5 tips on building a successful skincare brand, according to Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson

Drunk Elephant is all about keeping it simple.

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Drunk Elephant is all about keeping it simple.
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Courtesy of Drunk Elephant

  • Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson went from being a stay-at-home mom to a founder of one of the buzziest skincare companies in the US.
  • Business Insider spoke with Masterson about her experience building a successful brand and how she’s worked to preserve its mission as it looks to expand.
  • “The key is finding something that’s not out there that you really like,” Masterson said. “It doesn’t matter what it is if it’s filling a need.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the span of just five years, Tiffany Masterson went from stay-at-home mom to founder of one of the buzziest skincare brands on the market: Drunk Elephant.

With its vibrant packaging and whimsical name – the company moniker comes from a popular myth that says when elephants eat the fruit from Marula trees in South Africa, their stomachs ferment the food into alcohol and they become intoxicated – Drunk Elephant products have found their way into medicine cabinets around the nation. Since it hit the market in 2015, celebrities like Drew Barrymore have effusively shared their love for the brand, and fashion mavens like Leandra Medine have invested in the company.

In 2018, Drunk Elephant’s self-reported revenue was more than $150 million, derived from sales of its 20 total products online and in Sephora stores. We spoke with Masterson about her company’s meteoric rise and got her tips for how to succeed in the increasingly saturated skincare market.

Go big, with intention

After successfully partnering with Sephora in 2015, Drunk Elephant is now eyeing global expansion and experimenting with new retail concepts like pop-up shops in select markets. Masterson said she has been deliberate in the company’s international growth – Drunk Elephant products are currently available in the US, UK, Australia, China, and Hong Kong – in order to ensure the brand mission is preserved as it grows.

“I’ve never been one to launch in a bunch of places just to get the brand out there,” she said. “I’ve been very, very careful to stick with a main retailer and give that retail partnership my whole effort, energy, and time. When we go global, it’s very slow, one at a time.”

A Drunk Elephant pop-up shop in New York City.

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A Drunk Elephant pop-up shop in New York City.
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Courtesy of Drunk Elephant

For Masterson, maintaining Drunk Elephant’s mission as it expands has meant being mindful when selecting her team. Though she created the company from her kitchen table in Houston, Texas – where she still lives with her four young children – she currently has 100 employees based largely in major beauty hubs like New York City and Los Angeles.

“We don’t ever launch without people on the ground,” she said. “We really believe that we have our own people on the ground to maintain and support the brand so that we can make sure the vibe and vision remain intact. You don’t lose control of the brand that way.”

Keep it simple

Part of Drunk Elephant’s success is its focus on simplicity, a philosophy that Masterson herself embodies. She has spoken in the past about not regularly wearing makeup and she said she makes a concerted effort to integrate simple, clean products and foods into her lifestyle.

“Today people are just loaded down with so many products,” she said. “There’s the whole ‘shelfie’ movement with photos of 20 products at one time, and it’s really difficult to know what’s working and what’s not working when you’re using that many products. I always tell people who are trying to find a skincare routine to start with one or two products. Don’t worry about all the noise.”

Make it resonate

Drunk Elephant launched its first pop-up in New York City this summer, called House of Drunk, designed as a physical retail experience for tourists and residents alike to sample the products. Part of what Masterson prides herself on is the way that Drunk Elephant has managed to resonate across a wide array of demographics.

“We were really shocked to see just all walks of life – young boys, girls, men, married couples, children, families,” she said. “We saw all ages, all demographics, which is what we see on our website and on social media, but it’s a different thing to see it in person and to really experience it. Everyone from the 13-year-old son to the 85-year-old grandmother is using the brand.”

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"So I’ve been using #DrunkElephant for over a month now. Before using Drunk Elephant, I had heard so much about it and didn’t understand how any products could be so good. I now understand. I have two absolute favorites from the range. The #BHydra serum and the #CTango eye cream have completely changed my skincare routine. I’ve noticed such a difference in my skin and I love it! My skin feels softer, brighter and the dark circles are less noticeable. Their products truly are amazing. Thank you so much Drunk Elephant!" – @tayloredskincare #barewithus????⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Want to be our next #barewithus???? beauty? Tag us in your selfie video with your full DE routine! As always, use the hashtag #barewithus???? in your bare-faced DE selfies—we'll be gifting our favorites DE goodies every month!

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Part of the widespread appeal is in the brand’s design – by eschewing certain traditional substances and fragrances, it avoids falling into the stereotype of being a “girly” product, she said.

“You think the consumer doesn’t want a product that doesn’t smell pretty, but actually the consumer does want a product that doesn’t smell pretty,” she said. “So I removed those things and I think it differentiates us as a brand and that’s what’s really resonated with my consumer, and that the products work.”

Own up to what you don’t know

Masterson isn’t too shy to speak about her nontraditional rise through the beauty ranks, beginning with selling Arbonne beauty products and later a bar cleanser, the latter of which she found large-scale success with before discovering it was part of a larger multi-level marketing scheme.

When it came to creating her own company, she started by envisioning what she wanted in her own products, ultimately boiling it down to what she didn’t want. She compiled a list of items she found particularly harmful to her own skin, dubbed the “Suspicious 6,” and started learning about making formulas that didn’t include essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, sodium lauryl sulfate, and fragrances and dyes.

Read more: 11 clean skin-care brands that vow to never use questionable ingredients

At every stage, she said it was critical as someone so green to the industry to build out a support system of employees with beauty expertise and the skills necessary to help her with her vision.

“I have industry veterans who have already been there, done that,” she said. “I hire people around me to do and to know what I don’t know because I don’t know it all. I’m not an industry veteran. I’m still in Houston, Texas, and I view myself as outside of the industry, so I have to rely on people who know what they’re doing.”

Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson.

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Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson.
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Courtesy of Drunk Elephant

Fill a void

While it can be hard to imagine there’s much uncharted territory left in the skincare industry with today’s overwhelming volume of products, Drunk Elephant was one of the early companies to embrace what Masterson calls the “clean compatible” movement.

Though clean beauty – a movement that avoids toxic chemicals and uses organic products – is now a major part of the beauty industry, Drunk Elephant was unique in starting with just a few simple offerings. Masterson said the major selling point of Drunk Elephant is its dedication to bio-availability, or the ability for a formula to enter the skin and have an active effect.

“The key is finding something that’s not out there that you really like,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what it is if it’s filling a need. It’s like the Spanx lady – she was filling a need for herself and then it turned out there were a lot of people just like her that had the same need. That’s what happened with me. I didn’t have to say that I can try to get in the head of the consumer because I am the consumer.”