I don’t wear makeup. It’s never been my thing.
But when I hit the chair in a suite in the Plaza Hotel in New York, I felt like an excited child. A professional makeup artist applied a combination of Tarte’s Sundown and Heated eye shadows to my lids. I was going for a smokey eye bold enough to fit the state I’d be in later that evening, gyrating to Beyoncé’s soaring live vocals at MetLife Stadium for her Renaissance concert.
The whole experience was set up for me to feel this way.
On an unseasonably pleasant afternoon in late July, a group of 13 contest winners and their plus-ones (and one reporter) arrived in New York for “Trippin with Tarte,” a three-day whirlwind that included a stay at the Plaza Hotel, sightseeing adventures and box seats at Beyoncé’s sold-out concert.
The trip was something of a departure for the brand. Tarte typically spends deep in the six figures to fly influencers like Alix Earle to locales like Dubai or Turks & Caicos. The posts from these trips can generate billions of social media impressions, enough that the makeup brand doesn’t spend any money on traditional marketing like billboards, commercials or online ads.
Tarte’s contest was conveniently timed after a series of controversies surrounding the brand’s traditional influencer outings. In January, online commenters called Tarte’s trip to Dubai tone-deaf amid growing recession fears. In May, some non-white creators said they received inferior accommodations compared with white influencers on the same trips. Tarte refutes the latter claims, and Bria Jones, one of the influencers who made them, later chalked the incident to a “miscommunication on both ends.”
Tarte’s executives told The Business of Beauty that the decision to invite customers, rather than professional influencers, to its Beyoncé-centric getaway was unrelated to the recent backlash.
Still, the content pumped out by the two dozen non-influencers at the Plaza unquestionably performed double duty. It read as relatively authentic amid a vast sea of polished sponsored posts and potentially helped restore trust among jaded Gen-Z customers.
To a point, at least. Tarte didn’t entirely abandon its old formula: while the group of nursing students, budding entrepreneurs and college kids bopped to Beyoncé, another group of professional influencers, some with 1 million followers or more, enjoyed the show in a separate suite. The two groups mingled only briefly; it’s not clear if all of the pros knew the contest winners were there.
Tarte executives told The Business of Beauty they don’t set engagement targets for trips like this. But they are well aware of the stakes. These events are the brand’s primary way to generate buzz, and how they are received by fans is critical. Some of the biggest players in beauty are also watching to see whether Tarte puts its controversies behind it before reinvesting in their own influencer strategies, said Conor Begley, chief strategy officer at influencer marketing platform CreatorIQ.
“[Brands] are seeing this and going, ‘If they had done this or that right, this would have been really successful, and maybe we should consider doing this again too,’” Begley said. “Although [Tarte is] a warning sign, they are also a little bit [giving] permission.”
Tarte was one of the first and most successful brands to harness the influencer trip when it flew top creators like Patrick Starrr and Desi Perkins to Turks & Caicos in 2015. Other brands like online retailer Revolve and Benefit Cosmetics were also early adopters of the format.
The trips were perfect for getting unique posts from top influencers, effectively making small brands appear bigger than they were. But Tarte’s approach made influencers and consumers alike covet its excursions.
Tarte brought their trips back fairly quickly after a Covid-induced hiatus and gained a new following among Gen-Z consumers, who were enthralled with creators riding camels in Dubai or lounging on tropical islands.
Maureen Kelly, Tarte’s founder and chief executive, has been the gravitational force on the brand’s outings since the start, attending every single one. Her gregarious, self-effacing in-person demeanour is meant to embody the brand’s community-oriented ethos.
At times, Kelly’s charisma has failed to translate online; however, when she responded to Jones’ allegations in a TikTok video, some users called her tone dismissive and her explanations — “Not every room can be the same” — deflective.
Those controversies seem to have largely blown over. Tarte’s hashtags on TikTok and Instagram are back to being about their latest product releases. However, the brand needs to tread carefully because influencer trips are Tarte’s primary marketing vehicle, and still how the brand finds and holds onto its customers.
