Sad but true—there are still very few schools that offer majors in experiential and even fewer classes on the discipline offered across the nation’s colleges and universities. 

We’re trying to change that.

In an effort to raise awareness for the experiential industry as a potential career path (thereby “priming the pump” for tomorrow’s talent pool), Event Marketer, leading event agency MAS and SEPHORA teamed up on our biggest national student experience design competition yet. The Brand X Challenge invited students across the country to get exposure to the experiential discipline by designing a fictitious event campaign for a real brand—SEPHORA—and more than 630 teams of students spanning more than 150 schools signed up.

MAS designed the structure of the competition and developed a mock “creative brief” with SEPHORA and served as a mentor for student teams. SEPHORA lent its brand to the competition for the teams to design against. And EM editors managed communication with the teams.

As always, in order to participate, teams had to watch two online training webcasts—one with MAS explaining the nuances of experience design; the other a brand briefing with SEPHORA. Teams that completed both webcasts received the creative brief, which this year challenged students to design a hypothetical North American four-city Fearless Tour that started at the annual SEPHORiA: House of Beauty event and brings to life the brand’s “We Belong to Something Beautiful” manifesto across the country. Key target: Young, fashion-forward Millennials/Gen Z. Space Parameters: 40’x40’ touring activation. Two audiences: Consumers and VIP/Press. 

The MAS team required that all Brand X campaign entries create a strategic brief and then build a “big idea” that came to life across the following criteria:

• Narrative-driven Design. Students had to start with a narrative/storyline for the concept (substance, not just style) that spoke to the audience demographic(s), the brand and helped drive the design of the experience. 
• Experience-driven Space. Students needed to design a clear user journey/experience for both audience levels. The space needed to be a place to connect, explore and celebrate with the community of beauty lovers, “an immersive beauty playground, social media heaven and above all else, a place to belong.” 
• The Tour. Four-city touring calendar with stops at either stand-alone locations and/or existing events. The first stop would be SEPHORiA. The design needed to have elements that were localized for chosen locations. 
• Amplification. Teams needed to use #sephoria and include Sephora’s in-house influencer team, the #sephorasquad. The experience needed to be shareable.

Teams were given a month to put together initial thoughts and then were matched with a designer from the MAS team during Brand X Mentor Week in April. Students received some candid commentary during mentor sessions about their ideas and were given some questions they’d need their campaigns to answer. From there the teams were on their own to create the best entry they could.

In June, some of the biggest brands in the world got behind Brand X as judges, and entries were scored and added up. A huge congratulations to all the teams that participated, and a humble thank you to all our partners: The brand judges who donated their time, the team at SEPHORA that lent us their brand and that fabulous team at MAS that continues to stay focused on one thing—building this industry.

X FACTOR

A conversation with the minds behind Brand X and a few of the top winners

For the first time, we assembled some of the top minds from the 2020 Brand X Challenge: The experiential marketing leaders at SEPHORA joined some of the winning students and Brand X head of creative Mia Choi from MAS to sound off on the program, experience design and why this industry’s largest give-back initiative continues to grow each year. Roll tape.


The Brand X Braintrust

• Kate Biancamano, Director-Event and Experiential Marketing, SEPHORA
• Mia Choi, Chief Creative Officer, MAS
• Lina Marin, Manager-Event Marketing, SEPHORA
• Jessica Stacey, SVP-Public Relations, Event and Experiential Marketing, SEPHORA


The Top Winners

• Fiona Micoleau, University of California Davis (1st Place)
• Ally Reyes, University of California Davis (1st Place)
• Isabella Shmelev, University of California Davis (1st Place)
• Mia DiMaio, Cornell University (2nd Place)
• Erika Kane, Cornell University (2nd Place)
• Emily Lin, Cornell University (2nd Place)
• Gary Wu, University of Southern California (3rd Place)
• Amari Zhang, University of Southern California (3rd Place)
• Kexin Cydney Zhang, University of Southern California (3rd Place)
• Sishuang Cathy Zhao, University of Southern California (3rd Place)


THIS YEAR’S BRAND X WAS THE BIGGEST ONE EVER. WHY DOES IT KEEP GROWING?

MIA CHOI: This competition has always been about exposure: exposing students to the world of experiential marketing as a possible career choice—one not currently offered in college curriculums. I think we will see a large increase year-over-year. Last year 192 teams participated and this year 633 teams participated—that is staggering. But that is why we are in the business, right? We know how incredible this industry is, but most people just stumble upon it. We hope to change that with this program. And it seems like we are making strides.

