers don’t see three different Sephora brands, in North America, Europe and Asia. “It’s one brand across the globe,” he said. “What happens in one part of the world, in a nanosecond, is communicated in another part of the world. So making that happen, and ensuring that we are delivering the same experience across the globe, the same drivers to grow, this is absolutely paramount.”
So is a seamless consumer experience that ingrates the physical and virtual spaces. An app, for instance, doesn’t just play a role on the phone, but in store, too. A consumer in a brick-and-retail environment might be researching and choosing products through the app then picking them up and paying for them offline.
“The role of the app for the consumer is becoming more important,” Brok said. “The good news is we know for a fact that when they’re on the app, the conversion is significantly higher and, in most cases, the average basket [is], as well.
“We also have an opportunity [to bring] the Sephora magic into a digital space,” he continued, characterizing the digital space as having been unidimensional, competing on price and convenience — a “no win” situation — in the past.
Sephora has brought its beauty advisors online. “We see some incredible results,” said Brok, who added: “But I want to just underline the fact that the role of the store is not going away.”
He underlined consumers’ return to brick-and-mortar at an unprecedented pace and that the role of stores is evolving.
“What we need to do is ensure that we figure out how to seamlessly integrate, but also compliment, the experience,” said Brok, who said the richness and texture of in-store experiences are key.
One way to augment them is through services — paid services and diagnostic tools, such as color, skin and ultimately hair analysis — allowing Sephora to get to know consumers better “so that we can engage and build a relationship that is deeper and more profound than ever before,” Brok said. There will be more of these to come.
Product newness and differentiation, in part through exclusivity, also continue to be important.
“Clearly there are brands that are not exclusive to us,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that our relationship can’t be mutually beneficial in the sense that there’s an opportunity to do unique things within the Sephora space that allows us to create value, excitement and experiences for the consumer. That’s our collective opportunity, whether you’re exclusive or not. That is ultimately what the consumer is looking for.”
With the convergence of traditional beauty, wellness and self care, the definition of “beauty” grows into something much more holistic, according to Brok.
“It is truly about well-being,” he said. “We collectively have an opportunity to start to think about what that actually looks like.”
It’ll start small at first, like the hair care category, which five years ago was minuscule in prestige beauty.
“It’s absolutely explosive,” Brok said. “Watch this space.”
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