CMO Insights: How A Cosmetics Brand Achieved Beautiful Growth in An Ugly Economy.

an interview with
Ted Rubin Chief Marketing Officer, e.l.f. cosmetics

When Ted Rubin grabbed the reins as CMO of e.l.f. cosmetics in 2008, he knew he was going to have to be inventive.  “There’s not a lot of margin in a $1.00 cosmetic,” he noted in my interview with him last week.  “I simply didn’t have a budget for paid media,” he added.  Yet despite this limitation, in just under two years Ted was able to help the company significantly increase its sales in one of the worst recessions in history, providing a textbook case for any aspiring guerrilla marketer.

1. Listen Up

Anyone who’s ever met Ted knows he’s a great talker who prides himself in responding to any query from any person as fast as humanly possible. BUT what they might not know is that he’s also a great listener, and he made listening his first priority when he arrived at e.l.f.  What he learned in his first 90 days provided the foundation for his subsequent success.  Scouring the web, Ted found hundreds of fans across multiple channels, many of whom provided invaluable feedback — feedback that he continued to seek as ideas began to percolate.

2. Sniff Out an Insight

Up until recently, e.l.f. cosmetics were sold mainly online, direct to consumers at an unbelievably low price point. Therein lay the challenge.  Even bargain hunters asked, “How could a one dollar cosmetic be any good?”  Ted realized that this rampant skepticism could not be overcome by any company messaging, and in fact would require extensive word of mouth in which one consumer reassured another that e.l.f. is indeed a high quality product.  Fortunately, during Ted’s listening period, he had found hundreds of delightfully chatty fans dispersed all over the web.

3. Hug Your Fans

Though e.l.f. had been early to the blogosphere, in late 2008 they had almost no presence on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.  So this is where Ted started, zealously responding to any mention of e.l.f. and engaging customers with instructional content that emphasized conversation over sales pitches.  In the process, Ted discovered hundreds of consumer-generated videos that featured e.l.f. products and consolidated these on a branded YouTube channel and created a hub for them on the distinct url.  During the course of 2009, e.l.f. became a social media powerhouse, accumulating in excess of 50,000 Facebook fans, over 50,000 Twitter followers (including Ted’s presence), and an astonishing 2.3 million+ views of user-generated videos!

4. Hold the Right Hands

Lots of brands pay lip service to the influential blogging/micro-blogging community by parsing out chunks of content they hope will be repurposed.  Ted took a far more personal approach, “nurturing each relationship” to the point that many became his close friends.  They also became a sounding board for ideas, one of which became the “Make Up at Home Parties,” a program that delighted the targeted bloggers so much that after 70 such parties, there is a waiting list of 250, and a galaxy of party-related content including text, pictures, Whrrls, and video that has been shared and shared again by thousands upon thousands of e.l.f. fans.

5. Tap into Metrics

As e.l.f.’s social media efforts were starting to take hold, Ted realized that “just building a large base of fans was insufficient.”  He needed to understand who was really engaged and if/how this was affecting sales.  Fortunately, the news was good.  As the fan base grew, so too did traffic to their online commerce site from social media sites, 75% of whom ended up being new visitors.  These new visitors demonstrated their commitment by buying product and signing up for the e.l.f. newsletter.  In fact, the e.l.f. database nearly doubled to 2.3 million by the end of 2009, a metric that was music to the ears of the company’s owners AND prospective marketing partners.

6. Reach for Partners

One of the ways Ted was able to stretch every precious marketing penny was by partnering with a host of brands with shared interests.  Conde Nast’s Allure Magazine provided content and gifts for the House Parties while the network of product testers and bloggers helped find party hosts that would spread the word. was the perfect partner for a marketing contest called the “New Face of e.l.f” which sought out 4 models of various ages. Viral by design, contestants garnered over 800,000 votes supported by 40,000 pictures that in turn gained 35,000 comments.  With results like these, it is little wonder marketers like Virgin Mobile and Warner’s Bra along with J.C. Penney reached out to e.l.f. for more cross-promotions, most of which cost e.l.f. next to nothing.

7. Kiss and Tell

In the 4th quarter of 2009, e.l.f. was suddenly in 1700+ Target stores with a 4 foot end-cap. For a primarily online brand this was a huge retail expansion. “Target was totally enamored with our social media presence,” noted Ted, who suddenly had a “currency” he could exchange not just with other marketers but also retailers eager to share e.l.f.’s social media cache.  Marveling at how quickly the product sold once in Target, Ted noted, “A good part of what we built in social media enabled that to happen.”  With over 400 blog posts about e.l.f. entering Target, 2000 retweets of the new retail presence and customers snapping photos of product flying off the shelf, Target was so thrilled with the results it helped e.l.f. secure a permanent in-line presence in a significantly larger percentage of stores in early 2010 than originally planned.

Final Note: Early in his career, Ted worked for “America’s Greatest Marketer” Seth Godin, who by then had already co-authored The Guerrilla Marketing Handbook. Clearly Ted learned at the feet of a master, one who instilled the guerrilla credo that inventiveness and elbow grease can make up for a small budget every time.  Ted is taking that same spirit of inventiveness to OpenSky, introducing Relationship Commerce, and something he says “will change the face of e-tailing.” Ted is also a proud member of The CMO Club.

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