WHY DID SEPHORA GET INVOLVED WITH BRAND X THIS YEAR?

JESSICA STACEY: SEPHORA was so excited to be part of the Brand X competition this year. We have been actively following the program for the last two years, so when the Event Marketer team came to us with the opportunity to be the Brand X brand, we were honored and immediately came on board to be part of this experience. 

To be able to help shine a light on the immense possibilities experiential marketing can offer as a profession and untap new potential within future practitioners, coupled with an opportunity to bring our company values to life via experiential were primary involvement drivers. From day one, The SEPHORA team was more than impressed with the level of commitment and hard work all student teams demonstrated through the process, culminating in the terrific and unique concepts submitted. We look forward to following the careers of these incredibly talented students—and future iterations of Brand X.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF A LIVE EXPERIENCE?

ALLY REYES: The building blocks of a live experience are all about the interactive elements. The more the audience can be hands-on and involve themselves in the experience, the more they are going to connect with the product or the brand. The most important building block is technology. Technology is so interwoven into our lives that it feels like an extension of ourselves. Using the latest technology in innovative ways is the best way to capture the attention of an audience and immerse them in an experience. Weaving in new technologies when designing an experience is crucial as technology continues to develop. Ultimately, a live experience must connect audiences and build a deeper level of understanding for the brand. We as designers must put these building blocks together in the most seamless way possible to guide users in such a way as to deliver the story that needs to be told.

KEXIN CYDNEY ZHANG: The ability to form interactions through activations and installations. Visual elements are there to attract people’s attention but interactions are what keep people engaged. 

HOW CRITICAL IS IT TO DRIVE EXPOSURE FOR EXPERIENCE DESIGN AT THE COLLEGE LEVEL?  

MIA CHOI: It is so critical. Most of us found our way to experience design through exposure to an event or through friends working in the profession or other creative positions that introduced us to this medium. Opening opportunities at the college level will provide the profession with the fresh perspectives and diversity that our industry craves.  

LINA MARIN: Speaking from experience, event marketing was not a future I envisioned or something I thought I would be doing after college. In fact, I didn’t even know it was a thing. Having a framework and providing a path that can be followed for students to get into this line of work will only make them that much stronger and confident in what they are doing. Imagine what the students will be capable of bringing to life in the world of brand experiences… the possibilities are thrilling.

FINISH THIS SENTENCE: THE BEST PART OF BRAND X WAS…

KATE BIANCAMANO: The incredibly thoughtful and creative proposals, of course! After reviewing the submissions, we were genuinely astounded by the talent and untapped potential out there in the world. And, having the opportunity to compare notes and discuss all presentations with the industry panel of judges and MAS team was both insightful and fun. Our team remains excited and encouraged to see what the future holds for the experiential landscape. 

MIA CHOI: The students! My team and I were humbled by their dedication, their thoughtful proposals, and their willingness to take constructive feedback from the MAS team throughout the process.  

SISHUANG CATHY ZHAO: That I was challenged to work on a large design project with three other teammates almost entirely online. Due to COVID-19, 80 percent of our Brand X meetings were held through Zoom. That meant that communication and organization became extremely important. We held each other accountable and set small deadlines to meet. It was definitely a learning curve for us, and meeting in person to discuss creative ideas would have been much easier, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way because we all learned so much about teamwork.

ERIKA KANE: The “We Belong to Something Beautiful” manifesto of SEPHORA’s campaign—it resonated with our personal values of inclusivity and equity. It was a wonderful challenge to see how we could create spaces that are accessible for people of all abilities and inclusive for folks of a diverse range of backgrounds. We recognize the importance of seeing ourselves reflected in the products, services and spaces we engage with, and therefore built our design around the concept of windows and mirrors. We implemented “windows and mirrors” as a tool for reframing how we see ourselves and others in media and brands around us. Educating, encouraging and playing with this ability becomes the basis of our manifestations in space, brand and online. Certainly, one of the best parts of participating in Brand X was the mindful conversations we had in every stage of the design process to reflect on our mission and realign with the manifesto of the project.

THESE STUDENTS REALLY TOOK THE SEPHORA BRAND TO HEART. THOUGHTS ON THIS YEAR’S TOP WINNERS?

LINA MARIN: I think that it speaks very highly of our top three winners that it was a very tough decision. There are elements that we all really loved about each one and it all came down to who checked off the most boxes with what we were looking for in the initial brief. One thing that was never in question was the passion brought to the table by each team. 

