CMO of the Week: Sephora’s Zena Arnold

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As a huge beauty enthusiast herself, when marketing veteran Zena Arnold was offered the chief marketing officer role at Sephora in May, she jumped at the opportunity.

As a huge beauty enthusiast herself, when marketing veteran Zena Arnold was offered the chief marketing officer role at Sephora in May, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I love the category,” explains Arnold. “It's just so much fun to work at a company where they're changing the beauty ideals and standards. Sephora is one of the first brands years ago that really challenged the assumption that beauty is all about unattainable ideals and brought it more into being about self expression and community and fun.” 

“Whether that's people in the stores or whether it's the corporate team, there's just this awesome energy,” she continues. “It's because everyone here really believes in the mission of growing and changing the definition of beauty.”

Much of this momentum stems from the company’s purpose to support diversity. “Sephora has been an outspoken champion for diversity and inclusion,” she says. “We really live and breathe that really strong support of DE&I and so I was thrilled to come to such a mission-based company that really lives their actions.” 

Arnold joins Sephora at a time when the beauty category is growing and Sephora itself saw revenues grow 26% in 2022. Arnold’s goal in the new role is to build on this momentum and continue to grow the company’s innovative marketing model.

“Sephora is at the forefront of really great modern marketing,” says Arnold. “When I was in some of my previous roles, I would use examples of Sephora as best-in-class marketing. They're doing things like personalization really well. They're using digital to get to know their customers and deliver great experiences and really do it in this omnichannel way.” 

Prior to joining Sephora, Arnold was CMO of Kimberly-Clark and has also held senior marketing roles at PepsiCo, Google, P&G and Kellogg’s. Brand Innovators caught up with Arnold to talk about the new role, innovations in customer experiences and Gen Z. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is your vision as CMO of Sephora?

It’s still very early. I'm still in my listening and learning mode. The great thing is, we're doing quite well right now on sales and traffic to our store. Beauty in general is a thriving category. A lot of the strategies that have been in place are really solid and strong ones and I don't see us making huge changes.

We're going to lean into and continue to double down on DE&I. We've just got a really strong program of initiatives and marketing communications that you will see over the next year that really reflect our customer base and what's important to them so excited about continuing that strong support. We have always had a really great presence in social media. We have a ton of people talking about us and engaging with us there and we've really leaned into building a community there and so you'll continue to see that we just launched the Sephora sounds program. The team was working on it for a while but it was just a great way to help bipoc creators get their music out there and get them linked to a Sephora and have our customers be able to use their music to live out their key expressions in social. 

One of the key things that we know really drives sales and engagement is talking about the differentiators of the Sephora experience. So in the next year, you'll see a lot of focus on why is the Sephora experience so wonderful? What benefits do you get from shopping with us, whether that's the brands, whether it's the experience that you get in store, all of that. Over the past several years, we've been investing a lot more in broader above-the-line marketing support. You'll see us in a lot of those vehicles because it's been very successful for us.

Can you talk about your different audience segments and how you are reaching them?

We've got several key customer segments that are important to us. But for long term growth, one of the most important is Gen Z, which is a very multicultural generation. Meeting them where they are and when they're open to talking about beauty. Social is a key place for that. We've really invested in doing that. 

There's a wide variety of ways that you can execute in social and we're doing all of them. There's paid advertising, which works great. Also we work really closely with a lot of influencers that can talk authentically about Sephora and the benefits that they see and shopping with us and buying the brands we carry and getting interesting conversations going about beauty. Beauty is such a big topic. There's so many ways you can use social content for education, how to create the perfect cat eye, or whatever beauty you are looking to do. We really activated all of those places. I've seen great success with engaging with younger consumers there. And frankly, all consumers to some extent. Almost everyone is on social media at least a little bit. It's great that it can be this more interactive, engaging way of talking about our brands and what we can provide.

How are you thinking about innovating in the cosmetics category?

If  you look at the brands that we carry, we have a very noted focus on helping to find the next up-and-coming brands that have compelling products and positioning for our customers, and really partnering with them to grow. A big part of how we view ourselves as a retailer is taking that incubator approach of finding brands and ensuring that they're getting the right visibility with the right customer segments to grow. We lean into that hard with the brands that we carry.

For the shopping experience, there's so many things that we've innovated on. We've really brought a lot of things that have been seen in other retail channels to prestige beauty. We've got this great omnichannel experience that you can shop on the app and then come to the store. We have a Buy Online, Pick Up in Store. You can come to a store with products that you want to look at and engage with a beauty advisor to learn more and try them. We also have a growing services business. You can come to a Sephora store and get a perk facial treatment or your makeup done for events, which has been really growing in popularity. All of those shopping experiences are important and we've done a lot of interesting things in those areas. 

The other big area we've been doing a lot of innovating and experimenting in, is our best-in-class loyalty program. It's talking to our loyal customers, ensuring that they are rewarded for shopping with Sephora and are enjoying the experience. It's everything from getting samples and unique exclusive content to the Beauty Insider points that they can redeem based on their purchases. We have just a super engaged user base that really enjoys that communication and engagement. We've been seeing a lot of growth there.

Can you talk about how you are approaching AI? 

We've pioneered AI in a number of ways over the years. We were one of the first to use AI to try on makeup shades online so you could see what the things would look like on you. That generative AI aspect, we use it a lot in suggesting products to you and on the basis of what you've purchased and what you've looked at. We are exploring what else and what more we can do as AI continues to evolve. It really starts with how we can better that customer experience. If there's a way that AI can help that then yes, let's look at it. Let's test it. Let's try it. But it really has to be grounded in customer experience versus just let's do something for AI sake.

How have your past roles helped prepare you for your current role?

It's really exciting for me to come to retail because though I've worked closely with retailers in my other roles in the past, I've never actually been on this side of the table. I'm really excited. There's a ton to learn about how to provide the right assortment to our shoppers and figure out the right way to position that to them. My experiences have been more in the formative brand management and classical brand management school. Having spent formative years at P&G and Kellogg’s, you learn a lot about how to run a business, and that is really helpful no matter what you do.

I also spent almost seven years in tech at Google learning a lot about the digital landscape and this culture of agility. It's great to come to a place here that's definitely got a culture of agility. We have to work in the retail environment, but we are also learning a lot about how we can work with our brand partners to grow those brands and win together. So how do we position ourselves as that expert that can help curate and bring customers exactly what they want and need?

What is your approach to leadership?

I like to think of myself as a servant leader. I want to work closely with my teams to understand how I can break down barriers for them and how I can help set the path of the organization in the right way. I've been very fortunate in all of my roles to work with really great people. I see leadership less as being super directive of what you have to do and more of, ‘Hey, what do you want to do to grow the business and how can I help?’ And when you've got a really great and engaged team, then that makes that easy and fun. 

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