“Blending Out” Brand Image: Tarte Cosmetics

Written by Emma Novak, Account Manager

Read the room: conspiracy theories aren’t limited to politics. Unfounded conspiracy theories fused with social criticism can create an unexpected tsunami of negative coverage against a brand and its well-intentioned actions. Tarte Cosmetics recently experienced this, and there are lessons for us all.

Tarte Controversy

Founded in 1999 and the “it” brand in the 2010s, makeup and skincare brand Tarte was once a household name in the beauty space. Yet, the cosmetics industry has since grown rapidly, and Tarte largely faded into the background and the bottoms of drawers.

In a January 2023 marketing effort to regain traction, Tarte invited 33 lifestyle and makeup influencers to Dubai to promote Tarte’s new “Maracuja Juicy” foundation product.  TikTok and Instagram videos of the influencers’ luxury flights, gifts, and accommodations quickly went viral. While some viewers delighted in the lavish videos, many speculated how Tarte, a brand that had seemingly declined, could fund such an extravagant excursion. A viral TikTok video questioned the trip’s economics of an estimated $65,000 per person price tag, amounting to a theorized trip cost of $2.15 million. Negative conspiracy theories blossomed almost overnight.

Some accused Tarte of working with the UAE’s tourism office, and even TIME and VOGUE shared investigative pieces about Tarte. Reddit channel “Beauty Guru Chatter” abounded with conspiracists, and hashtag #TarteDubaiTrip neared 30 million TikTok views. On top of the conspiracy theories, social media users claimed an opulent trip for “rich, out-of-touch” influencers was tone deaf to the global cost-of-living crisis, and trip attendees lacked diversity. Tarte was in hot water.

Addressing the Issue Quickly

In an initial step, Tarte addressed the issue head on rather than sweeping criticism under the rug, opting to share its voice exclusively with media outlet Glossy. In the exclusive, Tarte CEO Maureen Kelly promptly addressed concerns about Tarte’s budget, framing Tarte’s influencer marketing budget as “investing in building relationships and building up communities” and expensive gifts as “small business partnerships.”

Tarte responded to the conspiracy theories in a manner appropriate for its light-hearted brand. In her interview, Kelly noted, “I have to laugh at some of these conspiracies. I will say, people are creative! But no, I can confirm that we definitely didn’t have help from any tourism boards.”

Kelly also addressed the theorized price of a $22,000 first-class plane ticket to Dubai. “As someone who has taken countless trips overseas in an economy middle seat…” Kelly said, “you have to consider that we’re inviting people to take time out of their jobs and life, and get on a long-haul flight for a quick, three-day event.”

By selecting an exclusive with Glossy over larger outlets, Tarte directed its trip’s narrative and solely addressed items it felt it needed to rebut.

Addressing Key Stakeholders

Tarte also directly addressed its key stakeholders – influencers and their content consumers – in a humorous manner likewise suited to its brand. Following Kelly’s interview, Tarte returned to the platform where the controversy started: TikTok.

The official Tarte Cosmetics TikTok posted to its brand page, “POV: you show up for work but the marketing team spent all of our money on a brand trip” (4.8 million views and 829,000 likes). Kelly also posted a video to her personal TikTok account, reading, “waking up Monday morning scrolling TikTok to find out I fired my entire marketing team” (4.5 million views and 385,000 likes).

Tarte’s tongue-in-cheek TikTok videos were an overwhelmingly positive hit. Comments read:

  • “It’s giving self awareness!! Ok Tarte!”
  • “This. Is. Amazing.”
  • “We love a company who plays into the joke!”

Listening to Stakeholders

Tarte ultimately listened to its stakeholders and visibly changed its marketing. In April 2023, Tarte hosted a brand trip in Turks and Caicos, inviting beauty and lifestyle influencers as well as media superstars. Pricey elements remained (only the best of flights, accommodations, meals, and gifts for influencers), but Tarte added significant diversity to the influencers it invited.

Accordingly, this time around, Tarte received minimal public criticism. Tarte was instead praised for increasing the diversity of its guest list and launching a giveaway which would allow its customers to vie for a spot on the next Tarte trip. This endeavor expanded the exclusive guest list beyond influencers and celebrities, providing Tarte content consumers with a possibility to experience a once-in-a-lifetime branded excursion. Social media users excitedly vocalized their appreciation that Tarte had listened to public feedback.

Key Takeaways

Tarte Cosmetics succeeded at smoothing over – or, in makeup terms, “blending out” – its brand image by acting quickly and effectively in the media storm. No one approach works in every crisis, but the following tactics will generally serve a brand well:

  • Pick the field of battle, if possible (Glossy exclusive and Tarte’s TikTok account);
  • Communicate discreetly with stakeholders (TikTok response); and
  • Acknowledge shortcomings (Enhancing the diversity of those attending).