For many established beauty companies that have been around for decades, the idea of finding success is on TikTok can feel particularly elusive. The platform is known for attracting a young, attention-deprived and fickle audience that expects novelty, authenticity and inclusiveness, while rejecting staleness, artificiality and anything it casually dismisses as “cheugy”. The brands thought to be best equipped to build a dedicated following on TikTok tend to be younger, grassroots indie startups, unless they somehow accidentally fall into virality due to controversy or gimmick stunts (see: Bobbi Brown‘s Jones’s way). So when a brand manages to grow an audience on the platform without falling into any of these categories, it’s only natural for the industry to take notice.
This has been the case for a well-established cosmetics company Tart. Despite launching 23 years ago—long before most of the social media channels out there today—Tarte has become a success story on Tiktok. At the time of publication, it boasts more than 836K TikTok followers; videos tagged #trippinwithtarte have received more than 13.7 million views; and the company has seen significant increases in sales as a direct result of viral TikTok moments. What’s more, it claims it achieved all this organically without investing in any paid influencer content.
Tarte CEO and founder Maureen Kelly remembers a time before social media existed, not long after the brand’s launch in 1999, when she learned an early lesson about 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’re so dependent on social media [for that type of attention].”
An open-minded approach to new social platforms has been an integral part of 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 read Reddit threads through and 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 viewing it as an intimidating 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 agile,” says Kelly. “That’s when you start dying.”
“I think back to when I started at Tarte 10 years ago, social media started [to take off as a marketing tool]. For many brands, it was kind of an afterthought,” recalls Samantha Kitain, the company’s CMO. “Maureen was the first to think 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 in the end it will definitely pay off.”
For Kitain, an agile approach that embraces shifting cultural trends and viral moments helps define Tarte’s social strategy. “Social media is instantaneous, so you have to be able to react immediately,” 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 large following. “Our secret sauce comes from several different things, but being flexible and being genuine are two of the key foundations of it,” she says. “Everyone can see themselves represented in our content.”
Aside from showing product to influencers (and bringing them on luxury trips through its #trippinwithtarte program, which we’ll discuss more in a moment), Tarte hasn’t paid TikTokers for content.
“We’ve been really blessed to have really great coverage, like when Meredith Duxbury featured us Maracuja Juicy Lips and then they were 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 to plant seeds, but real growth and viral success definitely happens organically.”
However, that’s not to say that the brand isn’t putting effort, strategy and resources into growing and engaging its audience on the platform (and on its other social channels). Tarte is known for its #trippinwithtarte influencer trips, which started back in 2013, long before the sponsored-vacay concept had reached its peak among other fashion and beauty brands. The idea is to translate the sense of community of social media into real-life experience – and to build relationships and create opportunities for user-generated content to flourish.
“At that point, traditional events all kind of started to feel the same. #trippinwithtarte allowed us to create an intimate, open space for content creators so 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 tour exclusively for TikTokers, and invited 16 of them — including Duxbury, Stephanie Valentine and Victoria Lyn — to Key Largo, Florida. The brand paid for travel and accommodation for the influencers (and each of their plus-ones); brand partners such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Set Active talented participants lots of swag. But Tarte did not directly compensate participants for their time spent on the tour, or expressly require them to create or post content. (Of course, the brand offered plenty of scenic options and abundant products to help feed any creative urge.)
The tour coincided with the limited relaunch of Tarte’s cheek stainits first ever product, originally introduced in 1999. Although it had been discontinued for years, Tarte made a play for nostalgia while 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 Cheek Stain!’ So we finally did it. We hadn’t lined it up for years and then it went pretty viral on TikTok, which was crazy,” says Kelly. As a result of all the #trippinwithtarte content generated throughout 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 trip to Napa Valley to celebrate the launch of its new Tartelette Tubing Mascara. Kelly notes that subsequent sales of said mascara have been “through the roof,” though 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 will be authentic and not forced,” Kitain says.) There also needs to be diversity, they need to be friendly, and they need to be considered authorities, though not necessarily in beauty.
“What’s great about these tours is that people relax and unwind and learn about the products at their own pace. [Inviting creators who are] friendly people create this warm environment for everyone,” says Kitain. “It’s also about them having authority and being experts in whatever they do. They don’t have to be a great makeup artist, but they have all the things that their fans love about them. We love that too.”
However, not every social media effort has been a win for the brand — especially early on. “In the beginning, when we launched on Musical.ly, we sang and danced, 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 have to tell the truth about who we are,” says Kelly.
“The biggest learning on TikTok was that you don’t have to be something you’re not,” Kitain adds. “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 recycling content. You have to lean in and engage and use it like everyone else does to find out what type of content makes sense to 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 engage directly with content from the platform (and then, of course, buy products that arouse interest). And even when it’s not directly traceable, it’s clear when a social media post is driving sales, notes Kitain.
“Dotcom sales are really exciting with social media because you can see those effects immediately,” she says. “An influencer posts one of your top products and then you immediately see a 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 shop a lot in stores. So for us, we’re evolving to rethink how that plays into this more digital world, and bring all these worlds together so you see products online, you see them in the 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 these 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 then we launched Creams; then we had other followers asking us for those that were full so we launched Plump version,” she says. “They kind of make my life in product development a little bit easier. I just listen to them. They tell me what to do.”
When Kitain reflects on Tarte’s business and where it stands today, social media is one (if not that) defining factor.
“What we do in marketing should reflect what’s going on in the real world,” she says. “We’ve never really relied on traditional marketing vehicles. As people embraced 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 where we are today.”
Disclosure: Tarte paid for my travel and accommodations to participate in a recent #trippinwithtarte trip with a group of beauty editors and TikTokers.
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