Steve Lesnard currently holds the position of Global Chief Brand Officer at Sephora. Prior to joining LVMH in 2021, he had a distinguished career as the Global Vice President and General Manager of Nike Running and The Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Product Creation for The North Face.
Together, we explored the evolving role of retail in response to changing consumer demands and behaviors, a subject that has been at the forefront of many marketers’ and brands’ thoughts.
Through the lens of retail, we examined the significance of diversity, inclusion, and sustainability, as well as the influence of community in fostering loyalty and creating service-oriented experiences. Additionally, we delve into the utilization of data and technology to personalize the customer experience, while emphasizing the importance of remaining committed to your brand’s values and mission.
FROM SPORTS MARKETING TO BEAUTY, WHAT MOTIVATED YOUR INDUSTRY TRANSITION?
I was raised in France, but after completing business school, I moved to the United States to work for Nike. During my 21 years at Nike, I held various roles across the globe in marketing, product management, and general management. Some of my responsibilities included managing the Women’s, Running, Olympics and Europe Marketing teams. As someone who has a deep interest in the outdoor industry, I decided to leave Nike and became the Chief Marketing Officer & Head of Product creation at The North Face, relocating to Colorado.
When I began working with Nike, it was a brand that primarily catered to men. Given that half of the population consists of females, it was a good opportunity to consider this segment. When we asked women where they typically shopped, Nike was never mentioned. Instead, Sephora was repeatedly brought up. Not only did consumers go to Sephora, but they also spent hours there.
I ended up spending time with the Sephora team to understand what was going on and fell in love with the strengths of the brand: customer service, beauty advisors, a sense of fun and discovery.
I’ve always been passionate for brands that have strong values and put experience and community at the heart of what they do. Joining Sephora presented a chance for me to explore, do something different and learn new things, all while returning to my home country of France, which was unexpected but welcomed.
IN WHAT WAYS DO VALUES SUCH AS SELF-EXPRESSION AND COMMUNITY INFLUENCE EMERGING CONSUMER BEHAVIORS IN PHYSICAL RETAIL SPACES?
The first thing I did starting at Sephora was sit down with the founder. I did the same thing at Nike. So I sat with Sephora’s founder, Mr. Mandonnaud, and took a ride back to the 70s when he envisioned a space where anyone could feel at ease and explore beauty on their own terms, with a desire to challenge the traditional department store model where beauty was often kept behind glass counters the experience was controlled.
Paraphrasing here, he said
“I don’t believe in this, I want to open all the counters, and I want it organized, in alphabetical order. I want her to come in, try and test and she doesn’t have to buy anything because if she feels welcome, she’s going to come back. I want to make sure that our staff is a representation of the community that they serve.”
This vision still guides us in ensuring that everyone feels welcome in the world of beauty, which can be intimidating at times, and we acknowledge that there is still more work to be done in this area.
DO YOU SEGMENT YOUR BRAND BASED ON DEMOGRAPHIC SEGMENTS OR MINDSET?
We strive to serve everyone and ensure that everyone feels welcome, at every stage of life. This is a crucial aspect of our brand, and it is also reflected in our employees because we want to make sure everyone can find someone to identify with in our stores.
Most of our customers are part of the Sephora loyalty program, which means we have a wealth of data on their preferences and behaviors allowing us to anticipate their needs and provide personalized experiences.
Our core consumer is a beauty expert, someone who is passionate about beauty and seeks out the latest and greatest products. While the “Trend Maven” is at the center of our bull’s eye, we also strive to ensure that everyone can find products and services that resonate with them.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE SEPHORA BOTH AS A RETAILER AND AS A BRAND?
I was inspired to join Sephora because it’s a global multi-brand retailer with a strong presence in various regions like the US, Europe, Middle East, Central America, South America, and Asia. Sephora is not just a brand, but also has strong values on how they serve their customers and present their products. They are a house of brands, which makes them unique because they balance being both a brand and a multi-branded retailer.
Sephora’s private label collection was created with the vision of making the world of beauty fun and accessible to all consumers. The collection’s magic lies in its high-quality products and sustainable standards, which we can achieve because we are a part of the LVMH family. Our own brand line serves as an entry point to the world of beauty. This allows customers to come back and try new products and discover other brands within Sephora.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT YOUR OWN PRIVATE LABEL BRAND VERSUS THE BRANDS THAT ARE REPRESENTED IN SEPHORA?
Product is always at the heart of brand expression and marketing inspiration. One of the superpowers of Sephora is our merchandising team, who are experts at collaborating with brands to bring the latest and greatest products to our stores. We not only partner with established brands like Urban Decay but also are constantly discovering and showcasing new and emerging brands.
We don’t just offer products at Sephora; our proposition includes services as well. When it comes to our private label, we have the opportunity to bring new innovation based on the data we have. This allows us to quickly react to trends and offer consumers what we believe they will like.
WHAT IS THE MAGIC SAUCE TO CREATE AN OPTIMAL IN STORE EXPERIENCE AT SEPHORA?
Retail businesses faced uncertainty during the pandemic with the question of whether retail would come back. However, retail has made a strong comeback, with increased foot traffic and consumers wanting to be in-store. And it is not at the expense of our online business because the new behaviors that the pandemic created are here to stay.
We aim to create an environment where our customers can always explore and experiment with new products. It is all about trial.
Our beauty advisors play a critical role in this process. At Sephora, we consider both the customer and our beauty advisors to be our bosses. As such, we provide our advisors with the best tools and training to ensure they can spend as much time as possible with our consumers.
