For many established beauty companies that have been around for decades, the notion of finding success on TikTok can feel particularly elusive. The platform is known for attracting a young, attention-deficient and fickle audience that expects newness, authenticity and inclusivity while rejecting staleness, artificiality and anything it somewhat randomly writes off as “cheugy.” The brands thought to be best equipped to build a dedicated following on TikTok tend to be younger, grassroots-style indie startups, unless they somehow accidentally stumble into virality due to controversy or gimmicky stunts (see: Bobbi Brown‘s Jones Road). So when a brand manages to grow an audience on the platform without falling into either of those categories, it’s only natural for the industry to take notice.
Such has been the case of well-established cosmetics company Tarte. Despite having launched 23 years ago — long before most of the social media channels that exist today — Tarte has become a success story on Tiktok. At publishing time, it boasts more than 836K TikTok followers; videos tagged #trippinwithtarte have garnered more than 13.7 million views; and the company has seen significant spikes in sales as the direct result of viral TikTok moments.
Tarte CEO and Founder Maureen Kelly recalls a time before social media existed, not long after the brand’s 1999 launch, during which she learned an early lesson on the importance of building a fandom. “I remember the goal was to get on Oprah’s famous O List, and when we finally got one of our products on there and it was such a big moment,” she says. “I think we got an 800% increase in sales as a result. Fast forward to now, we rely on social media so much [for that type of attention].”
An open-minded, early-adopter approach to emerging social platforms has been integral to Tarte’s marketing strategy for years, notes Kelly: “We were the very first beauty brand on Musical.ly, which later became TikTok. We’re always on Discord. We’re reading through Reddit threads, trying to understand what our customers are looking for from us, what they’re talking about from other brands — the good and the bad.”
Embracing social media as an opportunity, rather than regarding it as a scary unknown or a dumping ground for random content, has helped Tarte’s business continue to thrive over the past few decades. “When some companies get really big, they stop being flexible and nimble,” says Kelly. “That’s when you start dying.”
“I think back to when I first started at Tarte 10 years ago, social media was starting [to take off as a marketing tool]. For a lot of brands, it was kind of an afterthought,” recalls Samantha Kitain, the company’s CMO. “Maureen was the first one who was thinking about social-first and creating content just for this space. This was at a time when you couldn’t guarantee money from it, you couldn’t necessarily guarantee sales. You had to take the chance. A lot of what we tried worked, a lot of things didn’t work, but we tried them all. And I think that’s really how we were able to just keep evolving and knowing that eventually this is definitely going to pay off.”
For Kitain, an agile approach that embraces shifting cultural trends and viral moments helps to define Tarte’s social strategy. “Social media is instantaneous, so you have to be able to react right away,” she says.
Kelly credits the fact that the brand relies on “real” people (which it calls “Tartelettes”), rather than models, to create its TikTok content as a key to building authenticity and cultivating a major following. “Our secret sauce comes from multiple different things, but being nimble and being real are two of the key foundations of it,” she says. “Everyone can see themselves represented our content.”
“We’ve been really blessed to have some really amazing coverage, like when Meredith Duxbury featured our Maracuja Juicy Lips and then they got picked up by other really amazing TikTokers,” says Kelly. “Authenticity is like the key to viral success on TikTok, and you can’t fake that. We can try and plant seeds, but real growth and viral success definitely happens organically.”
That’s not to say that the brand doesn’t put effort, strategy and resources toward growing and engaging its audience on the platform (and on its other social channels), though. Tarte is widely known for its #trippinwithtarte influencer trips, which started back in 2013, well before the sponsored-vacay concept had reached its peak among other fashion and beauty brands. The idea is to translate the community feeling of social media into real-life experience — and to build relationships and create opportunity for user-generated content to flourish.
“At the time, traditional events were all kind of starting to feel the same. #trippinwithtarte allowed us to create an intimate, open space for content creators so that they could get to know the brand, they could get to know Maureen and they could really discover the products more organically and in a meaningful way,” says Kitain.
In March 2022, the brand hosted a trip solely for TikTokers, inviting 16 of them — including Duxbury, Stephanie Valentine and Victoria Lyn — to Key Largo, Florida. The brand paid for travel and accommodations for the influencers (and each of their plus-ones); brand partners such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Set Active gifted attendees loads of swag. But Tarte didn’t directly compensate attendees for their time spent on the trip, or explicitly require them to create or post content. (Of course, the brand offered plenty of scenic opportunities and abundant product to help feed any creative urges.)
