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Critics of Tarte Cosmetics’ luxury launch don’t understand influencer marketing in the Middle East

Posted by Chloe James in Comment

2 weeks ago

Tarte Cosmetics officially takes the crown for most digital chatter so far in 2023. For the past week, the beauty brand has set TikTok and Instagram feeds alight with an influencer trip to the UAE, where the likes of Alix Earle, Meredith Duxbury, and Monet McMichael promoted its new foundation.

Pre-pandemic, audiences likely wouldn’t have batted an eye. MAC Cosmetics whisked influencers such as Jade Tunchy away to Tokyo for a lipstick-making workshop back in 2019, while Sarah Ashcroft and co jetted off to Mexico with Benefit Cosmetics. The destinations were rarely connected to the product in question; instead, creating a  spectacle was the focus – to launch a new product with an Instagrammable bang.

What set eyes batting about the Tarte trip is the timing. Influencers were flown in from across the globe via business class before arriving at the Ritz-Carlton, where they indulged in a gold-themed dinner party and the company’s founder, Maureen Kelly, announced its newest launch. What Twitter users – and an array of pieces on sites such as The Cut and Vogue Business – found distasteful, was an affordable beauty brand framing its newest product in such an OTT luxurious way, and especially in today’s economic climate.

They’re not wrong about the luxury part. According to the calculations of TikToker Jack Mac, the trip would’ve cost an approximate $65,000 (£52,500) per person, which  doesn’t exactly scream “we stand by you through a cost-of-living crisis”. But that’s the whole point.

Despite the inclusion of creators from beyond the Middle East, this existed to serve a regional audience. Tarte hosted the trip to Ras Al-Khaimah (not Dubai, as reported by most outlets) in collaboration with Sephora Middle East. The names in the headlines may be some of 2023’s hottest global influencers (hi, Alix Earle), but the bulk of creators there were regional beauty creators, such as Abeer Sinder, Layan Salem, Jay Sajer, Laila Mourad, and Haneen Al Saify.

And if there’s one thing that sells for their audiences, it’s luxury, as Mabel Goulden – podcaster, YouTuber, and founder of social agency Social Flex Dubai – previously told CORQ. “A lot of people still find the luxurious Dubai lifestyle fascinating,” she said in September 2022. “Generally, there’s still a preference for aspirational content.”

Tarte is just one example. This weekend, Atlantis The Royal marked its opening with a Beyoncé performance in front of seemingly the entire influencer population of the UAE (think Karen Wazen, Kris Fade, and Jwana Karim, plus Kendall Jenner) for $328,767 (£265,800) a minute. It followed the same recipe as some of the region’s most successful influencer collaborations: influencers with big followings combined with so much spectacle that it becomes a reference point for a memorable campaign.

There’s plenty to dissect when it comes to influencer marketing in a cost-of-living crisis. If this was a UK-focused trip, it would be a different conversation. But the lesson here is that what comes across as distasteful in one market isn’t necessarily so in another. As Forbes described it, the Middle East is a “haven of growth” for digital luxury marketing. You can’t fault a brand for leaning into the curve.

By Chloe James, Middle East correspondent for CORQ. Picture credit: Abeer Sinder via Instagram.