The Road to Brandweek: Sephora’s Deborah Yeh on Navigating ‘Insta-Judgment’ Culture

How instant feedback is helping the brand

Headshot of Deborah Yeh
Beauty retailer Sephora's chief marketing officer Deborah Yeh will be speaking at Brandweek. Sephora
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Beauty is a big business. In 2017, according to Orbis Research, the global cosmetics market was worth a whopping $532.43 billion, and by 2023 that number is expected to climb to over $800 billion. Sephora, the beauty retailer that carries more than 250 brands with over 2,500 stores worldwide, sits at the forefront of the industry.

Deborah Yeh, the company’s chief marketing officer, is set to take the stage at our upcoming Brandweek event, Nov. 3-6 in Palm Springs, Calif., to talk about the booming beauty industry and how she tackles marketing at the retailer.

Ahead of the event, Adweek spoke with Yeh about the marketing industry today—from consumer feedback to data, what stands out about her brand and more.

Adweek: How do you navigate marketing and advertising in the age of rapid consumer feedback?
Deborah Yeh:
I don’t love the reactive “insta-judgment” that sometimes happens on social, but getting consumer feedback quickly is more good than bad. In the past, the fastest commentators on any new marketing work were “industry people.” A marketer would release a new TV spot and wait to see if it got listed in the weekly roundup of great ads. Hearing from one’s peers is helpful and exciting, but—let’s admit it—we’re kind of talking to ourselves. Today, reviewing the social sentiment within minutes of posting a video is the most immediate focus group we can get.

We saw this recently in our “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign. We released a gorgeous TV ad featuring gender-fluid talent in front of and behind the camera. It was very well received, but what really generated engagement was when we posted our series of secondary stories–mini-documentaries about employees and clients finding confidence in their gender identity at Sephora. Consumer feedback was so amazingly supportive that it gave us the courage to continue to be bold in our messages, and we were also able to commission more videos mid-campaign.

What’s the biggest buzzword in the industry today?

How does Sephora use data?
As a retailer, Sephora is fortunate to have lots of data. We have a loyalty program that lets us recognize the dominant majority of transactions and tie them back to all kinds of insights—from predicting when a certain person is going to run out of mascara to suggesting new products that might be right for them. We’re investing in the technology and teams to maximize this opportunity, and we’re also thinking about how we develop our marketing talent with this trend in mind. Having an appreciation for data shouldn’t just be the domain of our performance marketers but also be part of the perspective of our creative thinkers, our trend spotters, our experience designers and our storytellers.

Name one important thing about your brand that you wish more consumers knew.
The caliber, integrity and passion of our store beauty advisers. We invest a ton into educating and developing our field team, and our payroll is a bigger marketing asset than our traditional advertising media. It is just miraculous to be able to walk into a store and have someone guide you through 400 brands and 25,000 products to pick the ones that are right for you.

Are our beauty advisers perfect? No. But, they are here to help, and they help millions of clients each year feel confident in their everyday looks and fearless for their special occasions. Sometimes there’s this perception that Sephora is the place for beauty junkies, but while we love our fellow beauty enthusiasts, our goal is to create a welcoming environment for all consumers. I didn’t know how to draw my eyeliner on straight before I came to Sephora. It was a Sephora beauty adviser who gave me the skills and confidence to feel like I can fully participate in beauty!

What’s the biggest change that your company or industry has had to contend with over the last two years?
This is cheesy, but the biggest change has been the speed of change itself. Speed to market has created an explosion of newness and exciting indie brands. Social media and the rise of the beauty influencer have created sudden and massive spikes in demand for beauty products. Retailers and brands have gotten more nimble, resulting in a proliferation of places you can buy beauty products. Always-on beauty culture has created specific influencers who make a living leaking product news and specific vendors who help track the trends.

Most of this speed has been fantastic for the consumer, but it’s definitely changing the way we work. Successful players have to be more adaptable and responsive. I don’t think this is unique to the beauty category, but the last few years have definitely gone by quickly!

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@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.