Many of our beauty advisors have grown from the company and 87% of our store managers are women. That service component is so important to us. You can walk into a Sephora and get your hair done or makeup done and we also have brands that come in and provide bespoke experiences based on new to market products or services, so you can literally spend hours just trying different experiences.
It gives us the opportunity for us to create a personal relationship as we know what they like. That’s the magic formula. We like to say “retail is not dead, but boring retail may be in trouble.”
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION FOR WHAT’S NEXT?
We look at everything through the lens of emotion and efficiency. The emotion part is curating the best brands and getting the right services and experiences in store and online. For example, every day when we open our stores, our beauty advisors line up and cheer for the consumers. We just opened our first store in London and the advisors had a choreography that they organized. This passion, energy and emotion of Sephora is very important to us.
Efficiency is also important to the omni channel experience. We have very strong competitors but there are also new benchmarks that we see from the pure players as well. For instance, click and collect, or the ability to get the product you want at your doorstep within 2 hours, leveraging the network of our stores.
HOW ARE YOU USING DATA TO INFORM BOTH YOUR ONLINE AND OFFLINE RETAIL STRATEGY?
I knew that in joining Sephora I would get excited about the access to consumer behavior and how the data would guide some of the decisions that we make.
We get a lot of information on what they’re interested in, what they’re browsing, what they are trying and what they’re buying, which allows us to constantly check and test new ways to offer services to them. Data is at the core of everything we do and we can offer our brand partners a lot of specific information about the consumer.
SHARE SOME OF THE VALUES AROUND SEPHORA’S D&I AND SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES AND HOW YOU FOCUS ON THIS BOTH FOR THE CONSUMER AND WITHIN YOUR CORPORATE CULTURE?
This is another inspiring dimension of Sephora. 87% of our total workforce is women. 87% are store managers and 61% are top management positions held by women around the world.
We have great initiative around Sephora’s 15% pledge to drive BIPOC representation, where our North America team dedicates 15% of their shelf space to black owned brands as well as host an incubator program to help these brands scale.
When it comes to sustainability, we have a very committed but humble approach. Sephora is part of the LVMH group who sets really high ambitions for all their houses, which inspire us from carbon emission reductions to the quality of our formulas. We are also partnering with our brand partners to define standards right now, as there are no global standards around sustainability or on formulas.
What is interesting is that the consumer tells us they want to shop more sustainably, but they don’t trust brands and they’re very confused with how to make the right choices.
Around the idea of community, we think about how we can make people always feel welcome in Sephora. We just started to scale a program in 24 countries called ‘Classes for Confidence,” helping consumers use the power of beauty to feel better in their skin. These are programs that are done by the community, for the community, hosted in our stores after hours.
HOW ARE YOU PRESENTLY TACKLING THE ISSUE OF INCLUSIVITY IN THE BEAUTY INDUSTRY TODAY?
The Sephora North America team has made significant strides in addressing this issue and they have conducted a retail bias study, looking to understand if we are biased in how we serve consumers? When consumers walk into our stores, do they feel welcome? Are we serving everyone the same?
It was really eye opening and revealed that there’s still more work to do. Sephora’s mission is to create a space where anyone can feel comfortable to express and discover anything about themselves and our brand partners, like Urban Decay, with their strong values, excellent products, and unique brand identity, provide opportunities for consumers to feel confident in their own skin.
HOW DO YOU CONTINUE TO ENGAGE YOUR COMMUNITY, SPECIFICALLY WHEN IT COMES TO BUILDING LOYALTY?
The fact that we have so much traffic in our doors and online gives us constant opportunities to recruit new consumers; hundreds of millions of people walk through our doors every year and millions every day on our site. The question is now do we make sure that once they enter our world, we very quickly make them become members and then retain them in the most personal way?
We look at this from many ways, from their behaviors to their patterns and interests. It’s constant evolution and monitoring of what works and the added value that it creates. Loyalty is at the heart of every decision we make.
TO WHICH PEOPLE AND BRANDS DO YOU LOOK FOR YOUR INSPIRATION?
I get inspired a lot. Much of my inspiration comes from people that I had the opportunity to work for or work with. I get inspired by people first, how people think and their ambitious ideas. I like innovators, people that do things differently and that think that the future is going to be better because we can improve it by changing things.
It’s fun to see newcomers that are completely breaking the status quo in the world of beauty and it is happening every day. We see founders who are saying “there’s a gap, no one is serving me or my community based on the problem that I have.”
It was groundbreaking when Fenty beauty showed up with over 40 shades of foundation to reflect everybody’s skin. The beauty world inspires me. I like the small brands. The “David’s” in the world of “Goliath’s” are those who have an idea and want to bring it to life, who are not afraid to do things differently. They get noticed and get the big brands to react and adapt.
WITH ALL YOUR GLOBAL EXPERIENCE, HAVING LIVED IN OVER 14 DIFFERENT CITIES, ACROSS 3 CONTINENTS, HOW HAVE YOU USED THAT EXPERIENCE TO CREATE A MORE CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING ON YOUR TEAMS AND MORE INNOVATIVE THINKING?
I had the opportunity very early on in my career to study abroad and live abroad. When you live abroad, and you’re parachuted into many different cities and don’t know anybody, you quickly learn how to rely on human kindness and human connection. Feeling seen and included is something rooted in me.
I have incredible friends and I have a wonderful wife and family that have supported me. Without my wife, it would not be possible because she was an entrepreneur and when we had these opportunities to move around, she was the first one to say ‘Let’s go and do it together.”
I think it’s important to have a rock and to have a base where people can see you for who you are and feel like you belong and I love to bring that to where I go to work so that everybody in the room feels that they can be seen.
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