In Ep. 33 of Earned, Conor sits down with Adeline Leong, CMO of fast-growing clean makeup brand Kosas. The brand, which touts “makeup for skincare freaks,” has gained impressive momentum among the online beauty community, particularly after Adeline joined the executive team at the start of 2020. Kosas experienced a whopping 238% YoY EMV growth in 2020, followed by a 13% YoY increase in H1 2021.
We start the episode by exploring Adeline’s own professional journey: after earning degrees from MIT and Wharton, Adeline jumped into the beauty world. She worked her way up to Director of Makeup Marketing at L’Oréal, and served as VP of Integrated Marketing at Sephora and CMO of influencer-favorite skincare brand Tatcha before becoming CMO of Kosas. We learn why Adeline, a self-proclaimed “awkward teenager” with little interest in makeup, decided to pursue a career in the beauty industry, and hear why she loves the role of CMO.
We then dive into the differences between working at large and established companies and smaller, up-and-coming brands, and Adeline shares advice for how young brands can best position themselves for sustainable growth. We learn why Adeline is a “huge believer” in product sampling, before she explains the origins (and results!) of Kosas’ innovative, new “Tryouts” sampling program. Next, we switch gears to recruiting, and discuss Adeline’s strategies for bringing in fresh talent, before she shouts out the beauty industry leaders from whom she’s learned the most. Finally, we close the show by unpacking Adeline’s organic and authentic approach to influencer marketing—a philosophy that has spelled stand-out success first for Tatcha, and now for Kosas.
We’ve included a few discussion highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, listen to the podcast below, or tune in on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“Know what you stand for, where you want to go, and what your roadmap is to get there”: Adeline Leong’s Advice for Young, Fast-Growing Brands
Conor Begley: Over the last five years, you've been part of brands that are in pretty aggressive hyper-growth phases of their existence. When you are at a brand that's growing 50-100% year over year, what's different about that versus your days [at more established companies]? I would assume that Sephora wasn't growing at that rate and L'Oréal wasn't growing at that rate while you were there. What have you noticed in terms of challenges, differences, approaches that have made you successful in those environments?
Adeline Leong: It's such a good question. I'd say when you're at a big place, like a Lancôme at a L'Oréal, the game is so different because it's all about market share and keeping your market share and keeping your leadership role, and the increments that you can do that in are smaller because you're already so big. If you're a billion-dollar brand in the U.S. or a three-billion-dollar brand, your focus is a little different because you really have to make sure that you're expanding a consumer base that's already so big. Whereas, when you're a small brand, it's so much harder to prioritize because everything is an opportunity.
So I think the most important thing in your early phases is really understanding what things are going to have the biggest impact right now, while having a vision of what you want the brand to look like in the next three years. You're constantly trying to think short-term, long-term, short-term, long-term, because otherwise you could just drown in every opportunity, because small brands also have everyone coming your way. Do you want to do this partnership? Do you want to do this giveaway? Do you want to launch at this retailer? I think it's so important to really know what you stand for, where you want to go, and what your roadmap is to get there, and then of course be flexible so that if TikTok explodes, you can you go jump on TikToK, and [make sure] you're not only thinking about the future, but that you're ready to do the short-term.
So then that foundational piece is pausing to say, do you know what your brand DNA is? Do you know what your values are? Do you know what your product strategy is? Do you know what your pricing strategy is? I think a lot of small brands are running so fast that they're just sort of on a hamster wheel, and I think the brands that are really smart sort of pause, get that executive team in, have those conversations, and maybe miss a beat for a few months, but that can really propel you for the next few years.
“Makeup is so hard to buy online”: Unpacking Kosas’ Innovative “Tryouts” Program
Conor Begley: You've been in the press quite a bit about sampling recently. I'd love to hear a little bit about what that looks like for you, what your thoughts are broadly about sampling, both retail sampling like at Sephora, as well as the subscription box programs. And after that, I’d love to hear a little bit about the “Tryouts” program Kosas is doing and how that's going.
Adeline Leong: I'm a huge believer in sampling. I think some of it is because my first role at Sephora was Director of Marketing and really running the sourcing of Beauty Insider sampling, which stayed with me in my teams for over six years. So, you know, I drank the Kool-Aid, but I also saw the numbers and I saw the internal numbers that brands don't even see, which are phenomenal. The return on investment is there. The key though is, to your point, don't give away the product that isn't working. It has to be the right product and in the right hands.
We used to tell brands at Sephora this all the time, where you would see their sampling strategy, and they would say, “I have a hundred thousand samples I'd like to do on X product because it's minus 30%.” And we'd always say, “We hate to tell you this, but a hundred thousand samples is not going to make it plus 30%.” Maybe it'll make it minus 20%, but it's not going to change the game. From a Boxycharm perspective, I think of that differently than Sephora. I'd say Boxycharm is this incredible brand awareness driver, and so it's thinking about who's that audience, what's the right hero product to put in their hands, where you're okay with the quantities that they take and you think that the impact is going to be there when the content gets created, because that's what Boxycharm is doing.
