For most brands, selecting which influencers to work with is a cloak-and-dagger process filled with discreet meetings and non-disclosure agreements. But earlier this year, Sephora opened up its decision-making process to influencer communities through a new program called #SephoraSquad, a roster of influencers who will have an ongoing relationship with the brand via creating content and weighing in on upcoming advertising.
Last month, Sephora announced the lucky 24 influencers chosen as the #Squad’s inaugural members. Competition was incredibly tight; there were 15,000 applicants, meaning less than 0.002% of applicants were selected—an impossibly small acceptance rate. (For comparison, Harvard’s acceptance rate for 2019 was 5.3%.)
The chosen influencers are a diverse mix in gender, age, ethnic and racial background, nationality, sexual orientation and even follower count. Some have under 10,000 followers, while others have hundreds of thousands. The #SephoraSquad roster includes Christina Vega, a makeup artist and self-proclaimed “curly enthusiast”; Kali Kushner, who shares messages of acne positivity; Erick Glam, a Chicago-based makeup artist; Grace Atwood, a lifestyle blogger who routinely shares beauty and skincare recommendations; and Christine Le, a YouTuber focused on fashion and beauty.
After a two–month-long contest requiring aspiring influencers to ask their followers for testimonials to support their applications to the program, Deborah Yeh, Sephora’s CMO, said the company received 240,000 such testimonials.
“We’ve always been thinking about how to make sure that our marketing mix is a contemporary and relevant for our consumers,” Yeh said, adding that before the introduction of the #SephoraSquad program, the brand’s work with influencers was primarily one-time partnerships, centered around campaigns or product launches. But over time, the Sephora team realized they could have a greater impact through influencer partnerships that extended beyond a single campaign.
“These are people relationships, and the best people relationships aren’t quick a quick date—they are longer-term relationships,” said Yeh. “We felt like there was an opportunity for us to really build a longitudinal set of discussions with influencers.”
While finding the right influencers, Sephora focused on two key concepts: diversity and authenticity. At a time when follower counts and likes can be purchased, real influence can be harder than ever to find. The solution? Testimonials.
“[W]e asked our applicants to … help us understand the impact that they as influencers have played in their audience’s lives,” said Yeh. “We were looking for these unique voices who had a unique impact with their followers.”
This strategy gave Sephora a better way to gauge the trust the applicants had within the communities they’d built while making the application process a social media moment in itself. Thousands of applicants posted on their own social channels, asking their followers for endorsements and directing them to Sephora’s website.
“The testimonials resulted in … a much more 360 view of what each of these influencers were about, because we could also get a sense of what their audiences were about,” Yeh said.
The hope, according to Yeh, is that each influencer will bring their own perspective to the content they create for the brand.
“In the past, [it’s] always been important for us to have a brief with our influencers that respected their unique content creation voice,” said Yeh. “Otherwise, we could just create traditional advertising. That intent remains the same. Most of the content that #SephoraSquad will create will be native to the influencers’s own channels and audiences. With that said, we’re able to supplement that authentic original concept with experiences and interactions with the brand that the #SephoraSquad members will have access to.”