Across industries, brands are trying to figure out new ways to engage with us as consumers. That's why every day we see news of pop-ups, experiential store concepts, influencer collaborations, panel discussions, conferences, festivals and other types of temporary Instagrammable activations, from ice cream "museums" to rosé "mansions." Even Sephora, evidently America's largest prestige beauty retailer (LVMH, its owner, doesn't break out individual sales figures), isn't immune to changing consumer shopping behaviors, so this year, it invented Sephoria, which was essentially a combination of all of the above.
The name, which, yes, initially looks like a typo (the "i" is lowercase in the logo, where it's more clear), is defined by the retailer as the euphoric feeling shoppers get while encountering all the beauty products in its stores. Held this past Saturday and Sunday at The Majestic in Downtown Los Angeles, the event was described in a press release as "a beauty playland meets your social feed IRL" featuring more than 50 high-touch brand activations, product customization, master classes, Q+As, celebrity appearances, beauty services and gift bags said to be worth more than the price of a ticket, which ranged from $99 to $449. When announced by Sephora earlier this year, the event drew instant comparisons to Beautycon, a popular conference held annually in New York and Los Angeles that brings in thousands of beauty-obsessed millennials and even more social media impressions.
According to Sephora's Chief Merchandising Officer Artemis Patrick, the impetus for Sephoria came out of company discussions about taking an internal conference it holds each year for employees and brand partners and making it into something more public-facing. As far as timing, 2018 marks the retailer's 20th year in business in the United States. "It really came from something that is in our DNA and to celebrate our 20th anniversary, we decided to bring it out and do an extension of the euphoria that our consumers feel every single day inside Sephora walls," she told me on Saturday.
As a guest of Sephora, I spent around five hours in the conference/festival/shopping party, from the VIP preview event Friday night, to the first few hours it was open to ticket holders Saturday morning. And I needed that much time just to take everything in: With three floors of activations to "experience," it was initially overwhelming. And as I suspected, the whole thing was Insta-bait heaven (or hell, depending on your social media habits).
If going into a busy Sephora store makes you anxious, entering Sephoria at noon on Saturday would have likely sent you into a full-blown panic attack pretty quickly. (On the other hand, if it makes you euphoric, well, you get it.) The space was what Sephora might look like if each brand sold there were given carte blanche to create whatever experience it thought would impress customers and get the most engagement — both in real life and on social media.
La Mer erected a comically enormous sculpture of its famous crème; Jo Malone hired someone to dress up as a selfie-obsessed version of a Queen's Guard in addition to erecting a British telephone booth; Drunk Elephant had a trippy, colorful, floor-to-ceiling LED touch screen surrounded by mirrors; Tatcha transported attendees into a Japanese garden (which almost felt serene despite the event’s inherent chaos) with cherry blossoms hanging from the ceiling, calming purple light and a special hand-washing "ceremony" using the brand’s cleansers; Fenty Beauty had giant, human-size compact filled with gold confetti; Ole Henriksen had a giant laundry basket filled with detergent, oranges and bananas; Fresh had a retro refrigerator filled with rose petals and champagne; Huda Beauty had a pink-and-green bakery set; Urban Decay had functioning slot machines; IGK had three separate selfie nooks; Pat McGrath Labs had a "glitter party"...the list goes on. Even the bathrooms were sponsored (by Method).
Most brand "rooms" were giving away free sample sizes of product: For some, you had to post a tagged photo on Instagram in order to receive one; others didn't have such strict requirements, but the Instabait photo ops were there, and attendees were biting. So while the products may have been free, a different type of transaction was taking place with social media as the currency.
Guests could also sign up for complimentary services including Drybar blowouts (the company basically built a full Drybar on the premises), brow waxing and shaping from Benefit and full makeup from Sephora artists. They also got to take home gift bags with full-size products.
"This is an opportunity for [our brands] to reach out to a broader beauty community, so we're able to treat our clients to an incredible assortment of stuff," explained Patrick. "Typically, the approach to these kinds of things is you give out to consumers samples and you give to influencers full-size and and what we love about this is everyone can feel like an influencer."
Patrick declined to disclose details of Sephora's budgetary relationships with brands (i.e. whether or not they paid for their spots, as they might at a trade show or for a sponsorship booth at a festival like Coachella), but said, "I can tell you it's certainly a win-win for all of us in terms of the social interactions that we've had."
