Inside Ulta Beauty’s New Strategy for Emerging Brands

Ulta Beauty has sharpened its strategy for launching up-and-coming brands in its stores.
A new platform for emerging brands, Sparked @ultabeauty, made its debut to consumers on Saturday at Beautycon in Los Angeles. Sparked is designed to support and promote brands at Ulta that are launching in a major brick-and-mortar retailer for the first time. Brands chosen for the platform will be highlighted in designated sections throughout Ulta stores and online at ulta.com.
Sparked launched online on Aug. 10 with four brands — Uoma Beauty, Elcie, Zoeva and Love Wellness — and on Sept. 22 will roll out into about half of Ulta's 1,196 stores. The idea is to have a consistent rotation of emerging brands to highlight. New lineups are set to roll out for holiday and again in January.
The platform is just a piece of the retailer's larger plan to work more closely with the many up-and-coming brands it launches in its doors, most of which are new to a physical retail environment, let alone Ulta. A specialized emerging brands team, which oversees Sparked, has been put in place to "provide resources dedicated to helping them integrate and enter the brick-and-mortar environment," said Tara Simon, vice president of merchandising for prestige beauty. "We created the platform to help them grow faster and shine brighter with our help and support."
The hype aspect of Sparked and the larger emerging brands division isn't necessarily meant for digitally native brands that already have massive followings on Instagram. Kylie Cosmetics, ColourPop and Morphe, for instance, have been largely successful at Ulta and did not require much of the retailer's help to drive customers into stores to try much-hyped products they'd never been able to try on IRL. For instance, in mid-November, when Ulta Beauty started selling Kylie lip kits in-store, the retailer experienced one of its biggest sales day to date.
Ulta has a history of launching emerging brands in its stores. While some are backed by superinfluencers and celebrities that easily draw crowds, some require more support to generate excitement with consumers. Industry sources have commented that big Ulta-exclusive launches in 2018, such as Revlon's Flesh and Popsugar Beauty, never caught traction with consumers in the way they were projected to, and some speculated it was because Ulta did not offer as much in the way of launch support as Sephora, for example. Founders of up-and-coming brands that have launched first in brick-and-mortar retail at Ulta have told WWD that the process of launching a brand there is more "entrepreneurial" than at Sephora — as long as it is hitting its numbers, it's up to that brand to drive customers into stores, and ultimately sales. "You get out what you put in," said one founder.
Sparked and the emerging brands division is an indicator that this sentiment might be changing, as the retailer is clearly trying to add more structure and support into the way it works with new brands. The platform was designed with "new little baby brands that are digitally native or born online," in mind, said Simon, who likened Sparked to a graduate school program. "In most cases, they're not there yet — we help them with mentorship…guest communication and homing in on a marketing message, how to articulate their story," said Simon. "It's all about these founders and their stories."
The first four brands to be highlighted with Sparked span the mass and prestige markets and multiple categories, and two are influencer-backed. Nigerian-born former LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton executive Sharon Chuter founded Uoma Beauty, an inclusive makeup line inspired by her African heritage. It launched exclusively in the U.S. at Ulta stores in March. Elcie is influencer Lilit Caradanian's makeup line. Zoeva is an affordable makeup and brushes brand that started as an eBay store based in Germany. Love Wellness is the modern feminine care and wellness brand from Lo Bosworth, the former reality-star-turned-influencer and entrepreneur.
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