American beauty

Sephora has started marketing to the often-ignored disabled community with events that target children with special needs and their caretakers

In many ways, Gretchen Vogel is a typical 17-year-old girl; she loves wearing makeup and enjoys going out on dates. Yet as a result of a neuromuscular disorder, she has facial deformities, which often cause cosmetics salespeople to avoid her. But on May 7, employees at beauty retailer Sephora made the teenager feel like a princess.

“Sephora put on whatever makeup she wanted to try,” says Nadine Vogel,
Gretchen's mother and president of Springboard Consulting, which specializes in marketing to the disabled community. “They made her look beautiful. My husband cried when he came to pick her up.”

The Mother's Day event for children with special needs and their mothers took place at Short Hills Mall in New Jersey. Springboard worked with Sephora, which also works with DeVries PR, on the inaugural outreach effort to the disabled community, which she says is the first by a cosmetics company.

Vogel describes this community as “a large, untapped market.” Indeed, while many marketers have increased outreach to multicultural audiences, very few have focused marketing efforts on this demographic.

According to the US Department of Labor, the special needs community has a discretionary spend of about $200 billion a year –two times the spending power of teens and 17 times the spending power of tweens.

“The parent population has the same income and assets as anyone else in the overall population,” Vogel notes. “It's really two markets – adults with disabilities and parents of kids with disabilities. Some companies like Sephora [market to] both at the same time. Some go after one or the other.”

This year marks Sephora's 10th anniversary in the US, and it will have 228 stores here by the end of November (there are more than 500 stores worldwide). The company is unique in that it unites more than 200 beauty brands under one roof. It is also an industry pioneer in creating an open-sell environment, which means there are no counters and products are easily accessible to customers. The easy access provided by the open-sell model makes it ideal for people with physical disabilities, says Gianna Locasto, director of store marketing for Sephora.

“We offer the most innovative mix of classic and emerging beauty brands,” adds Jessica Stacey, director of PR at Sephora. “We're in a position to address every client... and we wanted to... make moms of special needs children feel and look good in a comfortable, safe environment.”

Locasto led the May 7 event. “As soon as we spoke to Nadine, we knew we needed to partner with her,” Locasto says. “We're fortunate [because she's] such an expert in marketing to this group.”

Effective marketing
Because Vogel has two daughters with disabilities, she's part of the community herself. Her daughters were “the genesis” of her career, which includes founding the nonprofit SNAP (Special Needs Advocate for Parents) in 1993 and then building a division at MetLife dedicated to marketing to parents of children with disabilities before establishing Springboard in 2006.

Vogel says marketers often neglect this community for many reasons.

“They think the market is too small, too complicated, or not rich enough,” she says. “Some are afraid they'll do it wrong or get sued.”

Many companies are also concerned about the cost of building a program for a market they've never tapped. “It costs less to reach this segment if you do it right because it's a very networked community,” she says. “Large global corporations are used to putting tens of millions of dollars behind something new. They don't have to do that [to reach this group].”

Vogel also points out that the disabled community is very loyal – in part because so few companies reach out to them. “It's a marketer's dream if done right,” she says. “Companies [should] do it because this market can provide sustainable revenue... and it's going to mean the world to the people they're doing it for.”

Vogel advises avoiding the “pity factor” when reaching out to this community. “Tell us you want our business,” she says. “It's that simple.”

Training is essential, especially at events where employees will interact directly with disabled people. Stacey explains that Sephora has a “huge internal education network” that trains staff on everything from makeup application to product benefits. The day before the May event, Vogel coached Sephora's trainers and brand partner trainers on disability etiquette and awareness.

“You need to understand nuances,” she says. “It's not just language nuances – it has to do with emotional issues and other things they bring to the buying decision. Everybody got two pages of message points to help keep them on task, and we were at the event in case anything came up.”

The event exceeded both Locasto's and Stacey's expectations. Locasto says she received “nothing but positive feedback from employees,” who are eager to work with this market again.

About 100 women (and one father) attended the event, and an exit survey revealed that it also exceeded their expectations.

“Many of them hadn't been to Sephora before, and they were excited to return,” Locasto adds.

Though she declines to talk about sales, Locasto adds, “Many clients purchased products [and] we were very happy with their purchasing.”

Stacey says that the New Jersey event was so successful that the team immediately starting planning others. The next takes place October 21 in Northbrook, IL, to celebrate National Disability Awareness Month; another is planned for early 2009 in the Bay Area.

“These events can be held anywhere – it's wonderful,” Locasto says, adding that the team is also exploring ways in which to broaden outreach beyond the events.

“Opportunities exist from a range of events to partnering with a national special needs organization to perhaps targeting by disability,” Vogel says. “The sky's the limit.”

A valuable market


  • The disabled community represents the US' largest minority market, surpassing the US Hispanic population by 5%
  • More than 20.3 million families in the US have at least one member that has a disability
  • In one out of every five households in the US, a family is caring for a child that has special healthcare needs
  • Persons with disabilities in the US have a combined income of more than $796 billion

Source: US Department of Labor


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