How Ulta Beauty evolved its marketing strategy in 2020

This week, we take a look at Ulta Beauty’s marketing through the pandemic, and where beauty and wellness companies stand with their commitments to racial injustice and inequality.

The role of beauty marketers has changed significantly in the last year. The Covid-19 health crisis forced executives to rethink in-store marketing in the face of store closures, and lean more heavily on digital and performance tactics. No doubt, that was easier for some companies than others. And the calls to action around racial and social injustice made striking the right tone in the broader cultural conversation harder than ever.

Leading the charge at Ulta Beauty has been CMO Shelley Haus, who was promoted to her latest position months prior to coronavirus hitting the U.S., at the end of 2019. In the five years prior, she was the vp and svp of brand marketing at the company. In the midst of the challenges of the pandemic, Haus said “articulating and defining the heart of our brand and our brand purpose” made Ulta Beauty more agile than challengers in the space. This flexibility extended to the company’s approach to talking to customers, livestreaming and fostering loyalty.

Ahead, she breaks down Ulta’s take on marketing beauty in a time of crisis.

Tell me how defining Ulta’s purpose informed what strategies you have recently implemented?
Being the brand that uses the power of beauty to bring out the possibilities in every single person was so well-defined [pre-Covid]. We had spent some time really infusing that into the organization as our true north, and that it made it easier for us to pull some things forward and create new platforms of hyper relevance in a time of a lot of change. Three weeks after the pandemic, we launched a new brand platform [based] on our possibilities. The foundation was called ‘See Beautiful Today’ and  was born from this idea of: “Wow, people’s worlds are being rocked right now. We are a brand that can help people in times of complexity, concern and anxiety.” As a platform, then that gave us a lot of runway to head into the Mother’s Day time period, and then into summer’s time of racial injustice and unrest. We hadn’t planned to launch a new campaign [last year] until September, but the way the team were movers and shakers was just extraordinary.

How Ulta Beauty evolved its marketing strategy in 2020

How did you manifest that digitally when stores were closed?
Content. We became an even more content-focused company to derive a lot of relevance. Some of it was little UGC snippet videos, but we started to launch a lot of content series [online and on Instagram] like “Ulta Beauty at Home,” which showed people how to do their nails at home, how to touch-up their roots at home, things like that. In September, we launched another campaign, “Where Dreams Begin,” around togetherness, self-care and self-expression. We saw how beauty and self-care were connected. I’d say we were really well-prepared, because we had built a workflow and prowess to be able to create a lot of content using our internal tools, like our Pro and Design [associate] teams. Our Salon at Ulta Beauty is able to quickly create relevant, credible and entertaining content, and we’ve really ramped up our Beauty School live [events].

How did this affect your approach to traditional marketing channels?
Before 2020, we had already evolved our media mix significantly over 2017, 2018 and 2019. We’re really pushing much harder on social, social community and digital, but also TV and radio, which have worked extremely well for us. And we’re pulling back on traditional print vehicles. When we closed stores, we revamped the complete media mix for Q1 and for Q2, in one week. We did go 100% digital, and we stopped all of our print vehicles until September. It’s been a pretty significant shift and acceleration.

Do you think there is a role for traditional marketing like print?
We do. We brought back print for holiday and that worked well, because it’s a time where people want to sit down with their Ulta Beauty magazine, flip through, see what’s new, earmark things and take a look online at the same time. We’re testing more of that in 2021, based on learnings from 2020. For instance, we just launched what we internally called The Skin Book; it was a very skin-focused, content-centric direct-to-home print piece. We want to see what kind of results that drives and are looking at another program like that for the back half of this year.

What are you prioritizing in digital channels?
A lot of our marketing is focused on emotional connection, brand building. We’ve been able to build our top-of-mind awareness by 16 points over the past few years, so we are really seen as a beauty authority. For things like Beauty School Live, we aren’t looking at return on ad spend; we are looking at how those things drive our overall connection as a brand, our engagement and the continuation of us being the leading authority overall. Our loyalty program, too, is meant to be much more emotional and experiential.

You recently revamped your loyalty program to offer extra perks to customers. What was the motivation?
Our Ultamate Rewards Program has been in that space of making more of an emotional connection. In August, when we started to get the majority of our stores back open, for the first time ever, we did what we call a “We love our members month.” It was a full month of lots of membership activity with points, offers and content, and we wanted to do more of that this year. We are always so focused on our guests, and where they are in their mindset and in their lives. We realize that so many of them are in really tough situations. Although they love beauty and they love us, they’re not spending the way that they were in the past. So it was our intent to really think about what we could do to be a bit of light and to help people. We decided before 2020 that, no matter what customers spent in 2020, that was going to be honored and carried over in 2021. As an organization, it was something we felt really good doing for our guests.

Are you thinking about tying loyalty to in-store marketing tactics like sampling or testers?
Trying beauty is experiential. Our brand partners are very focused on what trial and sampling look like moving forward, but I think the short answer is that there is going to be more adoption of our [virtual app] Glam Lab, so we need to understand how to incorporate more storytelling and content opportunities there. 

What we’re watching

Support for Black Lives Matter may have surged following George Floyd’s killing in May, but public support has waned since late summer. Despite many companies in beauty and wellness making lofty proclamations around corporate structure, few have made actual change.

However, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some brands came out with new initiatives: Sephora released its Racial Bias in Retail study, and plans to unveil new feedback mechanisms for customers leaving the store and an in-store dashboard that will help the company capture analytics on client service. It also plans to double its assortment of Black-owned brands by the end of 2021; currently, it only stocks eight. Ipsy also made commitments to diverse shoppers by adding more Black-owned beauty brands to its Glam Bags, including Fenty Beauty, Mented, Pat McGrath Labs and Uoma Beauty. In addition, it’s creating a $1 million fund for Black-owned brands to invest in product sourcing.

“I can’t criticize or be mad at anyone for voicing support for this cause, no matter how ‘convenient” the time may seem. This happens every year leading up to Black History Month – we see this push — when the conversation is most topical,” said Uoma Beauty and Pull Up for Change founder Sharon Chuter.

Since launching Pull Up for Change on June 3, Chuter has been focused on making sure accountability happens across industries. The organization will be launching a new social campaign in February.

“I don’t care what the motivation is, I care about the action. I want to see the steps you are taking, how you are continuing the work. We shouldn’t shame those who are speaking out, regardless of the timing, when so many brands, especially in the fashion industry, remain silent,” she said. “They sign pledges that have little meaning, instead of doing the work to make meaningful change. I welcome anyone who’s making any change and releasing any reports, because it takes some vulnerability — and that’s important.”

Inside our coverage

What it takes for an indie brand to be successful at Target.

Winky Lux is the latest makeup company to venture into skin care.

Beauty-tech trends to watch in 2021.

Saie is updating the tired product mailer strategy.

What we’re reading

Under new ownership, Black Opal heads into Ulta.

Jonathan Van Ness plans hair-care brand with Biossance.

Flo settles F.T.C. charges of misleading users on privacy.

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