From a marketing standpoint, Sephora had a few different goals for Sephoria. One was to learn more about its customers. "This is one of the biggest community gatherings that we have done for the Sephora brand ever and so we're certainly looking at people coming here and getting to know our brand in a way that you wouldn't necessarily get from making a transaction," explained Sephora's SVP Marketing & Brand Deborah Yeh. All attendees even had RFID tags so Sephora could track their every move. "We'll have an opportunity to understand, what are their interactions? What are they excited about? We're going to be collecting feedback." And then, of course, there's social media.
"You can't escape social media as a motivator for any business today," she noted. "We see that consumers are consuming engaging and interacting with beauty categories in new ways and that was certainly a source of inspiration for us, so Sephoria becomes this incredible opportunity for us to capture those stories, tell those stories and give consumers a chance to share those stories as well."
With employees eagerly offering to take photos of you and big selfie ring lights stationed at many of the installations, brands made no effort to hide the fact that the experiences they'd built were made for social media, and attendees embraced it. Even if posing in front of a wall installation of giant BeautyBlenders or with an adaptogenic mushroom sculpture (courtesy of Youth to the People) wasn't your thing, there were a number of famous guests and speakers to document, from Chrissy Teigen and Jen Atkin to Charlotte Tilbury and Priscilla Ono.
While it has some competition on the beauty festival front, the caliber of Sephoria's brands and speakers might have been unparalleled, and it makes sense. Sephora likely generates so much business for these brands, why wouldn't the founders — even the celebrity ones who usually sell out much larger venues — want to show up, promote those brands, and generate even more publicity and sales? "It goes back to the trust that our brand partners really have in us," said Patrick. "Scott Sassa, the Chairman of Milk, he said, 'I'm in the company of the people I'm in the company of all the time, that's Sephora, so it just feels like a natural extension.'"
The Success of Jen Atkin's Hair-Care Brand Ouai Is a Testament to the Powers of Influencer Marketing and Sephora
But getting back to the #content: Yeh explained that, "There's basically a content strategy for us and the brands before, during, after the event, so we're going to be able to share what's happening with people who maybe weren't able to attend." For instance, Sephora paid a number of influencers to promote the event ahead of time (as evidenced by many #ad posts under the #sephoria hashtag on Instagram), and it may take soundbites from the weekend's many expert master classes and turn them into a series of shareable tips for social media.
Unlike some of the public-facing "experiences" that might be populating your Instagram feed of late, Sephoria didn't just feel like a soulless house of Instagram traps. Even if Instagram didn't exist (lol, can you imagine?), any beauty junkie would have found something to get genuinely excited about. I wouldn't exactly describe myself as one (though my bathroom counter may be overflowing with skin care), but I was eager to experience the event's "foundation closet." It featured all of Sephora's best-selling foundations in every shade it carries. Yes, the tiered counter of neatly lined-up foundations going as far as the eye can see was very Instagrammable, but the process of chatting one-on-one with someone about what I was looking for, finding my shade in three great formulas, and taking home samples of each along with a 20 percent-off discount card, was something I found legitimately valuable. Getting my eyebrows waxed for free was also pretty chill. (That said, as press, I had not paid $99+ to get in.)
The event brought in nearly 5,000 people — the venue had a 1,200-person capacity and there were two sessions per day, with both early sessions having sold out ahead of time — and attendees were a mix of influencers, press, people who work in the beauty industry or have their own brands and beauty-loving consumers. But as Yeh noted, the lines between all of the above are blurring.
"We tried really hard to protect as many tickets as possible for general consumers; again, this idea is to be a community," she explained. "What's interesting is that today's regular consumer could be tomorrow's brand creator and that's the fun of Sephoria, you get to participate in the full life cycle of somebody being a content creator or being a product addict to somebody actually being a budding entrepreneur. It's blending."
For the price of admittance, guests got to experience something akin to what influencers and other types of "VIPs" do on a daily basis. And, ultimately, isn't that sort of priceless? Not really. But it is something we'll probably see more brands and retailers do in the future, and it's probably not the last we'll see of Sephora's experimentation with experiences.
"We think of this as a terrific laboratory to see, OK, we can do this in Downtown LA, some of these ideas are definitely scalable," says Yeh. "We are saying 'the first Sephoria' in a way that expects there will be some kind of follow up. As a brand we're always thinking about, what is the next innovation? So we will always continue to have experiential in our dreams."