April 6, 2021
In episode 24 of Earned, Conor sits down with beauty industry titan Kory Marchisotto, CMO of E.L.F. Beauty and president of Alicia Keys’ skincare and wellness brand Keys Soulcare.
We start the episode by discussing how various social media platforms like TikTok, Twitch, and Instagram are trending, before diving into Kory’s background. We learn why Kory went back to graduate school after 10 years in the workforce—and why she recommends that path to others. Kory then shares her most important learnings and takeaways from her nearly two decades of experience at Shiseido, as well as her time at French luxury houses like Jean Paul Gaultier and Hermès, before revealing that a lesson she learned from Issey Miyake—“only be interested in what you do not know”—motivated her to explore a new space and bring her luxury experience to a drugstore beauty brand like E.L.F. Beauty.
We learn how Kory’s bias for action propelled E.L.F. Beauty’s early success on emerging digital platforms like TikTok and Twitch, and hear how Kory balances that bias for action with prioritization and focus. We then learn how E.L.F. Beauty prioritizes its new launches and “holy grail” products, before diving into the brand’s influencer marketing and community building philosophies. And of course, we close out the episode by learning the origin of Keys Soulcare, and hear how the brand is redefining beauty and building a community of “lightworkers” to radiate light and uplift others.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
Conor: When did you [develop your] bias for action and sense of urgency? When did that become something that you decided was important?
Kory: It's really funny, Conor, because it's always been there. It's just been 60 folks pushing the boulder uphill in my previous life, versus at E.L.F., I say it and it happens. So it's really extraordinary, actually. If I go back to my journey in my luxury days, especially in the French luxury houses, my nickname was actually Emergency Kory, everybody at Hermès called me Emergency Kory. Now you can imagine Hermès is a 175-year-old heritage house, Shiseido is I think 160 some odd years, so I'm working in organizations that were built through exactly what you're talking about—rigor, discipline, long time tables, lots of thinking and laying foundation and groundwork. And all of that is important and definitely necessary, but what was missing was the bias for action. So I always came in like a lightning bolt, which is what our CEO at E.L.F., Tarang Amin, calls me. So whether it was Emergency Kory or Lightning Bolt, I've always had this bias for action, because I understand the importance of the now. If you dream it, you have to do it. A dream without execution is empty—it's just a dream. And if you wait too long, the moment has passed. Timing matters. If you wait too long, it kills the dream.
When I think about E.L.F. and what we were able to do on TikTok and on Twitch, and even us jumping into Clubhouse and being early adopters, it matters. That timing gave us a real competitive advantage. And if I think about Covid-19, [I am so grateful] that we spent so much time before we even knew Covid-19 existed on building our digital strength at speed, because when Covid hit, we were already entering from a position of strength, whereas others were scrambling to try to figure out, “How do I get on TikTok? Because now everybody's on TikTok and everybody's on their phones, and we haven't figured out how to get digital yet.” So Emergency Kory and the lightning bolt, we’re lucky that we had that bias for action to drive all that stuff forward. At E.L.F. we call it E.L.F. speed.
Conor: So how do you think about balancing this bias towards action, towards newness, and focus?
Kory: When I think about why E.L.F. is thriving right now in a down industry, posting double digit growth in EMV and in all other key metrics when the industry is down, it's because of that bias for action, Conor. It's also because of fearlessness. And what you're talking about, that inspiration is perishable, that fire burns really hot, and we take that fire for that inspiration and innovation, and we put it out at speed. That is really what makes E.L.F. very different.
I would go back to the keyword, which you said, is balanced. When you work in an organization at speed, what you have to learn is how to balance is chaos and structure. You need chaos, you cannot move at speed without a healthy level of chaos, but too much chaos makes a mess at the end. So you have to find the right balance. How do I wrap a little bit of structure around this so that we can keep it moving very efficiently? That one is a key balance.
The other one is exactly what you said, how do you balance all of these innovative ideas with prioritization and focus? That's definitely not easy to do in the beauty space, where you have a lot of consumers who are drawn to newness, especially when you're a trend-driven brand. So what we were able to do is identify those big bets. What are those key items that we think are going to have a big difference in the lives of our consumers and bring them the highest level of positivity in their makeup journey throughout the day? Then we make sure that we are effectively putting the energy and the resources behind what it takes to get those big bets to really fly and soar.
