As told to Victoria Kirby
The e.l.f. Super Bowl commercial with Jennifer Coolidge: we did that in three weeks. From concept to shoot was actually two weeks, plus a week of editing. We pulled it off with what I call the three-step magic recipe: 1) put your head in the stars, 2) put your feet on the ground, and 3) move at the speed of culture.
This recipe originates from my upbringing.
I like to say that I grew up in the tension between reality and illusion. My mother lives with her head in the stars: a dreamer and eternal optimist whose glass is always overflowing. My father had his feet planted firmly on the ground: a realist and pessimist whose glass was always half empty. My mom was the unicorn to my father the bull — the dreamer to the realist.
This gave me a love for exploring how opposing forces can attain symbiosis. The tension between head in the stars and feet on the ground became my universal emotional truth. I’ve spent my life exploring this tension, and I’ve found it’s where the magic happens. When you bring together contrasting components, they become cohesive reflections of the surrounding world.
I’m originally from East Meadow, New York, a small town on Long Island. My parents are Italian and grew up in Brooklyn coming out of the Depression, so they didn’t have much. My dad was a electrician, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.
I’m the youngest of three girls and the first kid in my family to graduate college. My parents didn’t have savings for that, so I kept up my grades in high school because I knew I’d need a scholarship. And I always earned money to save towards college. I’ve been working in some capacity since I was 10 years old.
I went to college to become a businesswoman in finance, though I didn’t know what that meant. Growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by anyone in the kind of role I’m in now. My uncle was the only person in my life who wore a suit and carried a briefcase, and I was enamored by that. I wanted what he had, and I knew getting there would require going to college and carving my own path.
I chose Pace University because they were parked next to Wall Street and affiliated with the biggest financial institutions. During my senior year, my dreams of working in finance began to shatter when I started going on job interviews. The companies were all just so… sterile.
One day, I was leaving an interview with one of the big banks, feeling cold as an icicle from the meeting.
My dad called and said, “Hey kid, what would you think about working for Debbie Nuzzo?” Debbie was a client at my sister’s beauty salon in our hometown and the VP of Sales at Parfums Givenchy. I didn’t want help from anyone, and I had no desire to work in the beauty industry. I remember thinking, I am going to be a finance businesswoman, dammit! Why is my dad calling me about this? But after a few more frozen finance interviews, I warmed up to the idea and finally called Debbie.
She had me come in to interview at Parfums Givenchy’s offices on Park Avenue. As I stepped out of the elevator, everything was instantly different from my finance interviews. I opened these sleek glass doors into a reception floor that was all black lacquer and mirrors. As I approached the front desk, a stunning receptionist with a short, black, severe haircut and gorgeous red lips answered the phone and said in a thick French accent, “Bonjour, Pah-fuhm Gee-vanch-eee” and that was it. I was sold.
Givenchy hired me to work in their sales department, but I felt a gravitational pull toward marketing. I loved the storytelling, the brand building, and connecting with and understanding how to serve the community. Finding the magic at the tension between what the brands want to say and what the community aspires to. So I would complete my sales work as early in the day as possible, then I’d volunteer to help out in the marketing department.
A year into working at Givenchy, the then-head of marketing offered me a job as his assistant. I turned it down because, frankly, I found that insulting.
At that point, I’d proven my capability to do more. I would have happily taken a marketing coordinator job, but he wanted me to be his personal assistant. This wasn’t the first time in that initial year of my first corporate job that I felt belittled by a man in the corporate world. Which was jarring because I had viewed the corporate world as my ticket out of how I grew up, where women were constantly belittled and put down. Now I was in this job, living the dream, but facing the exact thing I thought I was escaping. So I made a choice at that moment not to be treated like a second class citizen because I’m a woman. And ever since then, I do whatever I can to ensure women never get treated that way in the workplace.
After Givenchy, I went to the Puig Group for a few years, then I moved on to Shiseido, where I worked for 18 years in various roles at different brands and on different sides of developing and scaling the business. My final Shiseido stint was at bareMinerals, where I was brought in as Senior VP of Marketing for the brand’s turnaround.
I left the prestige sector to become CMO of e.l.f. Beauty in early 2019 because I wanted to venture out of my comfort zone and open the best of what prestige offers to a larger audience. I also really wanted to work with Tarang Amin [e.l.f. Beauty’s CEO] and had been closely following his inspiring renegade leadership and what e.l.f. was busy disrupting while I was at bareMinerals.