For Sephora, the sampling strategy is really part of your selling expenses. You're looking at, “What am I trying to sell and what do I need to do to support it to get there.” And so I really think if you have the right products in their hands, the money is well spent. So I'm a huge believer in that.
Kosas Tryouts is a little bit different. It's still in this vein of sampling works, but for us, what we've been trying to think about is, makeup is so hard to buy online. It's just so hard, and virtual try-on, I was at Sephora when we launched the amazing virtual artist tool, but the reality is, you can get a sense, but it's not the same. Putting an AR filter on yourself is not the same as trying a product on in real life.
The other frustration is when you get a sample from Sephora and let's say it's complexion, you only get eight shades maybe out of 40. And I know for myself, I have an unusual complexion, so my shade is usually not there. So I can feel texture, but then I need to go in-store and actually find my shade. So for us on e-commerce, the question was, how do you just make it easier for [the consumer]?
We have the benefit of being a really small line. We don't have a ton of SKUs, so [we were like], let's let her try everything. What the program looks like is you can buy a sample of anything on our site and you pay for the sample, but it comes back to you as a site credit. So you could argue it's free if you use your site credit, and that person comes back and she can use her site credit to buy something better.
For us, the important thing is that she has the confidence in converting, and you lower your returns so there's actually less waste. Some people argue one-time sampling is wasteful, but the amount of returns the beauty industry gets is also really wasteful. So we're really trying to just help [the consumer] buy online. It’s a little different than the hero product strategy, because everything that's available [on our site] can be sampled. But it’s more about, let's get [the product] in her hands and she can opt in. So she's choosing what she wants to sample versus someone who's choosing random packets at Sephora checkout. They're a little bit different, but they're both equally important.
Conor Begley: How is that going? You've talked a little bit about the performance right now, but what effects have you seen in terms of end results?
Adeline Leong: The demand has been incredible and what's been interesting is the consumer response. It's such a simple idea in so many ways, but there have been so many TikToks and social posts and reviews around, “Why hasn't anyone done this before?”.
That's what we talked about internally. We're like, no one's done this, let's do it and let's see. That's the amazing thing about being at a small brand too, is you can swing for the fences, and if it doesn't work you go on, and if it works you make it bigger. So we've seen great response, great conversion, lower returns, really everything that we wanted and we have some good feedback. I think the key with sampling now is all the talk about how you lower waste, so that's what's on our minds. How do you make sure that you're minimizing [product] returns enough that it's still a great opportunity to share with your friends what you don't use. All those types of things are really important and on our minds.
Conor Begley: I love that they have to pay the money too, because just a little bit of commitment adds value to it, right? Versus, I just got this for free and I'm going to throw it away. Even though they buy it and immediately get the credit to buy something else, there's that little bit of commitment that makes them more interested in actually using it, which is super interesting.
Adeline Leong’s Winning Approach to Influencer Marketing
Conor Begley: Let’s talk about influencer marketing. The two brands that you've been at have been amongst the best, if not the best, performing brands that we track. Tatcha was the number one brand—not when you started, but when you left—in EMV from a just pure influencer coverage perspective, and then Kosas is growing incredibly fast, I think over 100% year over year, multiple years in a row, particularly since you've come around. So what's the secret sauce? What are you doing that nobody else is doing?
Adeline Leong: That I think might be trade secrets. We’re using Tribe, is that why you asked? No, here’s what I would say, and I think this actually goes a little bit with why I do think that people in the beauty industry share secrets to some extent, is I think you can share strategies, but so much of it is about what's authentic to your brand, and how do you build it, and how does your founder interact with people, that at the end of the day, you can't actually copy each other very easily, even if you kind of wrote the playbook for someone. So I think that's what's interesting about beauty.
On the influencer front, it's kind of like how we were just talking about recruiting, in that it's all about people. It's building your tribe, which I'm guessing is how you guys named the company. So much of it is finding who authentically loves you. That’s what we're obsessed with—getting product into as many people's hands as possible to discover who loves you, who shares your values. It's really important to us that what we stand for is in line with what they believe in, and nurturing those relationships so that it's a two-way street, and you're not a brand that's always like, “Hey, I have this thing that I want to pay you for,” but it's instead like, “Hey, what do you want to do? How can we help you? Where do our goals match?”. [Influencers are] just like an extension of your company, and it's all about relationships. That's the number one thing.
I think that you could write a million strategy playbooks, but if you don't fundamentally have people who understand your products and what they do, you might get those [short-term] spikes in EMV for a month if it’s a hero product, they love it, it's a good product. But I think that long-term effect of how Tatcha stayed at number one in EMV for years, that comes from real love and loyalty and retention. It’s not a secret sauce, but it's an approach. We're small, so, you know, Tatcha never paid anyone. Everything is organic. I do believe that there is a role for [paid partnerships], they’re influencers and it's their job, so I absolutely believe that they need to be paid, but I do think that it's a mix, and it starts with the organic relationship before it moves into anything else. So data's a piece, and we use [Tribe Dynamics] religiously. But it’s art and science—and relationships. That's the number one word.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 32 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Gucci, ColourPop, Gymshark, and Summer Fridays, visit our Earned Podcast page.