“Eyes, Lips, Face”: How E.l.f. cosmetics built its brand on TikTok

When it comes to TikTok, success is about being culturally relevant.

Think of TikTok and the “Flip the Switch” or “Wipe it Down” challenges may come to mind. 

But “Eyes, Lips, Face,” a branded content play by E.l.f. Cosmetics, is likely the first case study marketers turn to when trying to achieve viral success on the platform. 

The beauty brand was one of the first to see the potential for building its brand on TikTok, beloved by Gen Z, when it launched the hashtag challenge last October. 

E.l.f. already had an organic presence on the platform when it decided to pursue it as a strategy, said Gayitri Budhraja, brand VP at e.l.f. There were already 3 million views against an e.l.f. Cosmetics hashtag before it officially created an account.

Partnering with independent agency Movers+Shakers, e.l.f. decided to get on TikTok “in a way that felt distinct and platform native, and would engage the community in the way they wanted to engage,” Budhraja says. The idea was to combine the brand’s qualities with what would work on TikTok, resonate with the community and stand out.

The timing couldn’t have been better. According to Evan Horowitz, CEO of Movers+Shakers, you could “count on two hands how many brands had tried anything on TikTok.” No one had done an original song for a TikTok campaign at the time.

“Creating original music for brands was something we’ve done since our agency’s founding in 2016,” Horowitz says. “We saw how important music is to the culture of the platform and the community there.”

So e.l.f. worked with Movers and Shakers to develop an original song, called “Eyes, Lips, Face,” which blew up immediately. When people began searching for it on Spotify, the team decided to extend it into a full song and eventually created a music video. 

The success was indisputable: it was the fastest campaign to ever hit 1 billion views—in 6 days. It was the first piece of branded content to ever hit #1 in TikTok’s organic trends, and it continues to grow, with more than 6 billion views to date and more than 5 million user generated videos created as part of the challenge. The campaign even gained unsolicited organic support from celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Lizzo as it spread across other social channels.

E.l.f.’s success was thanks to using TikTok is a way that felt natural to its users -- something not many brands were doing at the time.

Now, people associate the song with e.l.f., even though it wasn’t overtly branded. And the brand hasn’t stopped there, doing everything from adapting the song for a Covid PSA (“eyes, lips, face, safe”) to developing a TikTok reality show, where users get a chance to be coached by top beauty influencers. The show, called “Eyes, lips, famous,” ran for a month on the brand’s TikTok channel.  

“It’s about being culturally relevant,” Horowitz says. “What is the overlap between what the brand stands for and is trying to do, and what’s relevant right now in the community?”

The efforts have paid off: in the last 18 months, e.l.f. has gone from the sixth to second highest rated beauty brand for teens, according to investment bank Piper Sandler's latest "Taking Stock with Teens" survey, proving it’s not just a one hit wonder.

Alison Weissbrot contributed

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