The biggest difference in how e.l.f. serves the e.l.f. community is that we are our community. We’re not deciding what we think people should like. We are in our community every single day so that we can create a brand of the people, by the people, for the people. To do that, you have to be with the people. And no one spends more time with people than me.
The genesis of the e.l.f. Super Bowl commercial came from our community. They catapulted Power Grip Primer to stardom, and now it’s the best-selling primer in both mass and prestige and the number-one sku across all mass cosmetics. Power Grip was all over TikTok with nearly 70 million organic views, and I personally watched all the videos to understand what was making this product go viral.
What I found is that people were entertained by the primer’s sticky quotient. The community was calling it ‘sticky AF, sticky slime, sticky magic face potion,’ and so on. They were having so much fun with the stickiness, so how could we lean into that?
This is where my three-step magic recipe comes in. First, we put our head in the stars and asked, how do we open up the stickiest star in beauty to a wider audience? Let’s partner with the stickiest star in culture at this moment, Jennifer Coolidge, for an event that will have an enormous amount of eyes on it: the Super Bowl, which was three weeks away.
Next, we had to put our feet on the ground to turn this star-studded constellation into action. I surround myself with bold disruptors who have a proven track record of making magic happen quickly, so we joined forces with our PR agency, SHADOW; our media agency, Tinuiti; and Jennifer Coolidge’s team, and together we created a really sticky situation for primetime. And we did it at the speed of culture. Like I said, magic happens at the tension point between head in the stars and feet on the ground.
I read thousands of our community’s comments on social media every week. People say, ‘Can’t your team just give you reports on that?’ Sure, but then I’m not in the community — I’m up in my ivory tower. I want to be with the people in the moment, reading their emojis, feeling their emotions, watching the ping-pong matches that happen between the lovers and the haters. Finding the tension between ‘I want to love this product, but it’s lacking this,’ and ‘I love this product for this specific reason.’ That is what helps you shape and reshape a brand to best serve the unique needs, wants, and desires of the community — letting go of ego and control. e.l.f. is their brand, not ours.
I love that I can jump on TikTok and have conversations with thousands of people. For example, our community is begging us to bring back Jelly Pop Primer, so the other day, I got on TikTok and asked them to tell me all the reasons why, which they did. I said, ‘Okay, if you want Jelly Pop Primer back, you have to come with me on the journey.’ So, I did a live TikTok with our head of R&D, and next I’ll film a conversation with our head of operations so that our community understands what it takes to actually make the product.
At e.l.f., we call ourselves a bold disruptor with a kind heart because you cannot be a great marketer without empathy. You need a burning desire to understand the other person deeply. I want to understand not just that you want Jelly Pop Primer, but why. My conversations with our community run deeper than any report ever could. A report is one-sided.
E.l.f. was one of the first brands on TikTok because of a soul-to-soul conversation I had four years ago with my nephew and his 16-year-old girlfriend. They were showing me this new platform which, at the time, I’d never heard of, so I asked why they liked it so much. His girlfriend said, ‘Instagram makes me feel bad about myself. TikTok is where I can be who I really am.’
The next day, my team and I began playing around on the platform — this was back when no brands were on TikTok — and we discovered a hashtag, #elfCosmetics, with three and a half million posts. I said, ‘Our community is calling for us to be here! We have to get on TikTok now.’
We knew we had to go in with a bang, so we looked at what people were doing on the platform: they were singing and dancing. Then we realized from watching their videos that people had no idea that e.l.f. stood for “eyes, lips, face.” Okay, then let’s create an original piece of music inviting people to express their eyes, lips, and face. And that’s how we entered TikTok, by listening to how and where our community was calling for us.
In marketing, you have to identify those signals that stand out above the noise; it takes experience to hone these skills. I’ve always been anti-conformist and infinitely curious.
When I do press interviews and speaking engagements, people ask me why I openly share my marketing secrets. Well, because most brands would have to change their organization’s entire culture to implement what we do at e.l.f. It has less to do with price points or prestige versus mass — it’s all in our infinite mindset, renegade spirit, culture of innovation, and bias for action at speed. If what I share can inspire people to think differently and let go a little of that control that so many brands try to hold onto, it would benefit the beauty industry at large. I would love to see that happen.