Personally, I would attend each one of these events and I had a fun time visualizing myself taking pictures in the subway-themed New York City Room by the De3ign Girls team, enjoying bites while waiting for my makeup in Studio EME’s Lounge and checking out the Beauty Bar, ”poolside,” at Penn Tool’s SEPHORiA Hotel.

MIA CHOI: They have skills! Not only were the top winning submissions thoughtful, bold and innovative, but the winners also had the skills to back up their strategy. I remember thinking, gosh, I wish I’d had that level of rendering capabilities and tech know-how when I was starting out. In the end, the winner stood out as they created an environment that encompassed the brand and their beautiful manifesto in an offbeat way that still felt accessible to guests. At the core of this immersive beauty playground was a wonderful sense of discovery and a true celebration of self-expression.

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE BRAND X CREATIVE PROCESS?

FIONA MICOLEAU: All three of us are SEPHORA enthusiasts who love beauty branding and feel a part of the makeup community ourselves. We appreciate cultural trends that influence witty, fun and meaningful branding. The best part of the creative process was drawing inspiration from these cultural ties and creating branding that was current to this era of the beauty community. For instance, influencer marketing is at the forefront of this industry. So, we dedicated shade names such as “sponsored content” in our Los Angeles palette to reflect the cult following of beauty influencers and how paid-to-post marketing helps power the beauty industry. We had fun designing subtle nods throughout the experience so that a guest could recognize the humor and feel connected to the nuances of this pop-up. 

WILL YOU LOOK BACK FONDLY ON YOUR ROLE AS THIS YEAR’S BRAND X BRAND AND WHY?

KATE BIANCAMANO: Absolutely, hands-down. The experience was inspiring for everyone involved from the SEPHORA team. It really made us think “we need to kick it up a notch” if these students are going to be in our field of work someday! The opportunity to speak to what we do at SEPHORA, and who we are as a company, was incredibly enriching. To be able to share and represent our company values, especially to a younger audience, was an experience to be proud of. 

HOW DID COVID-19 IMPACT WHAT YOU DESIGNED—AND EXPERIENCE DESIGN AS A WHOLE?

GARY WU: COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily change experience design as a field. It changes experience design trends. In this case, COVID-19 has influenced user experiences that affect person-to-person interactions. From waiting in lines to socializing in person, the user experience has shifted six feet—literally. Experience design is based on feelings, emotions and human nature. During COVID-19, humans are more cautious about what they interact with. They are less inclined to rent an Airbnb or socialize with strangers because of the higher risk. Businesses like Airbnb that rely on these higher-risk events have already taken a considerable hit to their consumer base.

AMARI ZHANG: The unprecedented situation of social distancing and remote work has become the new norm. Before, experience design focused on collaboration in public spaces that allowed people to co-live and co-work. However, the focus now has turned to improving cleanliness and circulation, and how to limit interactions between people in order to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus. 

During this drastic shift we are experiencing, the need for experience design is more urgent than ever. The general needs of people are different now, but their desire remains as it was before. They want to share their lives with friends and family and to collaborate with people in and out of their professions. In addition to all the guidelines and policies that have been put into place, user experience design can help businesses fulfill their needs for better and more creative solutions and continue providing for the public.

ISABELLA SHMELEV: COVID-19 has made so many changes to the way we live. It has completely changed the retail experience and has made a huge impact on in-person events. While these in-person experiences need to be put on hold, experience design is needed—now more than ever. People are looking to recreate the same feeling of shopping and socializing that they had before COVID-19, so this is a huge opportunity for designers to step in and help prepare people for the future.

HOW HAS BRAND X CHANGED THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT EXPERIENCES?

MIA DIMAIO: Brand X has taught us that experience creation is a holistic process. To create a strong experience, the design behind it must think from all angles—and for all people. Experience design means to collectively consider space and circulation, branding and purpose, and so much more—rather than thinking about them separately.

WHY IS EXPERIENCE DESIGN SO EXCITING?

EMILY LIN: Because of the opportunities it presents to influence the way we perceive and interact with the world. It draws on many diverse perspectives including—but not limited to—architecture, biology, anthropology and visual arts. As a practice, experience design challenges us to go beyond the limits of the digital or physical space, and to think holistically about the impact we can have beyond the spatial and temporal breadth of the experiences themselves. 

LAST QUESTION. YOU PUT SO MUCH TIME AND ENERGY INTO THIS PROGRAM EACH YEAR, MIA. IS THIS A LABOR OF LOVE FOR YOU?  

MIA CHOI: This absolutely is a labor of love for me—from writing the brief, working with the SEPHORA team, and mentoring the students to participating in the judging sessions with our stellar judging committee. It’s something that the team and I look forward to every year. This special program allows us to really break down the process, teach the next generation of experiential marketers, and learn from some of the best marketing minds in the industry.

