SCHOOL | How the beauty industry became a leading voice for social activism
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How the beauty industry became a leading voice for social activism

This article first appeared in Glossy.

To activate on purpose, it comes with a budget, the same way that R&D does.

— How the beauty industry became a leading voice for social activism

Corrie Conrad had been working at Google as a senior project manager for eight years when she began interviewing at Sephora in January of 2015. The beauty retailer was in search of someone to head a newly carved out “social impact” division, an effort that would advance the company’s existing value-driven efforts by combining them under one umbrella.

“Prior to then, there hadn’t been an intentional focus on using Sephora’s strengths for the greater good,” said Conrad, who has been Sephora’s head of social impact for the past two years. “I basically served as an anthropologist consultant internally, at first — figuring out who we are, what we’re good at and what our community needs.”

Conrad led the launch of Sephora Stands a year after she started at the company. The initiative consists primarily of three programs: Sephora Accelerate, an accelerator program for female entrepreneurs in the beauty industry, Sephora Stands Together, an internal program for employee support, and Classes for Confidence, a series of makeup tutorial classes that partner with nonprofits working with women facing major life changes, including reentering the workforce as veterans, dealing with domestic abuse or battling cancer.

On Wednesday, Sephora announced it would be expanding the Sephora Stands initiative in 2017, after the program had a successful first year, benchmarked by 300 hours of mentorship during the accelerator and 200 Classes for Confidence.

Sephora, of course, isn’t the first retailer to recognize the value in identifying its larger purpose and become more involved in the community it caters to as a force for good. Activism has infiltrated brand campaigns: Dove, Cheerios, Pantene and Patagonia have attached their names to messages of body positivity, LGBT acceptance, female empowerment in the workplace and sustainability, respectively.

“There’s empirical evidence that suggests there’s an increasing apathy for brands. It’s too much white noise, not enough authenticity,” said Max Lenderman, CEO of the cause-marketing specialized agency School. He cited the statistic from a Havas Media survey that found most people reportedly wouldn’t care if 70 percent of the world’s brands disappeared.

The beauty industry, however, is at a distinct advantage. It has a close relationship with customers: Cosmetics are an everyday product for most who use them, and customers are typically loyal to the brands they love. There’s also a halo of inspiration and empowerment around the beauty industry, particularly for women. This sets beauty brands up to create a conversation with their customers around a cause that resonates with them.

“The beauty category is one that a lot of other business verticals should look at in doing cause and philanthropy really well,” Lenderman continued. “They’ve done a very good job in finding insight and then activation around some of the core issues that face their audience.”

Filling a gap for women
This year, Sephora will grow its accelerator program to include open applications from entrepreneurs in two new categories: sustainability and technology. In addition to the mentorship from Sephora executives, demo days and grants, some of the accelerator’s entrepreneurs receive a low-interest loan from Sephora to jumpstart their businesses.

“There’s a big opportunity to support female founders,” said Conrad. “The majority of our clients are women, and the research shows female founders are underrepresented and overlooked when it comes to receiving venture funding.”

Birchbox, which was founded in 2010 by two women, Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, is also supporting women’s careers in the industry. Last week, the retailer announced its partnership with New York’s Flatiron School, an in-person and online program that teaches students to code. With Birchbox’s help, Flatiron’s Women Take Tech scholarship will be awarded to 25 female students, who will receive grants worth 50 percent of tuition. Birchbox is putting a total of $100,000 toward the scholarships.

“Companies are launching with a stated mission to give back in every category,” said Beauchamp. “It’s important to build something that customers resonate with, where their dollars are contributing to more than the bottom line. There are a lot of things we care about that need funding, but women and education is important to us as a tech-first, online-first company.”

Nicole Kroese, The Flatiron School’s director of marketing, said that right now, the students who take in-person classes at the school are close to 50 percent women, thanks to programs the school has done with Karlie Kloss and Women Who Code, as well as Birchbox.

“A lot of great purpose starts with the founders of a company,” said Kroese. “Having two female tech leaders pay it forward to train women articulates their purpose in a really great way.”

A better way to market makeup
Mac Cosmetics, which is owned by Estée Lauder, uses its platform as a beauty company to educate and inform customers on LGBTQ culture. Last year, the brand worked with “Transparent” director Silas Howard on a video series that showed glimpses inside the life of subjects who identify as transgender.

“We’ve always been a purpose-driven brand for all ages and races, and had a great relationship with the trans community,” said Nancy Mahon, svp of Mac Cosmetics and executive director of the Mac AIDS Fund, in a Digiday interview.

Mac also diverts the sales from certain makeup lines away from its bottom line and instead to the causes its supports. All sales of the Caitlyn Jenner Finally Free lipstick, a total of $1.3 million, went to the Mac Cosmetics Transgender Initiative, which benefits trans organizations like GLAAD. Sales from Mac’s Viva Glam line, which has worked with celebrity endorsers like RuPaul, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, go to those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Mac has reportedly raised a total of $454 million for the cause so far.

According to Lenderman, Mac is forging a new way to market itself that doesn’t involve a million-dollar contract with a celebrity face. Instead, Mac is using its position as a cultural force to spark conversation.

“The Mac approach is more interesting for modern brands,” Lenderman said. “Brands like a Mac already have the cultural credibility to create conversation. The films they’ve done are totally aligned with that, and celebrities are becoming more cognizant of their power to do good at the same time.”

Beyond the bottom line
When Conrad accepted her position at Sephora, she wanted to make sure the social impact division didn’t exist on an “isolated island.” She recounted having discussions with employees at Sephora to determine where it could find its voice.

“We looked at our strengths as a leading beauty and innovative retailer, what matters to our employees,” she said. “All of it points to the motivating factor for bringing social impact to the forefront. At the same time, it inspires love and loyalty from consumers. You prefer to buy from companies that take social impact seriously.”

Still, there’s an inherent contradiction between retailers selling product for profit and being social do-gooders: Every action can reasonably be traced back to how it benefits the bottom line, and when social activism is involved, that can raise questions of exploitation.

Lenderman’s answer: Companies today have to dig deeper and consider their social purpose as necessary to the business as something like innovation, or research and development.

“You can’t simply slap your name on a cause, and you have to fund your purpose in order to stay relevant,” he said. “If it’s a drain on the bottom line, you’ll find the money cuts elsewhere. To activate on purpose, it comes with a budget, the same way that R&D does. But it’s indispensable for the future.”

Max Lenderman
max@schoolhelps.com