Fohr Founder James Nord on Why Creator Content is the Future of Brand Communications

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
Jun 13, 2023

In Ep. 84 of Earned, we chat with James Nord—former Tumblr star, podcast host, and founder and CEO of ambassador marketing company Fohr


We start by learning the origin story behind Fohr’s most well-known program, developed in partnership with Sephora: the Sephora Squad. James explains why the program was built on creators’ genuine passion for beauty over follower size, and shares the company’s motto: “don’t spend good money on fake love.” Next, we dive into the evolution of the influencer marketing industry over the last decade, and James reveals why he believes that creator-led marketing will be the future of brand communications. Conor and James discuss the thrill of pioneering a new industry, before talking about their leadership philosophies during times of growth and uncertainty. We then pivot to discuss James’ past as a successful Tumblr influencer, and hear how the challenge of connecting with brands inspired the concept behind Fohr.

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts!

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The following interview has been lightly edited for concision. 

“Don't spend good money on fake love”: James Nord on the Story Behind the Sephora Squad

Conor Begley: So let's talk about one of the things that Fohr has become best known for, which is the Sephora Squad. So within our data, Sephora gets double the EMV as Ulta, and vastly more than Macy's, Nordstrom, and the other retailers in the space. I do think that the Sephora Squad has been at the center of a lot of that. 

If we look at it philosophically, the way that you guys approached it is really the way that we recommend running these kinds of programs. So tell me, how long ago did that start? What has it been like to see that program scale up over time? 

James Nord: Absolutely. So Sephora Squad is probably our best-known program, the thing that we are super proud of. When we pitched that business five years ago, our differentiator was pretty simple. This was the first time Sephora was running a large-scale ambassador program. I was like, “This is the premier beauty retailer in the world. Let's make people apply for it.” 

The way influencer contracts are handed out is kind of wild. There aren’t many jobs in the world where it's basically impossible to apply, but you can’t apply for most influencer programs. What ends up happening is that you’re not only not getting the best influencers that you could, but it's also not really fair. It goes back to part of the central reason I started this business. I'm from Georgia, I had a brief stint of Tumblr fame, and I wanted to shoot fashion photography for a well-known fashion brand. But I didn't know anyone, and I didn't know how that world worked. I didn’t have connections. And I saw all these people who had these connections getting jobs and working with these brands. And I felt that this was a really dumb way to organize an industry, and that there should be something that puts people at a more level playing field, and allows people that don't have those connections to gain access to opportunity. 

So we pitched Sephora on this idea of running it as an application. Let's not go out and just hand out 50 contracts, but let's ask people to apply. And that first year we had 20,000 people apply for 50 spots. We built this technology where once you applied, you got a customized Instagram story asset that said, “I applied for Sephora Squad” and put your name and your photo in there, and then people could leave you testimonials. So this ended up being an incredible driver of those applications. Most years, we have between 300-400k testimonials left for influencers, probably 50-100k Instagram Stories. I think there’s currently 90k in-feed posts on Instagram for #SephoraSquad. Most of that is around the application moments. 

When we picked that first Sephora Squad group five years ago, I remember being in Los Angeles for the launch event and saying, “We would not have found a single one of these people if we had done it the traditional way.” Ultimately, that application process also allowed us to find the people who are really passionate about the industry. Our North Star, and what we say to our clients, is “don't spend good money on fake love.” Why are we paying people to pretend to like our products when we could go out and find people who are deeply passionate about them?

So we just announced this year’s finalists. [On June 21st], we will announce the final squad. But the people who got picked as finalists are on TikTok and Instagram weeping, like, “Oh my God, this is so incredible. Please leave me more testimonials.” And we end up finding these influencers who are so passionate. 

Of course the money is part of it, and being compensated fairly is a big part of the desire to be in this program. But I think it's really about the passion for it. And it's that simple thing of making people apply—a lot of macro influencers are like, “Well, that's beneath me. I'm not going to apply for it.” And so we're like, “Okay, so you're not going to work with Sephora.” The President of the United States has to apply for that job. Every other job you have to apply for. And I don't think it's unrealistic to think that you should have to apply [for an influencer program] and say why you want to do it. So that's been Sephora Squad. We then take that group of 50 or so influencers and we use them across hundreds of campaigns with Sephora throughout the year. It's been such a great partnership, and they're so supportive and it's been incredible.

Conor Begley: Your ethos is something that we've observed for a long time, and I think finally people are coming around to it, which is that a deep connection with a brand is significantly more important when it comes to working with someone than how many people like their photos. It's so much deeper. And I think you can measure this in a variety of ways. You start thinking about lifetime value. You start thinking about these second-order effects. You invest in the people that are supporting you. That makes more creators want to support you because they know that you'll return that love. But at its core, I think it's really about authenticity—an overused term, but that's the reality of it. 