TEAM NAME: Team De3ign Girls
SCHOOL: University of California Davis
DESIGNERS: Ally Reyes, Fiona Micoleau and Isabella Shmelev

Ally Reyes

Ally Reyes

Fiona Micoleau

Fiona Micoleau

Isabella Shmelev

Isabella Shmelev

The 2020 Brand X Challenge winning campaign, (em)POWERED by Beauty, celebrates the ways in which power and technology have empowered a generation of beauty enthusiasts. Using a social media-driven, “29Rooms”-style pop-up packed with playful, creative interactions targeting millennial and Gen Z beauty fans, the campaign is inspired by various forms of power and technology—from lights to electricity to transportation—and embraces the concept that “beauty comes in all different forms, just like power.” Since makeup empowers those who wear it, the “(em)POWERED by Beauty” experience honors beauty’s myriad forms of creative self-expression and, in turn, energizes and electrifies all those who enter the space.

As picking different tour locations was a stipulation of the challenge, Team De3ign Girls chose to pay homage to city-dwelling beauty lovers in four urban locales—Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and San Francisco—and to highlight specific makeup trends inspired by life in each city. 

One of the touring activation’s six experiential spaces, dubbed the City Room, is customized to the particular city the pop-up is visiting. The team carefully considered how each locale empowers beauty in its own way, from the “rushed glam” vibe of the Big Apple to the art-deco, fun-loving spirit encapsulated by Miami.

The pop-up’s overall aesthetic is retro-futuristic with a neon color palette reflecting a blend of 21st century tech and ’80s glam. The campaign’s central icon: a layered lightning bolt incorporated into the logo as a nod to the power and electricity themes within the activation. 

Different takes on the intersection of technology and power were present in each of the activation’s spaces, starting with a neon-pink exterior touchpoint modeled after a gas station. A vintage pink bus parked outside the structure features a photo booth inside, and attendees can purchase (em)POWERED by Beauty-branded gear—like hoodies, hats, phone cases and compact mirrors—and browse the Sephora app at several “merch-pumps” before and after the experience. A branded vending machine offers totes to carry products collected throughout the experience and also dispenses “power point” coins to be redeemed for prizes later. The exterior activations serve as a quick shopping stop for attendees but are also designed to manage throughput. 

Once inside, attendees move through an entryway portal and into the Control Room, which features a video wall inspired by vintage TV stations and maps (doubling as wall art pieces). The video content is diversity-themed and highlights the influence that LGBTQIA+ communities have had on the beauty world. Other touchpoints include rolls of tear-off art posters and a security-cam GIF generator.

From the Control Room, attendees encounter the Arcade Room, a gamified, beauty-themed space. A timed claw machine offers the chance to score Sephora products; small prizes and trinkets are dispensed from quarter machines reminiscent of childhood pizza parlor games; and a beauty IQ quiz tests attendees’ knowledge of makeup brands. The “power point” coins procured from the gas station come into play here: each coin can be redeemed for a game or a prize.

Next, attendees head into the City Rooms—the transportation-themed, customizable section of the pop-up. New York City’s room features a subway car as an ode to its “rushed glam” lifestyle. Digital screens highlight brand ambassadors and makeup palettes tailored to each city—with clever shade names to boot—are offered up as free swag. New York’s shades, like “Lower East Side at 3am” and “Cosmo,” are based on the city’s vibrant nightlife. San Francisco’s City Room features a cable car and palette names in support of the Bay Area’s entrepreneurial spirit—like “Start Up” and “Call Me Bay.” The centerpiece of Miami’s fun-loving, vacation-themed space is a boat with palette shades like “Little Havana” and “White Sand.” Finally, Los Angeles-based attendees snap pics from inside a vintage car and don traffic- and L.A.-themed shades like “Stuck on the 405” and “Spotted at Nobu.” 

Next, the Empower Room highlights the power of media and how technology has raised a generation of beauty fans linked primarily through digital self-expression. Guests explore brand product feeds and Sephora brand ambassador posts on an interactive digital wall. A quote wall highlights the transformative power of makeup. And a giant ring light, customized in each city by a local artist, creates the perfect lighting for photo ops featuring filters, (em)POWERED by Beauty branding, stickers and location tags, with Bluetooth printers on hand to produce physical keepsakes. 