The trip coincided with the limited relaunch of Tarte’s Cheek Stain, its first product ever, originally introduced in 1999. Though it had been discontinued for years, Tarte made a play for nostalgia, simultaneously catering to early fans of the brand while also reviving it for a modern audience.
“Our followers kept posting over and over saying, ‘Please bring back the Cheek Stain!’ So we finally did. We hadn’t had it in the line for many years, and then it went pretty viral on TikTok, which was crazy,” says Kelly. As a result of all of the #trippinwithtarte content generated through the trip, the brand sold double its projections in the first week of the relaunch.
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In June, the company invited TikTok influencers and beauty editors (myself included) on a #trippinwithtarte getaway to the Napa Valley to celebrate the launch of its new Tartelette Tubing Mascara. Kelly notes that the subsequent sales of said mascara have been “through the roof,” although the brand declined to provide any specific numbers.
When it comes to choosing which influencers are invited on the trips, the brand prioritizes existing fans. (“We know their content’s going to be authentic and not forced,” says Kitain.) There also has to be diversity, they have to be kind and they have to be considered authorities, though not necessarily in beauty.
“What’s great about these trips is people are unwinding and relaxing and learning about the products at their own pace. [Inviting creators who are] kind people creates this warm environment for everybody,” says Kitain. “It’s also about them having authority and being experts in whatever they do. They don’t have to be an amazing makeup artist, but they all have things that their fans love about them. We love that, too.”
Not every social media effort has been a win for the brand, though — especially early on. “In the beginning, when we launched on Musical.ly, we were singing and dancing, because that’s what you did on the platform, before TikTok bought it. We had to fit what that genre was. But we’re a makeup brand, so we learned pretty quickly that we need to say true to who we are,” says Kelly.
“The biggest learning on TikTok was you don’t have to be something you’re not,” adds Kitain. “If you overthink it, you’ve already missed the trend. And you can’t really treat it like another marketing vehicle where you’re just repurposing content. You have to lean in and engage and use it just like everybody else does to figure out what type of content makes sense for you in a fun way.”
Now, Tarte has integrated TikTok into its sales strategy and e-commerce in simple, straightforward ways: There’s a “Trending on Tiktok” section on its website through which shoppers can directly engage with content from the platform (and then, of course, purchase any products that spark interest). And even when it isn’t directly trackable, it’s clear when a social-media post drives sales, notes Kitain.
“Dotcom sales are really exciting with social media because you can see those effects instantly,” she says. “An influencer posts one of your top products, and then immediately you see 100, 200, 300 times lift, which is huge.”
For Kitain, a more surprising shift has been in TikTok’s impact on brick-and-mortar retail for the brand: “Even though they’re digitally native, Gen Z still shops a lot in stores. And so for us, we are evolving to rethink how that plays into this more digital world and bring all those worlds together so that you see products online, you see them in store, you can touch and feel them, but you’ve already learned everything about them. That’s where I think our future is, and we’ve been talking about how to bring all those universes together.”
Tarte also leverages its social following for purposes beyond marketing, turning to its community for feedback and inspiration to help inform its product development process. One example Kelly cites is the brand’s Maracuja Juicy Lips line, which became popular on TikTok from its debut.
“We had our TikTok followers asking us for versions with more coverage or more color, and so we launched the Crèmes; then we had other followers asking us for ones that plump, so we launched the Plumping version,” she says. “They’re kind of making my life in product development a little bit easier. I just listen to them. They’re telling me what to do.”
When Kitain reflects on the trajectory of Tarte’s business and where it stands today, social media is a (if not the) defining factor.
“What we’re doing in marketing should mirror what’s going on in the real world,” she says. “We never really relied on traditional marketing vehicles. As people adopted social media, it was like, ‘Okay, well, that’s where we need to be.’ Taking those chances I think is why we’ve gotten to be where we are today.”
Disclosure: Tarte paid for my travel and accommodations to attend a recent #trippinwithtarte trip alongside a group of beauty editors and TikTokers.
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