James Nord: And break down authenticity. What is that? That's honesty and trust. Passion sells. And really believing what you are saying. I think when, at its worst, influencer marketing doesn't have that, when somebody is delivering a message that they don't believe, they're phoning it in, they're copying and pasting off a brief, it's clear. You look at it and you say, “You've never used that product. You have no idea.” But then you will see the people where it's clear they love it, they use it. And if you can have that, if you can have that real authentic love and you can connect that influencer's story to that product, then why wouldn't you want it? 

Of course, we can't always find people who are  lifelong fans of the brand if we're going into new markets, and we're trying to work with new people. But for us, when we think about ambassadors, it's a mindset. By the time they hit publish, they better believe it. So if it's skincare, it’s about giving them a month to use the product before they hit publish, right? Because we need the actual stories. We need to have them take those personal experiences, if they haven't been a customer of the brand, and connect them to what the brand is trying to say. And ultimately, that's what influencers want too. They don't want to put up these prescriptive briefs that say, “here are the five key product messages that we have to hit.” Nobody needs five product features and benefits in one post. For me, it's been about getting back to what makes this space great. 

You and I started at a time when nobody made money on this stuff. Maybe 50 bloggers in the world were making money off of this, but most people weren't. And so you were sharing products that you loved with a community of people who were interested in what you had to say about them. And that magic is what then created this multi-billion dollar industry. We have to hold onto that magic, and make sure we don't lose it as we chase scale, and as we chase efficiency or engagement rates and blindly look at data without understanding whether this person actually has influence over these people, or are these people just watching. Do they have an audience, or do they have influence over that audience? That's a pretty core question for us.

“This is going to be the dominant form of brand communications”: James Nord on the Future of the Creator Marketing Industry

Conor Begley: We both started in this business in 2012.  Where is Fohr at as a company now? What's your strategy? What are the ambitions of Fohr? 

James Nord: We spent this first decade trying to prove that we deserved a seat at the table. And now as I look at the next 10 years, we just had to redo our vision statement, and for us, that vision is that 10 years from now, this is going to be the dominant form of brand communications. It is going to be the place brands spend the most money, the most time, the most effort. Consumers today are finding out about new products, brands, restaurants, everything, from other people, right?

Brand storytelling is dead. I was at an advertising conference last week, and it felt like a group of dinosaurs and an asteroid is entering the atmosphere, and they're talking about where they should go on vacation next summer. And I'm like, “Y'all, this is over. It's done.” Viewership is collapsing. The brand's ability to tell a scaled story using their advertisements is collapsing. In 10 years, it's going to be essentially non-existent. This is the future. 

So as I look at those next 10 years, I'm really excited for what happens as we exit that place of “Hey, this is legitimate. It's not a fad,” to like, “Actually, this is the dominant thing that we are doing.” So I get really, really excited about that. I think that on the technology side, there's still so much work to be done. There's so much innovation to be had. So I continue to be really excited about building interesting, innovative products. 

And from a core business side, I'm interested in how big it can get. Can I get this to $500 million in revenue in the next five years? What does getting it to a billion look like? You started this at the beginning as well, and I feel like it’s unlikely that I’ll ever again be so deeply entrenched in a movement that is going to have such an impact on the world so early. To be in that world in 2012 and know that this is where things are going would be like starting an AI company in 2016. So that will probably never happen again for me. So I think I have this real opportunity to do something really special, and I'm interested in seeing how far we can take it.

Conor Begley: I feel like you're reading my mind. I've described it almost the exact same way, which is to say, you don't get on the front of the wave very often, possibly not ever in my life again. And to be 10 years in and say, “the next 10 years are actually going to be the crazy ones.” That's when things are going to get really weird. 

We've changed some of our positioning to be what is referred to as “creator-led marketing,” which really is putting creators at the center of the marketing mix, where not only are you using creators to generate exposure, but you're using their assets on your website, in your emails, in your ads, and it's the best performing asset in all of your other marketing. So for these brands, it's going to be the most important part of the business in a lot of ways.

James Nord: Absolutely. To your point, it used to be that the brand set a strategy, and the influencer has to support it, right? We're now seeing that brands that would previously give us a strategy for an influencer are like, “What should we do generally?” Because to your point, creator-led means we have to start with creators, and then we can figure out how TV and paid social and these other things can support it, not the other way around. That's a really interesting shift.

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