The experience wraps with a second-story rooftop space themed around the sustainability of the beauty industry and the “Clean at Sephora” initiative. Accents include “Rest and Recharge” neon signage, a photo stage for influencer meet-and-greets, a plant wall and lounge seating, and a “Refuel Station” where green juices and smoothies are served in branded juice bottles with metal straws. Beauty from the inside out.

TEAM NAME: Team EME Studio
SCHOOL: Cornell University
DESIGNERS: Emily Lin, Mia DiMaio and Erika Kane 

Team EME Studio’s campaign is anchored by a “Windows and Mirrors” manifesto whose call-to-action is to learn about others’ experiences while also looking within to gain self awareness. The motif provides a framework for Sephora’s interest in self-expression, diversity and inclusivity by celebrating the differences among Sephoria’s audience.

The manifesto is the first thing attendees see on a branding wall upon entering the activation. That window motif is carried throughout the space as versions of a semi-circular portal shape inspired by the campaign logo—from archways to wall illustrations to the curvature of the furniture. Food and beverage supports the Windows and Mirrors theme, too, with mirrored dining ware and transparent, locally sourced ingredients. 

The attendee journey begins with “The Market,” which offers free swag, local art collaborations and product browsing. The makeup trial area is a playground for experimentation and includes beauty advisors, counters, augmented reality-enhanced demos and purchase kiosks. Three photo booths featuring AR filters encourage posing and posting, while in a lounge area, attendees can grab a drink while waiting for products ordered at the kiosks. 

Judges were particularly impressed with this team’s ideation around attendee engagement for pre-, during and post-event activities. For instance, pre-event, a Sephoria social media contest asks consumers to post about what inspires them or makes them feel beautiful, included and accepted. Digital elements on a dedicated “Windows and Mirrors” microsite, including account creation, product quizzes, news updates and a community forum, help to create a long-term relationship with attendees after the event has concluded.

Another highlight of the campaign is the city stops. The “Windows and Mirrors” cross-country tour provides a platform for collaborations with local artists and designers in the areas of catering, swag, prints and digital art expressions. After its launch in Sephoria House of Beauty’s home base of Los Angeles, the tour heads to the Texas Contemporary Art Fair in Houston, chosen for its up-and-comer demographics, energy and diversity. Next is the Inherit Chicago festival, which brings together 41 neighborhoods and communities. Finally, the tour heads to the New Yorker Festival in New York City, a center of thought leadership across a variety of culturally-relevant fields.

TEAM NAME: Team Pen Tool
SCHOOL: University of Southern California
DESIGNERS: Amari Zhang, Kexin Cydney Zhang, Gary Wu and Sishuang Cathy Zhao

Our third-place winners created a Grand SEPHORiA Hotel activation, an immersive and interactive collection of rooms. Consisting of four themed spaces staffed by SEPHORA Squad influencers, the experience travels to large venues in Anaheim, CA, Austin, New York City, and Seattle—parts of the country responsible for the majority of ticket sales for Sephoria 2019.

Team Pen Tool tailors the activation’s design and themes to fit actual members of the SEPHORA Squad influencer team, placing each member in a room that suits their particular expertise. For instance, in the pool deck area, squad members offer tips on creating a perfect daytime look amidst giant floaties and a vibrant color backdrop. And in the garden space, which showcases sustainably sourced products and educates attendees about SEPHORA’s own efforts to promote sustainability, other squad members mix together scents to create personalized fragrances for guests.

The campaign’s robust social media strategy included Facebook ad formats, “look alike” targeting and event cross-promotion; Stories, SEPHORiA-themed stickers and optimally timed posts on Instagram; and custom filters, games and paid influencer campaigns on TikTok and Snapchat. The team also provides in-depth marketing calendars that outline pre-, live- and post-event activities. Moreover, the team breaks down the percentage of marketing efforts devoted to each phase as well as specific tactics to implement within them—from ticket promotion to media analysis to experience discussion to post-event commentary. 

The judges especially appreciated this team’s determination to solve pain points experienced at the previous Sephoria event. They created interactive prototypes of both the Sephoria website design and app. The latter, in particular, provided a solution to 2019’s poor user experience and negative reviews in the App Store. The team created an all-in-one app that combined the SEPHORiA app with the existing SEPHORA app, making the user experience easier, registration for classes at the event seamless, and engagement with the community a breeze.

TEAM NAME: Team IndyBlue
SCHOOL: Duke University
DESIGNERS: JJ (Javan) Jiang, Anika Khanderia, Rebecca Williamson and Megan Wang 

Team IndyBlue designed a multisensory experience for its campaign, “Senses & Spaces.” Its narrative challenges consumers to reflect on how first impressions color their viewpoints. Its goal is to expand attendees’ horizons with new products and embrace SEPHORA’s values surrounding diversity. 