So balance is critical. You don't always get it right. It's an iterative process to find the right balance. Sometimes you put too much cold water on the hot coals, and then you have to re-flame them to make people run faster. Sometimes you create chaos because you have too many ideas overflowing. You have to think about it as an iterative process and you have to constantly optimize. So I think as leaders, that comes from constant reflection and thinking okay, how did that go? What do I need to rebalance tomorrow? How do I iterate and get things back on track? And then you just constantly make those modifications. It's small modifications every day in a culture with a bias for action, versus a rearview mirror, six months down the road.
Conor: One of the things that we've noticed is that influencers are actually really hero-product driven. So for E.L.F., your 16HR Camo Concealer was close to 20% of all the content we tracked about the brand last year. How do you think about that? Because I think most people tend to focus on influencers and newness, it's like new, new, new, but that may not be what's driving the core. How do you think about the interaction of hero products and your influencer community? What's your approach there?
Kory: Yes, everybody wants to chase the shiny new toy. That's a very serious impulse that you have to think about, but it's a small part of the story. Sometimes what happens with brands is they make it the whole story, and everything's about the shiny, pretty new toy. What we like to do, and our philosophy at E.L.F. is, how do I use the shiny, pretty new toy to shine a spotlight back on the core collection? So if you think about a makeup regimen, almost all regimens have a concealer and a primer involved. So we make sure that our heroes, which are the Camo franchise and the Poreless Primer franchise, are at the center of everything we do.
If we're going to introduce a new makeup palette, great, but you still have to start with your concealer and your primer. So what we like to do is make sure that our holy grails have constant fuel and energy and that this excitement around new—which is great, we need the excitement around new—absolutely spills over back into the core collection and reminds everybody about our base business. That's a critical component of what we do. And our Camo Concealer is universal. We have an incredibly inclusive shade range. It's a high-performance concealer at a jaw-dropping value. So it's always on, and it's the same with our Putty Primer, it's always on. So we have our holy grails that we call “always on,” and then we infuse newness throughout the year to ensure that we're getting the spotlight and the buzz and the excitement.
Conor: Let’s talk about influencers. What are your general influencer marketing philosophies? If you were to look at the data over the last several years, E.L.F.’s performance has been super impressive. What are some of the core philosophies that drove that rise in the rankings to where you guys are now?
Kory: So I think the first one is very easy for me to think about, which is, influencers are not KPIs, they're people. They're friends of our brand, they advocate on our behalf, they love what we have to offer. We created something they want to be a part of. So nurturing the relationship is really the most important part. I think you can measure the success of a brand by the depth of their relationships. One of the things about E.L.F., which is very different from a lot of the other brands, is we never played the mega-influencer game. For us, it was never about going after the person who has the highest level of fame, and the biggest number of followers. What we knew with E.L.F. is, this brand is of the people, by the people, for the people, and for us, it was a micro-influencer approach.
One of the things that I saw early on that I thought was incredible when we were doing our Beautyscape initiative, which is our annual tentpole [event] where we use our platform to rise up emerging influencers, is [participants] all wrote an essay about their love affair with E.L.F., and what I kept seeing come up over and over and over was, “When I couldn't enter into the beauty space because it was too expensive, E.L.F. was there for me.” When you think about the power of that, everybody remembered their first experience with E.L.F. because it opened the door to a world they couldn't otherwise have access to. That's really powerful, that emotional connection to our brand. And even if one day they graduated to a Lancôme or a Tom Ford, they may have traded up at some point, but they still have E.L.F. brushes and they still have a love for the E.L.F. brand that they'll always come back to. So I think you have to understand what's special about your brand. What's the draw, what's the love affair, what's that connection? And then you have to nourish that and be honest with yourself about it because you want to be authentic. That's something that for us has always been that relationship [with our community], that generosity on both sides. Some brands treat influencers as a transaction, that’s not who we are or what we do.
It's always going to come back to the same place, which is that fundamental relationship and making sure that you're constantly giving your community what they want to see from your brand. And that's another thing that I love about E.L.F.—we never created E.L.F. as this vision of something that you need to aspire to enter into, which is what a lot of brands do. We constantly iterate E.L.F. to give our community more of what they want to see from us. We let them determine what our superpowers are, and then we lean into those superpowers—not the ones that we think are our strengths that we want to lean in on, the ones they think. So we're constantly having those dialogues with our community and with our influencer community, and we’re using our platform to raise up the emerging artists who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to have a platform that big to put their voice on. I think that's the way we've made those depths of connections. We've built those enduring relationships, and we created an orbit that people want to be a part of.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 23 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like ColourPop, Supergoop!, Gymshark, Huda Beauty, and Ulta Beauty, visit our Earned Podcast page.
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