The TikTok Strategy Behind Winky Lux’s Viral Moments—And How It’s Turning Them Into Long-Term Business Wins

When Winky Lux launched seven years ago, it seemed tailor-made for the makeup moment. The beauty industry was adjusting to fast fashion’s speed, social media and an online selling model, and Winky Lux, which labeled itself the “Zara of cosmetics,” was constructed with direct-to-consumer distribution to whip out new products within 45 days to respond to and instigate trends amplified on feeds.

Seven years later, Winky Lux seems tailor-made for a very different makeup moment. Omnichannel has become the distribution model du jour, and Winky Lux has diversified its reach with a Target rollout in 2020 and an entrance into Ulta Beauty this year. Also carried by Anthropologie and Macy’s, the brand, which has raised roughly $9 million in funding, is on track to generate in excess of $50 million in 2022 sales, according to industry sources.

After a period of serious skincare and self-care, consumers are in the mood for fun—and Winky Lux is offering them a huge dose of it. “We are all about clean ingredients with a high joy factor,” says Natalie Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Winky Lux parent company Glow Concept. “The brand hits you over the head with a lot of extraness. There’s kittens on the packaging, flowers inside of lipstick, and blush that’s shaped like a rose.” Even Winky Lux’s name shared by Bichon Frise celebrity canine Winky of Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show fame and “Best in Show” Norwich Terrier parody pup Winky is apropos following a year that saw pet ownership increase by some 14%.

But Winky Lux being a makeup brand of the moment isn’t sufficient for Mackey. She’s out to challenge major makeup players for longevity. Beauty Independent talked to Mackey about staying relevant, seeding TikTok success, running a commercial during “The Bachelorette,” opening stores, and why Glossier’s business never made sense to her.

Has Winky Lux changed since it started?

The core values and the mission are the same. The customer has changed, though. Beauty customers are different than they were six years ago. We started as a DTC brand, and we were pretty passionate about keeping the direct relationship with our customers early on. Before omnichannel was hot, we spent a lot of time with our customers and asked them questions about their lives and different steps in their beauty buying process. It was really clear that they liked to buy beauty products in person.

We did a series of pop-ups to understand the customer that were really disruptive and wild. We had a lot of crazy experience rooms that celebrated different products. They were packed all the time. This was all pre-COVID, of course But we discovered that joy could happen not just in our own store, but in someone else’s store.

We ended up partnering with Target to launch the brand nationwide. That was guided by customers, and now we have expansion into Ulta. You know how they say, “Kill your darlings.” It was a moment for us as a company that we could hold onto this notion that everything had to be online or we could be where our customer wanted to buy. So, we killed our darling.

Winky Lux co-founder and CEO Natalie Mackey

Winky Lux has had two products go viral on TikTok recently: Peeper Perfect Under-Eye Concealer and Cheeky Rose Highlighter. What’s made the brand successful on the network?

This is my favorite thing to talk about. I’m very analytic, and I need to have a strategy and process, but TikTok is a black box. It’s very hard to manufacture virality. That’s a nightmare for someone like me. The way we look at it as a company is almost like an index fund. It’s like you are betting on the entire market.

We have an evergreen seeding strategy where we are constantly sending out products to TikTokers and creating inspirational content for them. You will bet you will have one or two viral moments every month. What’s crazy is that normal people go viral on TikTok. That’s a huge benefit for us because we have a lot of superfans who think of Winky Lux as a lifestyle and almost like a friend, and they sometimes go viral.

It’s completely different from Instagram, where it’s so pay-to-play, and you can quantify how much you will see going forward. You have to have a broader TikTok strategy, that’s my hypothesis, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Of course, people bubble up authentically who love the brand, and those are some of our most valuable relationships.

I’m not an influencer, and we have a good social media following—almost 500,000 on Instagram and 100,000 on TikTok—but, when you compare it to the mega brands, it’s still small, so we are relying on our customers to tell the story of Winky Lux, and that’s been the way we have built the brand.

How do you turn a viral moment into a longer-term business win?

When our rose blush went viral, it sold out everywhere. It’s an amazing product, but how many blushes do you own? Not that many. When is the last time you ran out of blush really fast? That’s not really the case with blush. We were really adamant when that happened to migrate customers to stickier product categories. If you bought a rose blush, odds are you got samples of Peeper Perfect Under-Eye Concealer or Uni-Brow Precision Eyebrow Pencil, which is our No. 1 product and very sticky.