Among touchpoints that bring the theme to life is a “mirror me photo booth,” which combines the idea of the classic mirror selfie with the interactivity of a photo booth. The photos can be personalized by adding hand-drawn decorations with borders, illustrations and messages that were submitted by the community prior to the event. Each of the event’s four photo booths feature different backgrounds, two of which are customized to tour stop locations.

Social media boards throughout the space feature posts, tweets and videos linked to the campaign. But in addition to on-site social media activations, Team IndyBlue designed a social media challenge led by SEPHORA’s influencer squad that invites consumers to share facts about themselves that don’t match with first impressions; memories of particular textures, scents and sounds; and participate in unique activities such as a blindfolded makeup challenge.

SEPHORA’s message of inclusivity from its “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign is integral to this team’s activation, which is about targeting commonalities between people through the five senses. Attendees experience touch by exploring some of SEPHORA’s most experimental products, such as jelly- and whip-based makeup. The smell experience focuses on perfumes, skin care, lip gloss and other products. Attendees can design their own scents, take an interactive quiz to find products and take a guided tour at a “scent bar.” The sound experience offers self-care, aromatherapy products and soothing auditory tracks while attendees are seated in comfy armchairs. And taste is about sampling treats shaped like makeup products while interacting with other attendees. 

The last stop is the activation’s product shop where guests can exchange tokens collected from their favorite sense spaces in exchange for mini versions of products. They also receive a promotional code to purchase the full-size product at a discounted price as well as a tote bag full of goodies.

TEAM NAME: Team S.A.S.S.
SCHOOL: University of California Los Angeles
DESIGNERS: Sue Ellen Zhang, Alice Kim, Samuel Huo and Sarah Zhang

Team S.A.S.S. activated a series of sweets-centered pop-up experiences across North America. The “Sweet SEPHORiA” tour, which begins in Los Angeles and stops at Seattle, Chicago and New York City, features makeovers, sweet treats, swag bags and photo moments. The tagline says is all: “Get a Taste of Beauty: Experience the Sweet Side of Sephora.”

Embracing Sephora’s concept of acceptance and belonging, Team S.A.S.S. keeps inclusivity at the forefront of its activation by leveraging SEPHORA’s diverse group of influencers on social and on-site at each pop-up; calling for designing accessibility ramps; providing audio tours in multiple languages; featuring products from diverse creators; and ensuring SEPHORA employees operating the pop-up reflect a diverse coalition. 

Design inspiration came from the novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and, naturally, includes themed factory rooms emulating those in the story: chocolate, candy, ice cream and pastry. The experience kicks off with a community café and a locally made ice cream snack while guests wait in line. Attendees are encouraged to use the SEPHORA mobile app at this stage, which includes a “Candy Crush”-inspired game, and are offered a SEPHORA bag for shopping. Next, guests can use the app to customize their own palettes by choosing swatch colors directly from a palette wall. A Ferris wheel activation holds small products for the taking, such as lip glosses and free candy. An oversized lipstick tower, a lash station, an eyeshadow demonstration, an engraving station, a donut-shaped mirror for selfies and a swing photo op round out the touchpoints. 

At the end of their journey, attendees receive a swag bag and artisanal sweets from sponsoring local stores. VIP attendees enjoy expedited access, early entry and bonus product in the swag bag, a reusable tote bag featuring the pop-up’s illustration style and Sweet SEPHORiA name. Hats off to Team S.A.S.S. for calling out all the products in both the regular and VIP swag bags. Every. Single. One.

TEAM NAME: Fearless Insiders
SCHOOL: Rhode Island School of Design
DESIGNERS: Janice Koo, Wonil Choi and Elyson Park 

Team Fearless Insiders’ campaign is designed around the most intimate of spaces: the bathroom. The design was driven by three things: the promotion of self-love and self-care (a must for Gen Z audiences), creating a sensorial experience and building a social media haven. And the ultimate place of self-love, confidence and security is, according to these fearless three, the bathroom. And they did, in fact, beautify the unthinkable. The Insiders Room is a pop-up modeled after bathroom architecture where beauty can be nurtured and self-acceptance is in abundance. Attendees are known as “insiders” because they are able to express themselves, experiment and accept one another.

The tour moves from its Los Angeles home base to Boston Common, New York City’s Bryant Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park, each chosen for population density and cultural diversity. Pre-event marketing leverages Instagram location-based filters and stickers for decorating consumers’ stories and posts. An RSVP event page on Facebook offers tips on how to experience the tour to its fullest.

