How Ulta Beauty Keeps Its Challenger Brand Spirit With 1,200 Stores in All 50 States

It starts with CMO Shelley Haus' purpose-driven marketing

shelley haus
In her five years at Ulta Beauty, Shelley Haus saw the chain mature into one of the top 20 fastest-growing U.S. retailers. Ulta Beauty

While it may be the largest beauty retailer in the U.S., Ulta Beauty is at heart a challenger brand. The chain has grown from 356 stores in 2010 to more than 1,200 today. All the more reason to keep the scrappy spirit intact.

“We know we can’t be complacent,” said Shelley Haus, who was promoted to chief marketing officer last December and will appear on the mainstage at Adweek’s Challenger Brands summit, taking place March 4-5 in New York, to discuss Ulta Beauty’s successes and challenges.

Haus, who has been with the retailer for five years, saw the chain mature into one of the top 20 fastest-growing U.S. retailers. We caught up with the CMO to learn about the brand’s influencer strategy, the impact of its loyalty program, and what she’s learned along the way as a marketer.

Ulta Beauty will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2020. How do you keep that challenger brand spirit?
As the world and consumers change, we’re always writing the next chapter in our success story. In the past decade, Ulta Beauty has more than tripled the number of stores in operation, increased our revenue by more than 500% and become the No. 1 beauty retail destination for Gen Z. We keep that challenger brand spirit by driving for today, while imagining the experiences of tomorrow and continuing our bold mission to use the power of beauty to make the world better.

How important are influencers to your marketing strategy?
At Ulta Beauty, we think about influence in terms of how it impacts our guests’ experience and the various roles different influential audiences play. People have conversations with individuals and not with brands. That’s why we are building engagement and conversation through authentic, credible, engaged individuals who connect with their audiences at a more intimate level. For us, that means not only influencers in the beauty space but also our associates. As we continue to evolve our influencer strategy, we are unleashing the power of 45,000 passionate associates to further engage our beauty-loving guests online and in-store.

What drives an Ulta Beauty customer to keep coming back?
We are the beauty curators that scour the world to give beauty lovers the most amazing assortment that delivers beauty for all. We bring it all to life in an approachable, welcoming and accessible way that transcends channel and keeps our guests coming back to us again and again. Our guests consistently tell us that they love how we make it fast, easy, intuitive and effortless, so they can spend their time experiencing beauty. We also reward our guests’ love of beauty with our loyalty program, Ultamate Rewards. We are proud to have more than 33 million active loyalty members—rivaling the size of a small country—who drive 95% of our business.

With more than 1,200 stores in all 50 states, how do you maintain a cohesive marketing strategy?
In 2018, we introduced a new brand purpose, most notably brought to life in “The Possibilities Are Beautiful” campaign, to continue moving Ulta Beauty from a functional to a purposeful, diversity-forward brand. As the true north for the company, we built our cohesive purpose-driven marketing from the inside out with the help of our associates across the country who live our brand and fuel our passion and performance.

What makes Ulta Beauty stand out from its competitors?
Since day one, we have been visionaries, reimagining the future of beauty and retail—and seeing possibilities where others see limits. It’s in our DNA to focus on doing things differently and present beauty for our guests in a way that nobody else does. Added to that, our people are the difference makers. We have always put our people and human connection at the heart of everything we do—and our guests feel this difference.

What are one or two marketing tactics you learned at big CPGs you’ve worked at (PepsiCo, Kellogg’s) that you’ve implemented at Ulta Beauty?
I’ve been fortunate to see firsthand how some of the most iconic brands were built. For me, success starts with assembling a world-class team who share a passion, drive and will to win together. Together, we are building the Ulta Beauty brand through a combination of deep consumer and culture insights, strategic vision, differentiating innovation and limitless creativity.

@ChrisAriens Chris Ariens is the managing editor and director of video at Adweek.