The good news is that the most recent product that went viral was Peeper Perfect, possibly from the sample campaign, we don’t really know. I would think the big, smart companies have that strategy as well. They would want to migrate their lip customer over to complexion, for example. I think brands sometimes get siloed into one hero product, and it’s our job to figure out how to make sure the customer knows to come to us for her other problems.

Winky Lux began with a fast-beauty model. Has it retained it as it’s entered large retailers?

We still test about 30% of our products through a fast model. So, when we think a trend is going to be really hot, we oftentimes do a run of 1,000, put it on our website and offer it to our loyal customers to see what the reaction is. Those usually can be done by one of our local labs.

Particularly if something is a little odd, we try to do it online first before we commercialize it for Target or Ulta because those bets are really big. Also, if we think something has an incredible visual story, it can be fun to put it online and see what will happen, even if we don’t think it’s going to be a big seller.

We have an incredible amount of requests for lavender color-correcting primer that you use underneath concealer. We could never really commercialize it for retail because it’s a really expensive formula. So, we couldn’t really offer it to Target or Ulta. We discontinued it, but we are bringing it back online to service our super loyal customers.

How does the brand stand out in a crowded retail environment?

We have 15% unassisted awareness, so we are still a nascent brand when it comes to people knowing who we are. Eight times out of 10 when I’m at a cocktail party and tell someone I run Winky Lux, they don’t know what it us. We have splashy displays that are points of curiosity in stores. I go to Ulta and watch people in the stores interacting with the display. You can see people are curious to see what it is because it’s so wild looking. It’s really disruptive in the space.

When we first launched at Target, I would sit and watch people walk by and look at product, and I could see they were confused. We have bulked up some of our font sizes, and we have created more simplistic messaging for some of the products. Everything starts with the purpose filter that it had to be so beautiful that you would want to keep the box and product casing even after the product is gone. So, if it isn’t that pretty, we shouldn’t make it.

The problem sometimes is we went to form over function, and we got to a place where it was illegible. It was this pretty jewel of a box, but nobody knew what the product did. We had to straddle the line of making sure people can see it, read it and know what they are looking at and not just, oh, this is a really pretty box, but I can’t read the teeny tiny font and figure out what Orange You Bright is. It’s an exfoliator and our No. 2 skincare SKU, and it’s really amazing, but, if you can’t read it, it’s hard to buy it.

Winky Lux has had two products go viral on TikTok recently: Peeper Perfect Under-Eye Concealer and Cheeky Rose Highlighter.

What role do you see for Winky Lux stores?

We love our stores. We have one store right now in Nashville. We closed our New York store during COVID. We are reopening the New York store in the fall, and opening Charleston and Austin over the next 12 months. I love, love, love our customers that come to the store because it’s a really great place for us to tell the full brand story. Also, our stores are very creative and Instagrammable. They are very fun. They are designed for groups, so people can come together and play with makeup together. They can have a whole makeup journey with each other and take really fun photos.

Our stores drive a lot of organic content for the brand, and our store customers are three times more likely to become a 5-year customer. It’s about having a professional color-match you, so you see this beautiful tinted moisturizer that now you can’t live without. Even in a store where there’s samples, it’s not the same as the experience in our store where you have someone dote on you, show you all the cool innovation and how to use it.

With the iOS 14 update, what’s been your advertising approach?

You have to be laser-focused about where every dollar goes, and Target ad Ulta are big accounts that need a lot of love. Thankfully, TikTok is performing. We’ve moved all of our Facebook spend to top of the funnel like commercials or TikTok, where we do some paid, but it’s mostly influencer marketing.

The commercials are really interesting. We use remnants, and it’s been pretty great. We’ve seen a positive ROAS overall. We did one non-remnant commercial at “The Bachelorette” rose ceremony. That’s the ladies’ Super Bowl, so we knew we would get a lot of beauty customer eyeballs. Those are big brand moments that you can’t be too thrifty about. We did see some big brand lift, but we can’t do it all the time, just once in a while when we feel more flush.

How do you think about profitability versus growth?