Now, onto the experiences. A set of four, striped capsule-like buildings separated by colorful photo walls make up the structure. A nice tech touch: the team created a virtual check-in queue service for attendees while they wait that uses a text line service to send QR codes containing loyalty membership information (or the invitation to join). Inside, each room—essentially a beautified bathroom stall—features a category of Sephora self-care products.

Each themed space invites attendees to embrace self-care in different ways. The Blue Room, filled with Clean at SEPHORA products promotes sustainable initiatives. The Pink Room invites attendees to take a dip into a giant toilet bowl pool. The Yellow Room’s theme is makeup foundation in all shades. Different colored toilet paper swatches reflect diversity in beauty. Lastly, the Gray Room celebrates all genders, sexualities and identities with signage featuring messages of belonging and inclusivity glowing in neon. Added touches are “mirror tunnels,” where attendees write statements of self-love in lipstick and the integration of a smart mirror kiosk, The Magic Mirror, to customize gift boxes and photos with effects and stickers. Attendees leave with an “Insider Polaroid,” a personalized keepsake and printed memory of the experience. 

TEAM NAME: TC Studios
SCHOOL: Savannah College of Art and Design
DESIGNERS: Caty Timmerman, Taylor Garland and Katie Clarke

Team TC Studios’ “Dare to be different” experience celebrates attendees’ differences with a highly personalized journey to self-acceptance. 

The first step in the campaign drums up buzz for the event by enlisting the SEPHORA Squad, local micro-influencers and celebrities, to create interest on social media. LED screens in malls, OOH ads, in-store visuals and social media posts support the push. Importantly, the ads contain QR codes to facilitate registration with a playful questionnaire that serves as the cornerstone of each attendee’s personalized experience. 

VIPs of the event receive a special gift: a p.r. package with an RFID wristband, instructions on how to personalize the activation experience and free, full-sized SEPHORA products. The online quiz includes basics like birthday and favorite song but also a series of “this or that” questions that help to customize the experience further. 

The on-site activation features an “Explore Your Differences” space, where attendees watch a SEPHORA original documentary, “Define Your Different.” The film interviews individuals from each tour stop’s local community alongside influencers and entrepreneurs. By showcasing subjects that aren’t typically included in a beauty campaign, the film draws connections among a diverse group of individuals. Cheers to Team TC Studios for developing a full treatment of the documentary film. Attendees then visit five personalized photo booths using their RFID wristbands. Guests’ names appear at the booth, LED floor-to-ceiling panels reflect their color preferences and interactive cameras hanging from the ceiling help to catch the perfect photos. The next space, called “Share Your Differences,” includes an AR selfie mirror and an exclusive SEPHORA lipstick in their preferred shade as a reward for posting to social media. In a final call-to-action, attendees are invited to “dare to be different” as their makeup looks are presented alongside something bold and new, challenging them to step outside of their comfort zones. 

After the experience, attendees are sent personalized text messages. Attendees, consumers and influencers are then encouraged to post content on social media—from videos on YouTube to a TikTok dance challenge—with the hashtag #DefineYourDifferent.

TEAM NAME: Lemon Drop
SCHOOL: Miami University and High Point University
DESIGNERS: Lauren Waldrop and Jordyn Lemons 

Team Lemon Drop’s campaign is a dining-themed experience in which the menu is a full-face, personalized beauty routine and the ingredients are limited-edition products from Sephora brands. Enter: “Utopia”—not your typical night out.

Attendees can pick and choose products from the multi-course menu, which are then artfully plated and served up by SEPHORA Squad influencers. Each course is designed as part of a full-face routine, moving from cleansers to foundation to bronzer to lip. Guests will also receive the “The Sephora Special,” an eyeshadow palette tailored specifically to each attendee’s beauty preferences. Optional mocktails and cocktails are on hand to keep guests refreshed.

The activation’s aesthetic takes inspiration from filmmaker Wes Anderson and Beverly Hills’ pinks, greens and palm trees. The “dining room” has two large community tables for mingling, booths and barstool sections. A banana leaf photo wall with pink leather banquettes and a striped wall with pink vintage digital frames provide two unique—yet, decidedly Gen Z—photo moments. A digital gallery wall features pics taken inside the space.

Utopia offers both to-go and for-here versions of the experience. To-go orders are taken with digital tablets. If attendees choose to “dine in,” they, too, order from an iPad that welcomes them as either a loyal Beauty Insider or a guest. If the latter is chosen, a signup page for the Beauty Insider program appears with a 50-percent-off coupon on a beverage as the incentive to join. 

