Nomaterra Founder Aggie Burnett Shares The Steps She Took To Win Over Sephora

Like budding baseball players dream of hitting grand slams to win the World Series, wannabe beauty entrepreneurs aspire to see their brands on display at Sephora. Nomaterra founder Aggie Burnett was definitely shooting for the specialty beauty retailer long before her fragrance brand took shape. “I was a big fan since I was a tween. My friends and I would save all our money to buy beauty products from Sephora, and we would go home and throw what we had purchased into a pile to share and try out,” she remembers. “Sephora was pivotal player in my development into becoming a woman. It made me more confident about wearing makeup and caring for my skin.” In 2014, Burnett made the transition from Sephora shopper to Sephora vendor when Nomaterra rolled out to 320 doors. Now consulting for other brands as well as leading her own, Burnett is helping fellow beauty entrepreneurs learn from her successful courting of Sephora in a series of blog posts. Beauty Independent persuaded Burnett to summarize many of her key suggestions for our readers.

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Preparing To Approach Sephora

In February 2012, two months after Burnett launched Nomaterra, she sent an email to a buyer at Sephora pitching the fragrance brand for its shelves. She understood that February was a month retailers often evaluate new brands and had searched on LinkedIn to identify the right person at Sephora to pitch in the niche fragrance category. Once Burnett identified the buyer, she sent her a box containing full sizes of the brand’s three fragrances, its fragrance wipes and samples to pass around the office. The box also contained a short personal note describing Nomaterra’s concept of scents tied to cities featuring ingredients from them, and a rundown of the brand’s media and retail placements.

Burnett, a beauty assistant at Glamour prior to introducing Nomaterra, was intent on Nomaterra making inroads in the media and stores before proposing Sephora take the brand. Nomaterra racked up mentions in publications such as New York Magazine, Elle, InStyle, Allure and Oprah Magazine early on, and had entered Dermstore, Shen Beauty and Fenwick. “They want to make sure they’re the first one to break it in a big way, but they want to make sure you’re not making your products in the kitchen and selling it to your friends,” says Burnett of Sephora. “They want proof you can do well otherwise it won’t make sense for them.”

Even before Burnett reached out to Sephora, she was laying the groundwork for Nomaterra to win over Sephora buyers. She fashioned the packaging with black and white, and pops of color to match the company’s color scheme. Its bold print and san serif font aligned with Sephora, too. More significantly, Burnett recognized Nomaterra wouldn’t crack Sephora if it wasn’t unique. “We knew we needed to have a very, very, very strong point of differentiation because Sephora is all about how you are different,” she says.

Nomaterra was different in several respects. It offered TSA-friendly travel sprays with twist-up vessels and fragrance wipes that Burnett developed over a two-year period to perfect the scent’s ability to stay on the skin following application. “Travel was becoming a really big thing among millennials. We were on trend with that, and we came at a time when they were looking for something for that,” she says, adding, “No one had ever created a product like the wipes.”

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Scoring An In-Person Meeting

On Feb. 19, Burnett spoke to the buyer who’d received the box she sent. She turned out to be the wrong buyer. The wrong buyer told Burnett that she would send the products to the correct one. Burnett would make certain the products got to the right place. She’s a huge proponent of follow-up, usually within days of a buyer getting a package. “I don’t want it to be set aside, and they’re on to the next product. I want to make sure the momentum keeps going,” says Burnett. In Sephora’s case, Burnett followed up with her original contact on March 4 and, two days later, heard from the right buyer. A call was set for two weeks later.

On the call, the Sephora buyer hurled a plethora of questions at Burnett. “They wanted to know about our point of differentiation, product assortment, current distribution, future distribution plans, PR and marketing plans, education strategy and Beauty Insider strategy,” she details. “You really need to know Sephora inside and out. They are really big on their VIB (Very Important Beauty Insiders) customers, so you need to have plan for those customers.” For the Beauty Insider program participants, Burnett spelled out Nomaterra could supply individual fragrance wipes as samples with online purchases and put on in-store demonstrations where the wipes could be doled out.

Nomaterra was next invited to meet with Sephora buyers in-person on March 25. Burnett immediately started to whip up a bulletproof PowerPoint presentation. The presentation cogently went over many of the same topics that her phone call with the buyer had. It was important to highlight Nomaterra’s target customer, its merchandising fit, regulatory compliance and certifications. Delving into marketing and PR was critical. “They’re very concerned about small brands having the manpower to get themselves out there,” says Burnett. “We made sure we had a PR and marketing plan intact. We knew how we would promote the product once it was in stores.”

Nomaterra’s PowerPoint presentation was solid, but Burnett doesn’t think that it was what sold the six buyers attending the meeting on the brand. She believes making them laugh helped more than fancy slides. “We ended up just chatting about restaurants and random stuff. I think that was a big part of it,” says Burnett. “I personally saw them as these icons, these Gods, but we ended up connecting to them as just people, and we formed a bond. That was the big takeaway from that meeting: Don’t go into it so nervous that you don’t show your real personality.”

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Sealing The Sephora Deal

In the immediate aftermath of the meeting, there were no clear signs from Sephora that it was going to pick up Nomaterra. “They said, ‘You are really interesting. We will bring it up in the next business development meeting.’ We kept following up because it ended up being a drawn-out conversation,” says Burnett. In fact, the retailer didn’t issue a purchase order until May 6, 2014, over two years after the brand’s in-person buyer meeting.

Between the meeting and the purchase order, buyers kept switching – and Nomaterra would have to figure out the right buyer again and again. “Sometimes it just goes dark. At one point, we thought it wasn’t going to work anymore,” says Burnett. When the discussions were ongoing, Sephora asked Nomaterra to tweak its packaging, and the brand would request comps from its manufacturer to show the retailer possible changes. “Don’t ever do anything costly before you have a PO, period,” asserts Burnett. “As a small brand, you can’t afford that.”

When Nomaterra finally was handed the purchase order, the brand had until July 11, 2014 to ship around 4,000 fragrance wipe units for beauty-to-go sections at 320 Sephora doors. Through the course of negotiations with Sephora, Nomaterra kept its manufacturer informed about the possibility of a large purchase order coming so it would be ready if it came to fruition, and it was ready when it did. On August 22, Nomaterra officially launched at Sephora. Burnett spotted her brand for the first time at the retailer in a New York City location. She recounts, “I remember asking someone to take a picture of me because I was by myself, and I started crying. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable!’”

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