I think about profitability and growth as the stress test I put on an initiative. If it’s not profitable at scale, can you justify it? Acquiring a customer at $200 for $50 is not real. You can’t model that out to infinity. Can you invest in brand awareness campaigns that will pay off in 12 months? Yes, as long as you can quantify them, and you can make sure they’re the real thing.

The other thing, too, is whether or not it serves the customer. There’s a lot of fun things to do in beauty, but will each of the dollars you spend on serve the customer? Can you trace them to something that will make her happier, more loyal and more excited? It seems very abstract, but it’s actually very specific. For instance, if you’re going to build out a retail store, can you justify that enough customers are going to see joy from that?

What’s your take on what’s happened with Glossier?

They have an amazing brand, and it definitely knows what it is, but the stuff I’ve read about the brand and many DTC brands didn’t make sense to me when I read it. It turns out that it didn’t make sense because it wasn’t real. It’s very expensive to acquire customers online. People in the middle of the country didn’t know about these brands. If you ask someone in Michigan, “Do you know about this hot new VC-backed brand?,” many times they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about, and they’re fighting against behemoth companies that have 100 years of brand equity and making statements about selling a billion in cosmetics online.

Our customers were telling us the opposite. There were a lot of moments where my business partner [Nathan Newman] and I kept saying, “Am we crazy? Are we doing something wrong?” We have lots of friends in the industry—CEOs and digital marketers—and no one seems to have the silver bullet. Brands have always taken a long time to be built. It takes a long time to create an intimate relationship with a brand. So, the numbers just didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t imagine that they could acquire the customer in Ohio so much cheaper than I could.

I feel that there’s a little bit of a reckoning here. I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel good to feel like I wasn’t crazy. It came down to asking the customer a lot of questions and understanding her well. Also, I’m from Savannah, Georgia. Getting a Target in Savannah was a really big deal, so I know how that customer feels. I think she likes shopping for beauty. It’s not like shopping for fashion.

When I shop for clothes, it can be fun for the first hour, but, oftentimes, it’s just a big hassle. I don’t want to take off my clothes and try 50 things. Shopping online is an amazing solution for that, but, if you ask a group of women, “Do you want to go to Sephora?,” you would get a bunch of hands. In beauty, e-commerce doesn’t solve for friction the way it does in fashion or other industries.

After originally focusing on direct-to-consumer distribution, Winky Lux entered Target in 2020 and Ulta Beauty early this year. For 2022, it’s on track to generate in excess of $50 million in sales, according to industry sources.

How do you make sure Winky Lux stays relevant?

It’s really a constant obsession with the customer and what is making her happy, not just what a trend report says is going to be the new hot thing, but really looking at what she cares about, what inspires and excites her, and what makes her feel good. It’s our job to make sure our customer has a pop of fun in her day, and we take that job really seriously. We joke that we don’t cure cancer, but we make the people who cure cancer look really great.

Trialing and testing is big for us. We don’t have millions of active customers, but we do have enough where we can get a real scientific sample of what is and isn’t going to be an interesting product. I think that gives us an edge. We are going against huge, huge companies. Estée Lauder, Unilever, L’Oreal and P&G are big old companies. We’re not going to beat them on distribution, cost of goods and brand spend, but where we can beat them is getting a product out to market quickly and speaking to our customer without 85 layers in between.

The Glossiers of the world are amazing, but, in the grand scheme of the beauty business, they’re tiny. We want Nyx’s lunch, not Glossier’s. We are taking customers from Clinique, not trying to out cool other indie brands.

What do you think the makeup shopper wants today?

I think we might be leaving no makeup makeup land. I don’t know that we are going back to artistry right away, but I think we are dabbling into, “I want to look hot and spicy.” A lot of people haven’t been outside for a while, everyone is seeing each other again, and I think people are excited to look good. Skincare had this big moment for the past few years, but our customer is really shifting toward color again.

When we asked our customer, “Why are you buying more color?,” one of the things that was said multiple times is, “I have a lot of skincare in my cabinet. It’s not that I’m not interested in skincare, it’s just that I bought a lot during the pandemic, and I need to get through it.”

People are still interested in their skin. They spent two years getting educated about skincare. I think there will be a lot more emphasis on hybrid products even more than before the pandemic. People are caring about skincare ingredients when they’re buying products.