Wait staff at the event are SEPHORA Squad members on hand to provide beauty advice. But the squad is also utilized for pre-event promotion with sneak-peeks of the space shared on social media. Attendees and influencers can use Snapchat and Instagram filters with geotargeting during the event. And post-activation, a digital gallery wall offers up additional tagging and live sessions to lengthen the lifespan of the Utopia campaign. Recipes for the event’s mocktails and cocktails will be posted on social media, influencers and makeup gurus can host virtual happy hours and the digital community may enjoy a tutorial or two on a new makeup look—all under that Utopia brand umbrella. Cheers.

TEAM NAME: NOUV
SCHOOL: Rhode Island School of Design
DESIGNERS: Jeffrey Ye, YueQian Sun, Eddy Minwoo Sohn and Natcha Pakdeekitcharoen

Team NOUV’s campaign links the benefits to SEPHORA products with sports and fitness as a framework for expressing the brand’s fearless attitude. The idea here is that by pushing the limits both physically and mentally, SEPHORA encourages people to be brave and helps them to champion beauty. Enter the FEARLESS X FITNESS campaign. It kicks off with a series of trendy workout events in partnership with fitness companies. The goal here is to generate more interaction with SEPHORA products while working out and to showcase products that support pre- and post-workout skincare. Activities include cycling, rock climbing and boxing. 

These events are attended by SEPHORA influencers, beauty bloggers and celebrities. Consumers can earn “Fearless Points” to redeem rewards at the main event. Hat tip to the team for thoughtfully choosing fitness companies to collaborate with that align with SEPHORA’s values, such as Grit and Swerve. 

The main event is the Fearless Playground, which includes four tour tops—in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and New York City—timed to capitalize on optimal weather conditions for exercising. The centerpiece of the experience is an interactive cycling bar featuring LED-lit imagery and graphics motivating participants to push themselves to embrace fearlessness. On the room’s exterior is a digital wall of makeup looks that can be worn while working out as well as skincare recommendations. Attendees earn more Fearless Points from the activity that can later be redeemed for  workout-friendly skincare products.

Another key touchpoint in the Fearless Playground is the mirror hall, an AR experience in which participants’ movements trigger animations projected onto the screen. Here attendees engage in a boxing challenge, using their simulated reflections as a coach. Afterward, participants sample products using SEPHORA’s digital makeup interface. 

Rounding out the activation is the Floral Room, an interactive experience involving fragrances, seeds and flowers in which attendees attempt to match seed fragrances to the correct flowers, as well as an open-air VIP lounge surrounded by transparent pillars lit with soft pink lighting. 

TEAM NAME: Bakn’ Bros 
SCHOOL: San Jose State University
DESIGNERS: Brittney Garcia, Ali Burney, Katherine Chhay Chen and Natalie Rejas 

Team Bakn’ Bros’ campaign consists of a series of challenges—and rewards—designed to help attendees discover their inner king or queen. Taking inspiration from royal figures of the past, from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the fiery nature of Viking Shieldmadens, the activation ushers participants through a series of rooms, each concluding with a photo op on a throne themed to the room’s aesthetic. 

The attendee journey starts with the Viking-inspired “Fear Less Room,” which asks guests to complete the hashtag #todayIam___ on a sticky note and post it to the wall. When entering each room, attendees receive a small satchel filled with items to help them complete the challenge as well as a few makeup samples. Rewards come in the form of jewels, which later are inserted into crowns at the activation’s last stop, the “Coronation Station.”

In the next space, dubbed “Pucker Up,” attendees receive a second satchel containing bold lip colors and a compact mirror. Posting a pic on social media earns guests a second gem and a seat on another throne—this one inspired by the brickwork and bright colors of the Aztecs. 

The “Just Wing It” space, modeled after ancient Egyptian artwork, invites attendees to brave a bold eyeliner. And the final room, called “That Glo Tho,” features an ice crystal and shimmering aesthetic and a challenge inviting attendees to don glitzy highlights and diamond face jewels.

After completing the makeup challenges and collecting their crown jewels, attendees are then free to decorate their crowns with gems. Guests can use touch-screen stations with mirrors to try on new looks and engage with SEPHORA staffers. The activation’s final touch is the VIP room, “The Great Hall,” with decor inspired by Greek mythology. The crowning jewel of the space: a moving Pegasus carousel photo op on top of which VIPs can pose for a pic. 

YASSS, Queen.

More information: Stay up to date on next year's program by following the Brand X Challenge on Instagram.