Soon after Maureen Kelly, chief executive officer of Tarte Cosmetics, founded her business 24 years ago, she got a startled phone call from her Irish mother.
That’s when Kelly learned that “tart” doesn’t always refer to a tasty dessert. In Europe, it equates more with sex workers.
“I wanted Tarte to be a healthy treat for your skin,” she explained at Fairchild Media Group’s SXSW activation, The Wear House. It was an effort to address concerns over topical ingredients that make it into the bloodstream.
“Fast forward, many years later, we’re one of the top brands all throughout Europe. So it kind of worked out. But you can imagine her surprise,” she said of her mother’s reaction. Apparently omitting the “e” in the URL conjured up a very different content. “She was like, ‘Maureen, what in God’s name did you do?!’”
Kelly’s parents wanted her to secure a degree and land a “safe” job, so she was on her way to a Ph.D. at Columbia University at one point. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was the wrong path for her. She was always passionate about beauty and thanks to her mom’s upbringing on a farm in Ireland, the family relied on natural or home remedies instead of artificial or processed concoctions. She thought that was pretty common.
She later learned it wasn’t, especially when she started reading makeup labels filled with unpronounceable chemicals. The animal testing bothered her, too, given the family’s farming background.
So she changed course. Her parents weren’t thrilled about her giving up the safety of a traditional career, she recounted. But now, with two dozen years in business under her belt, the “queen of concealer,” as she’s now known, can say that following her instincts has paid off.
It’s easy to forget, because of Tarte’s online popularity, that it was founded before there was a Facebook or Instagram. It started out as a small business powered by credit cards, word of mouth and print magazine clippings tacked on physical vision boards. In hindsight, with its verve, values and inspiration, the brand was like a social media darling in the making. It was just waiting for the technology to catch up, so the world could catch on.
Eventually consumers did. According to Kelly, the inflection point happened when Tarte’s Double-Ended Lip Gloss was named as one of Oprah Winfrey’s favorites.
“That was iconic,” she said, recalling the list. “It was still in my one-bedroom rent-control apartment on the Lower East Side [in New York]. So we hadn’t quite made it.” The scrappy beauty start-up sent samples to Gayle King, Winfrey’s best friend, who passed it along. “Once that made the list, it just skyrocketed.”
Tarte places a high value on genuine enthusiasm and that translates in various ways. It relies more on organic sharing over paid social media, for instance, as a signal that people love the brand. They get excited when the company amplifies them and Kelly finds other ways to show appreciation as well. A famous example is a recent trip to Dubai that nearly broke the internet.
A fan base of high-profile TikTok influencers were invited to celebrate the launch of Tarte’s new foundation product. Social media users found the details endlessly fascinating, from the business-class seats to the personal villas and, of course, all the beauty products and other freebies.
It’s not just about rewarding fans with prizes and travel. Kelly also sees a role in lifting up young people, whatever their aspirations are, inside or outside of beauty. So the company created a program called Tartelet University.
“We mentor all these young women, help them with their LinkedIn, help them with their future endeavors, for getting jobs and whatnot — not necessarily just at Tarte, but anywhere, whether they want to be a lawyer, or go into finance or product development.
“We also have so many different levers. [There’s also] an all-female cooperative in the Amazon that harvests a lot of our ingredients.”
An audience member asked Kelly for her best advice on breaking through on social media. It’s ironic, because she hasn’t even had personal accounts until recently. Once again, family members are agog about her online presence, only this time, it’s her kids who find it cringey.
“So we all feel awkward about it. You just have to do it, and some of them are gonna hit and some of them are gonna miss,” she said. “But just launch a TikTok, because I think that that’s the best way to just go viral.”