Was Tarte’s influencer trip Dubai tone deaf or great press?

As a brand, is it smart to carry out an influencer campaign which involves an all expenses paid campaign in the midst of an economic downturn? That’s exactly what American beauty brand Tarte did only last week. 

The campaign consisted of an all expenses paid trip to Dubai for several beauty influencers namely TikTokers Alix Earle, Monet McMichael and Meredith Duxbury. Users were excited about the trip and its high-profile attendees. But others felt an opulent trip to Dubai was inappropriate when the US and Europe are facing an economic downturn. “Am I the only one who thinks this is a really weird marketing move from Tarte?” asked TikTok creator Lindsay Borow, who has over 21,000 followers (the video has 56,900 views). “I kind of feel they’re being a little tone-deaf. In this economy, it’s so unrelatable.”

Produced in collaboration with Sephora Middle East, the Tarte trip, which ends Saturday, flew guests on Emirates business class from across the US and Europe. The influencers are staying in private villas filled to the brim with Tarte makeup, plus gifts and goodies from other brands. TikTok users debated how much the flights would have cost (at the time of writing, a return business class Emirates flight from New York to Dubai costs $13,254, per the airline’s website). 

In regards to the brand’s comment on the backlash, Tarte founder and CEO Maureen Kelly is aware of the response. “This isn’t our first trip, but I can, of course, understand how people may have a knee-jerk reaction to seeing content overload like this,” she says via email from Dubai. 

In recent years, Tarte is recognised as digital focused brand with one of their lip products going viral on TikTok last year. To continue on this point, Kelly stated “every day, brands make decisions about how to spend their marketing budgets. For some companies, that means a huge Super Bowl commercial or a multi-million-dollar contract with a famous athlete or musician […] We’ve never done traditional advertising, and instead, we invest in building relationships and building up communities. We hope that as people see what we’re doing together and what we’re all about, they’ll understand and have a stronger connection with Tarte.” Sephora Middle East declined to comment on the trip. 

TikTok creator Melis Cifcili (@homewithmel), a beauty strategic planner herself with 31,400 followers, cleverly remarked that there is no such thing as bad press. She posted that she thought the trip would help Tarte boost awareness and ultimately sales, despite being “tone deaf”. “Returning to my laptop after 1.5 hours of laying on my roommate’s bed talking about Tarte’s Dubai influencer trip,” another user wrote in a video that’s hit 43,300 likes and 450,000 views. 

On another note, podcaster Jack McGuire’s tongue-in-cheek “investigative journalism” video questions how Tarte can afford such a trip. “The economics of this trip do not make sense,” he says in his first video, which reached 4.3 million views. In it, he suggests the trip is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per influencer. 

McGuire speculated that the United Arab Emirates government paid for the trip in a second video to boost Dubai tourism. Tarte says there was “definitely no involvement” from the UAE government or tourism board; Dubai was chosen because the Middle East is one of Tarte’s fastest-growing markets, Kelly explains, and the brand will make donations in every attendee’s honour to Middle East-based charities focused on education and advancement of women around the world.

To revoke his point, TikTok creator Tess Barclay calls the trip “genius” and predicts the cost will be offset by the brand awareness it creates. User-generated content is useful in generating virality for a brand. “I used to work in influencer marketing — this is not expensive for Tarte”. 

To conclude, Joe Gagliese, CEO and co-founder of social media agency Viral Nation, provides a balanced point of view. He notes that brands at the affordable end of the market should still remember that their consumers are worrying about mortgage payments, food prices and gas costs. “The brands that develop ways to connect with communities that are being most impacted by the shifting economic crisis will be the brands that consumers continue to support and build an emotional connection with,” he says. “Influencers play a role in not only educating consumers but also being a medium for change, and that can be a perfect vessel for brands to conjoin messaging and reach their target market authentically.”

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