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Makeup and Burritos: Why e.l.f.'s Purpose-Driven Marketing was Made for 2020

While 2020 has drastically accelerated e-commerce and contactless shopping experiences like curbside pick-up, it has simultaneously reignited a need for deeper connection between humans and brands.

“The competitive brands are the ones that realize they need to activate their purpose now,” says Debra Sobel, Managing Director at brand purpose agency Verity London. “In the long term, they will gain.”

There aren’t many companies who live their purpose better than e.l.f. Cosmetics. As a Gen Z favorite, the cosmetics brand is well aware that nearly 3 in 4 Gen Zs prefer brands who support a social cause. “If you don’t stand for something, you don’t exist with this generation,” Chief Marketing Officer Kory Marchisotto said in an interview with AdWeek.

e.l.f. is deeply in-tune with the needs and attitudes of their audience, and their products, content and actions are brilliant because of it.

Let’s start with e.l.f.’s Purpose....

e.l.f. believes that everyone should be empowered to express their truest selves and that brands should do right by people, the planet, and animals. Their products are 100% vegan and cruelty free, and e.l.f. embraces cultural moments to expand this purpose beyond ingredients and sourcing.

From influencer-backed donations to animal charities, to raising money for the It Gets Better Project with rainbow makeup bundles, e.l.f. finds authentic ways to support self-expression and doing right. All of their efforts are both powerfully and playfully outlined in a Gen Z-friendly content hub called e.l.f. Cares, which now includes resources for education and action in support of Black Lives Matter and COVID relief.

e.l.f. also excels where so many brands miss the mark - in taking internal actions that align to their external values. 72% of Gen Z says they judge a brand on how it treats its employees, and e.l.f. consistently does right by its own people. During COVID, they sent safety care packages to employees (beginning with those in China) and are keeping team spirits high with hilariously themed Town Halls (‘quarantini & chill’ to ‘kids art competition’), which customers can see on e.l.f. Cares.

Now, on to those brilliantly customer-centric campaigns.

Dancing with Gen Z on TikTok

The lesson: Pick platforms that are authentic to your audience and brand.

TikTok is quickly becoming the hottest new social media platform, with popularity exploding in the US after their merger with in August 2018 and even more so today thanks to stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

e.lf. Cosmetics leaned into this changing media landscape and built an organic presence on the platform early on to test what resonated with users. In October 2019, e.l.f. decided it was time to invest in a paid campaign as TikTok was a natural place for them to authentically connect with their Gen Z audience. In order to drive greater awareness of their core brand positioning (e.l.f stands for every eye, lip, face), they launched the Eyes.Lips.Face. Hashtag Challenge. The challenge was an instant success and became the fastest-ever TikTok campaign to reach 1 billion views. To date, there have been over 5 million video submissions and over 6 billion views.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, e.l.f. Cosmetics modified the challenge to Eyes.Lips.Face.Safe. By repurposing the viral hit to a COVID safety theme, e.l.f. was able to help raise awareness of the simple preventative measures people can take to help stop the spread. Marchisotto told AdAge “The key component here is to fuel it in flight. If you see something take off, give it the life that it needs to run further.”

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Not every brand needs to immediately jump on the TikTok train and the decision to do so should be based on brand fit and authenticity. For e.l.f., testing emerging platforms in order to reach customers is core to its DNA as a digitally native brand, Marchisotto told AdWeek. “What’s critical for us is...who is our target audience and how do we find the right channels...all of the data points told us that this is the right place to lean in.”

Making Burrito and Makeup Magic

The lesson: Know your audience so well, that you can surprise and delight.

While a makeup and burrito collaboration seems strange to most, the teams at e.l.f. and Chipotle, knew it was something that their Gen Z followings would love.

e.l.f. and Chipotle teamed up to create a beauty kit featuring best selling makeup products and a Chipotle gift card, all wrapped up in a foil-looking makeup bag. The limited edition kit was part of a larger campaign that addressed one of Gen Z’s most top-of-mind pain points in May - no prom. It included a Virtual Prom Afterparty hosted by Chipotle and a $25,000 scholarship.

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When it comes to the evolving pandemic, the generic “we’re in it together” messaging of March and April is no longer an option. Winning brands will be specific and thoughtful in addressing their own audience’s experiences now and throughout the rest of the year.

Stepping up with Skincare

The lesson: Seek feedback and listen deeply to adapt to 2020’s evolving dynamics and emotions.

Earlier this year, e.l.f.’s leadership team seriously considered postponing innovation and canceling product launches in fear that promoting new products would feel tone deaf amidst the global crisis. But before making such a drastic decision, they turned to their customers, as they always do, to gut-check this feeling.

Feedback from their trusted communities and social listening made it clear that makeup lovers wanted more, not less, from e.l.f., and warmly welcomed the positivity and distraction brought on by new products. That feedback, as well as insights from Google Analytics, contributed to e.l.f.’s lean into skincare, as customers wear less makeup while staying home. “Consumers have a need for wellness, and these launches did better than I initially expected,” said e.l.f. CEO Tarang Amin. e.l.f.’s skincare business is up 27% for the fiscal year.

Creating a diverse set of feedback loops is key to any brand’s 2020 success, as consumer needs will continue to evolve almost every week. Relying solely on one feedback source - like social comments - puts you at risk of hearing only one set of voices. Some brands diversify with SMS surveys (which have a higher open rate than emails). Others, like handmade boot makers Tecovas, create invite-only Facebook groups with top customers to garner insights beyond public pages. Whatever tools you use, look for patterns in the feedback and expand your vantage point by exploring free tools like Google’s retail trends during COVID and Pinterest trends.

More Brands that Inspire Us

Despite living our lives from a 6-foot distance, 2020 has become the year of human connection. Here are a few more brands who consistently demonstrate a deep commitment to their purpose and understanding of their audience:

Read more about Canvas+Co and follow us on LinkedIn for more #elfingamazing campaigns and ongoing industry updates.


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