Its Turks & Caicos excursion in the spring netted over $7 million in earned media value from its #trippinwithtarte, according to data from CreatorIQ. That was well above the $4 million and nearly $3 million in EMV from Tarte’s other hashtags, #tartecosmentics and #tarte, respectively, during the same period.
A Path to Redemption
Tarte’s executives say the Beyoncé trip was in the works for almost a year, predating controversies that framed the brand as exclusionary and wealth-obsessed.
The mix of the attendees gathered at the Plaza Hotel before the concert felt like a direct rebuttal to those accusations. There were healthcare workers, teachers and small business owners.
Tori Terrell, a 25-year-old nurse from Atlanta, discovered the brand’s Shape Tape concealer in April on TikTok; she brought along her mom, Kellye Terrell, an entrepreneur. Ayden Reading, an 18-year-old business marketing and biology student at UC Berkeley, said he had long been wearing Tarte’s blush before entering the “Trippin with Tarte” contest.
When I met up with the group in Times Square on a Sunday afternoon, they were taking turns posing for photos and making funny TikToks with Kelly and the company’s mascot: A large bottle of the brand’s Shape Tape concealer. There are no posting requirements on any of the brand’s trips, but naturally attendees posted on social media, starting with their business class flights to New York.
Playing influencer for a day was harder than I thought: I unsuccessfully tried to video myself grabbing a branded “Tartelette” pizza box.
Kelly was everywhere. When she found out that Tori’s mom Kellye has a fledgling candle business, she shared her own struggles growing a business and nudged her to apply for Tarte’s $300,000 grant that will be awarded to 21 Black women entrepreneurs. Kelly later announced that she will display Kellye Terrell’s candles at a future event.
“We’re always trying to expand and gain new customers and help people understand what Tarte’s heart is,” Kelly told me.
One Concert, Two Trips
Tarte also invited a group of professional content creators to see Beyoncé. The influencers and contest winners were in different suites at the concert. Earlier in the day, when I asked how the brand expected the mingling to go, the Tarte team said they would just let things flow. I saw little interaction or formal introductions between the two camps, although at least one of the contest winners’ spouses got a pic with Maureen and three creators.
The company later said the trip was not for community members to meet influencers. It may have been a missed opportunity. The established influencers spoke about the trip in the same awestruck tone as the students, nurses and candle entrepreneurs. Melinda Melrose, who appeared on the second season of Netflix’s “Too Hot to Handle” and has 1 million followers on Instagram, told me she had long dreamt of going on one of Tarte’s getaways when the brand reached out to her to attend a trip to Turks & Caicos in April.
She said there was less pressure to post content on a Tarte trip relative to other brand events she’d attended. Melrose was unaware that the trip in question was for customers when I told her but said she wishes more brands would do such outings.
A New Legacy
Tarte social media content that was posted from the weekend long community excursion generated around $53,000 in earned media value, according to influencer marketing analytics firm Lefty. Tarte netted $91,000 in media impact value, according to Launchmetrics. Many of the attendees had less than 10,000 followers and some of their social media accounts are private, which affects the volume of posts that analytics firms are able to measure, Launchmetrics said. For its part, Tarte said its social impressions were up more than 200 percent during the community trip and engagement increased more than 50 percent across its social media channels.
Still, the media value from the consumer-centric trip is a fraction of the traditional influencer outings. It begs the question: if a makeup brand hosts a brand trip and no one sees it on social media, did it really happen? But the nature of the contest suggests that the numbers aren’t the point. When the brand announced the giveaway in April, around 1,000 people sent applications, where they described how they lift others up.
Those contest winners were more than satisfied with the experience. They all promised to follow each other on social media and promote everyone’s endeavours. Tori Terell recounted the midday glam sessions before Beyoncé as a high point of her experience, where the attendees mingled over champagne and helped one other assemble their outfits.
”It really just showed how genuine everyone was in the group,” she told me through a direct message on Instagram after the trip. That impression was a lasting one. “I am definitely including Tarte more in my makeup routine.”