Earned Ep. 28: Rare Beauty CMO Katie Welch on Launching Selena Gomez’s Inclusive Beauty Brand in the Middle of a Pandemic

Taylor Masket
Taylor Masket
Jun 2, 2021

For Ep. 28 of Earned, we’re joined by Katie Welch, CMO of Selena Gomez’s smash-hit makeup brand Rare Beauty! After making a splash with its September 2020 launch, the brand has maintained an impressive earned media footprint, garnering $48.5M EMV from 3.0k influencers between January and April of 2021.

 

We kick off the episode by hearing how Katie uses her own TikTok platform (with over 16,000 fans!) to mentor young professionals interested in the beauty industry, before learning how Katie herself broke into the space. We then walk through Katie’s enviable marketing career, as she shares how the lessons she learned at communications firm Weber Shandwick—particularly, the power of storytelling—have been invaluable to her work with brands including Bliss, Hourglass, Honest Beauty, and of course, Rare Beauty. Next, we dive into Rare Beauty, and Katie recalls how Selena Gomez’s mission to create a space where everyone feels welcome drew her to the brand. We discuss the challenges that come with building a brand from scratch—in the middle of a pandemic no less—and the innovative ways Rare Beauty kept its community connected and prioritized mental health in the time of COVID-19. Finally, Katie reveals her top three influencer marketing philosophies. 

We’ve included a few discussion highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, listen to the podcast below, or tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!

 The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.

“You have to understand the power of storytelling”: Katie Welch on The Secret to Strong Marketing Programs 

 

Katie Welch: One person when I look back at my career who had such a big impact was Gail Heimann, who's the global president and CEO of Weber Shandwick. I loved her so much and not just her as an individual, but she's a brilliant strategic storyteller. And looking back at your career and the people who impacted your career, not just from a management standpoint, but as a teacher, I learned from her by her instruction, but then also just by watching and being involved in client work or new business pitches, watching how she thinks strategically about how you can understand a brand's business, and then by understanding a brand's business or a brand's objective, move the business forward. But then where does storytelling, where do communications, where does marketing play into that? Where does the big idea play into that? I do think you have to learn that. People throw around the word strategy or brand strategy, but do you really understand what that means, and how does it drive the business forward? And then how does it ultimately drive what your marketing communication strategy is going to be? 

[Through my experience at Weber Shandwick,] I learned to think about truly looking at, this is the business objective, this is the problem at hand, strategically this is how we have to approach it. And then from there, that's where the plan falls. And if you don't think about that sort of roadmap of an objective, strategy, and tactic, you can’t do anything. Especially today, when there's so many potential tactics, it becomes a tactic soup, and it doesn't actually do anything to move the brand forward. So that's what I find is invaluable. 

I think the other thing that's interesting, because I didn't grow up in a brand marketing, formal marketing background. I don't have an MBA, but I did learn from a communications background. I think today's marketing is so fundamentally different than what yesterday's marketing used to be, that you have to understand the power of a brand message, the power of storytelling, to then usher that big idea through and cut through the noise. How does that big idea land and resonate across all these different touch points that the consumer has, like whatever's taking their attention. And if you don't have them all threaded together like a strong story, like what we would do at Weber Shandwick, it doesn't break through. And then you're just doing a bunch of stuff. 

I think brands very easily fall into the trap of doing a bunch of stuff, because there's a lot of stuff to do. There's a lot of shiny pennies. And now I'm not saying don't try it, definitely try the new things. But when you try it, make sure your brand comes through and resonates. Make sure [you understand how] your big idea, whatever that idea may be, manifests on this platform or this idea. And that's the secret, I think, to really strong marketing programs. 

“There was no playbook”: Katie Welch on the Challenges of Launching Selena Gomez's Beauty Brand Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

 

Conor Begley: What have been some of the challenges [of launching a brand in the middle of a pandemic]? 

Katie Welch: It was so hard, [we faced] every challenge, but hopefully we’ve overcome every challenge. I'm so proud and feel such gratitude for my team, my peers, my colleagues, because it was hard and there was no playbook. Where do I even begin? Everything from content—you think about what’s required of a brand to launch a website, to launch a brand on Sephora, to launch a gondola—first and foremost, it’s a lot of content. You need video, you need a hero image, and then we had 150 SKUs. 

Once you’ve launched a brand it’s usually quarterly launches and with each of those launches there’s just a handful of products, but [we decided] to launch everything—and a brand—and we didn’t have any of the traditional tools to do it. Thankfully, we did have one massive photoshoot in January before the world went into quarantine, and with that we were able to get a ton [of content] and just really sweat those assets. 

But then the world went into quarantine, and I think I had about five shoots scheduled from March to May of stuff that Sephora needed. And they laugh to this day, because they were like, “Katie, what are we going to do?” and I was like, “I’m going to get back to you on that. We can figure everything out. I just don’t have the answer right now.” So on this public forum, I will say thank you to the Sephora team for trusting me, because we couldn’t have Selena [Gomez] or models or a photographer [shoot professional content], it wasn’t possible. So Selena did a lot of tutorial videos [herself], a lot of beauty advisor training—everything from her bedroom. And you can see, we have some really great YouTube videos. These were assets that we used in digital marketing, on our Sephora page, on our website rather. 

What was cool was, the ethos behind the brand is makeup made to feel good in, without hiding what makes you unique. The products are all very lightweight and easy to use, and when you see Selena [Gomez] doing it, there were no professional photographers, no professional lighting, no makeup artists, that's as real as it gets. So that was pretty cool.

And then the other thing that was tough is that when you launch 48 shades of foundation and concealer, it's best practice to have 48 individuals wearing the product, so that when you are on the e-commerce site, you can find your shade [more easily], because it's so tough to find your foundation shade on a website, so how can we eliminate the barriers as best as possible? But I was like, how do I get 48 people [to participate]? I like to call it the Herculean effort. We found 48 individuals, and we sent them all a primer, a foundation, a concealer, and a ring light. We gave a little bit of art direction, like “stand against a white wall and smile.” So, content in the time of COVID. But then it worked out. So we have 48 images of people wearing our foundations and primer and concealer, and that was truly it. No makeup artist, no professional lighting, no professional photographers. And I kind of loved that as well because it really showed the authenticity of the product and how easy it was to use. So we've maintained some of the virtual, and I think what's interesting coming out of this and what the pandemic did, is that it forced us to re-imagine how we create content for a brand and how we execute so much of our creative. 

So from there, we launched more products. We had to do more of these virtual shoots. So we kind of got the virtual shoot thing down, but it's hard. What's hard is, you're kind of building the plane while it's in the air. So you're building processes, everyone's wearing a different hat, roles and responsibilities are mixed and blurred. All you can do is just sort of hold hands and be kind to one another and go for it. But at the end of the day, I think the most important thing was to ground everyone in your brand values and mission and vision, because you're all moving so quickly that if you're not grounded in that, you could run the risk of diluting the brand or doing sort of the “wrong” thing. 

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You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 27 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, Gymshark, Summer Fridays, and Ulta Beauty, visit our Earned Podcast page.