Customer Personalization Is at the Heart of Ulta Beauty’s Mission

How the retailer still has innovation in its DNA 30 years later

Shelley Haus on stage at Challenger Brands
Speaking onstage at Adweek's Challenger Brands Summit, Ulta Beauty CMO Shelley Haus said marketing to Gen Z is a priority for the brand.
Sean T. Smith for Adweek

Key insights:

Ulta Beauty’s chief marketing officer lives by a mantra that goes, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Shelley Haus, who was promoted to CMO at the retailer in December, shared those words of wisdom onstage at Adweek’s Challenger Brands Summit in New York on Wednesday as she discussed how the 30-year-old company is still committed to innovation in the beauty industry.

Haus emphasized Ulta’s focus on customer personalization and how the brand is attempting to accomplish that with Ulta Beauty Culture Studio, which is designed to understand “the intersection of beauty and culture” and “where they converge.”

The idea came about two years ago at South by Southwest, Haus told Adweek after coming offstage. She and her team went to a panel where anthropologists discussed understanding culture and how they intersect with brands.

Ulta also acquired QM Scientific and GlamSt, two startups focused on artificial intelligence and augmented reality, in 2018. The AI tools scour the internet to see how big cultural themes tie into beauty. Later on, anthropologists analyze the themes the tools found to understand how it will affect the brand and its business.

The research taught Haus and her team that “people need togetherness,” she said. “They need optimism. They need hope and they need caring for themselves more than ever before.”

Like many retailers, marketing to Gen Z is also a major priority for Ulta in staying up to date with what young consumers want. Between teaming up with Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown and learning from other young trailblazers like LGBTQ rights activist Jazz Jennings, Haus said the company has learned how much of an influence people 10 to 22 have on the market.

“[Gen Z is] almost 20% of the population,” Haus said. “When you think about their influence on spend, they’re influencing almost $450 billion worth of spend.”

It’s also been a priority for Ulta to be inclusive of people who enjoy beauty and skincare, regardless of their gender identity. But in order to achieve that, Haus said, listening to others is key.

“Get close to the people that you’re trying to learn from and have them teach and guide you to make it authentic,” she said.

Looking to the future of Ulta and other beauty brands, Haus’ biggest advice to marketers is to think about the words “daring” and “boldness” and how to implement that in their work but also have “heart at the center” of their brand.

“People are not just buying beauty,” she said. “People have whole lives around them, and we have to understand the whole context.”

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