Drunk Elephant Founder Tiffany Masterson's Journey To Becoming A Beauty Mogul

In 2009, Tiffany Masterson was stay-at-home mother of four in Houston, Texas. In a 2018 interview with Fashionista, she told reporter Stephanie Salzman, "My mom was a stay-at-home mom and had four children, and I really just wanted to do the same thing. But around the age of 40, I started getting antsy. ... I started looking for a way to make a little extra money." She began by serving as distributor of a Malaysian facial cleansing bar, thanks to a buy-in from her brother-in-law. 

The bar was a minor success; it was featured in Harper's Bazaar and got attention from the direct-to-consumer product company Guthy-Renker. However, Masterson eventually realized that the bar was being sold via a multi-level marketing scam; furthermore, it received a one-star review at Beautypedia in which the reviewer wrote that the ingredients didn't live up to their promises. "I saw the thing with Beautypedia and that really stung me. ... So I went back to my investor and I said, 'We need to shut this thing down. I want to do my own.'"

Drunk Elephant's name refers to marula fruit

As Tiffany Masterson told Fashionista, a consultant from Guthy-Renker encouraged her to start her own line, as she had learned so much about skincare during her time selling the Malaysian bar soap. She began the line with six products, including a chemical exfoliant, a vitamin C product, a sunscreen, a moisturizer, and two cleansing bars. Her criteria for ingredients included being "nontoxic or low-hazard and it has to be bioavailable, meaning able to get into your skin." In 2012, per Forbes, she began the process of testing ingredients and products. 

The name "Drunk Elephant" refers to the marula oil found in the original moisturizer; the oil is derived from the African marula tree, the fruit of which is rumored elephants drunk when they eat it. Marula oil is extracted from the kernels found within marula fruit; South African people have used it as a moisturizer for generations, as reported by Gro Intelligence. In 1999, word spread regarding the oil's efficacy, and a group of Namibian women created the Eudafano's Women's Cooperative (EWC), allowing marula oil to be produced and commercialized on an exponentially larger basis. The Body Shop was the first company to work with the EWC. Among the oil's many positive qualities is how easily and quickly it's absorbed by skin; in other words, it has the bioavailability Masterson was seeking for her products.

Tiffany Masterson worked directly with a chemist

Tiffany Masterson's brother-in-law invested $300,000 in her new business, per Forbes, and Drunk Elephant launched in 2014. A second investment from her brother came a year later, and he took on a position as president within the company. The brand wasn't an instant success. In a 2022 interview with Glamour, Masterson recalled that "there were a couple of retailers who I really thought would be a dream come true. I didn't get in them. They rejected me. At first you go, 'Gosh, oh no, that's such a setback. I'm so devastated.' But it really helps chart your course." 

Per Fashionista, she soft launched Drunk Elephant on her own website in 2013 and "took that year selling it on my website and getting feedback." She also partnered with and worked alongside a chemist to perfect the products' formulas, remembering, "I sent over the ingredient decks I'd been working on. [The chemist's] assistant called me right away like, 'These are already ingredient decks, are you a chemist?' I said, 'No, I'm not, I'm a stay-at-home mom in Houston, Texas. I just want to make these products.' She was like 'Wow, I showed them to the chemist and we think they're really interesting and different and actually really good.'"

Drunk Elephant became a Sephora star

Sephora eventually reached out to Masterson after the brand had gotten some press and asked her how to categorize the line. As reported by Fashionista, Masterson "told them it was a new category: nontoxic, clean." After an encounter at the Cosmoprof trade show at which she sent Sephora representatives home with samples, they reached out to her and began stocking Drunk Elephant in 2015. 

Per Women's Wear Daily, in January 2017, Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial launched and within a week became the best-selling skincare product on Sephora.com and the site's sixth best-selling product overall. Masterson told WWD that Babyfacial was inspired by a traditional enzyme peel which always made her break out, so she developed her own peel with fruit enzymes and glycolic and other acids. She also discussed the idea of "clean clinical," which is how she classifies Drunk Elephant's products, noting she uses both natural ingredients as well as "really good" synthetics high in antioxidants.

Avoiding the suspicious six

The six ingredients Tiffany Masterson avoids are essential oils, which can inflame skin, silicones, fragrance, chemical sunscreen, drying alcohol, and sodium laurel sulfate. "I'm not using ingredients that are going to get rid of your acne," she explained to WWD. "I'm thinking of it backward; I'm going to ask you to stop using the ingredients that created it to begin with, and then you use my products to prevent it from happening again."

After the release of Babyfacial, overall brand sales increased by 600% to $30 million in 2016. Forbes estimated that in 2017 Tiffany Masterson's personal stake in Drunk Elephant was worth $25 million. By this point, Masterson had brought on minority investors including Leandra Medine (above, center, with Masterson to the right), then-editor and founder of the influential fashion and beauty website Man Repeller, and San Francisco private equity firm VMG Partners. Masterson spoke with WWD about the investors, explaining "The company is still a majority family-owned company. ... [We] eliminated the strategics [companies as potential investors] right off the bat — not forever, but for now. The company is too young. We have more to do and I'm not ready to sell the company." 

Preventative skincare

Rumors swirled that Estée Launder as well as L'Oréal were interested in acquiring Drunk Elephant, and Masterson confirmed to Women's Wear Daily that she had been in talks but hadn't committed to selling. She once again emphasized Drunk Elephant's difference from other skincare lines, saying "It's more than a skincare brand. ... [It has] a health and wellness message. I think the trend in the future is toward preventative nutrition — and that's with diet. But that's how I view Drunk Elephant, but for skin."

Tiffany Masterson's messaging about Drunk Elephant working in a similar manner as elimination diets, in which you switch to a very plain diet and reintroduce foods slowly to see which ones are causing inflammation, is a savvy way in which to cultivate the brand's exclusivity as well as consumer loyalty to Drunk Elephant. On the brand website, the About Us page claims "We think of Drunk Elephant as an ingredient-elimination philosophy for a total skin reset. Using these products exclusively is the best way to get maximum results." There's even a brand hashtag, "#drunkbreak", which is clever enough to be memorable and works ironically, as a "drunk break" sounds like something extremely unhealthy, but in this case it's being used to advertise the possibility of skin "so smooth and even and glowing that you can go without makeup." 

No expense spared on branding and development

Tiffany Masterson takes the common issue of sensitive skin and instead claims skin is actually "sensitized" via exposure to what the company's About Us page calls "irritants and sensitizers" and offers a proactive solution — buying and relying on Drunk Elephant alone to upgrade and reset one's personal skincare routine. In a 2019 interview with Lifestyle Asia, Masterson mentioned the "suspicious six" ingredients she avoids, explaining "I landed on the suspicious six after a lot of trial and error and research. ... I found these six categories of ingredients to not only be totally unnecessary, but also potentially problematic for the health and function of the skin organ itself."

Another secret to Drunk Elephant's success was the amount of money Masterson put into branding and development while the company was still new. She explained to Lifestyle Asia, "I decided early on that I would spare no expense on quality of ingredients, design, packaging, formulations, chemist, website, and people. I believed that if we acted big and successful, we would become that way." What she did not spend money on, however, was advertising, preferring instead to let consumers to do the work of spreading the word about the line, noting, "We've relied on word of mouth and grew the brand without a single advertisement and we've never paid an influencer. The social following didn't grow the brand, the efficacy of the products grew the social following."

Bringing clean beauty to the mainstream

Drunk Elephant features instantly recognizable minimalist packaging, featuring clean, matte-white containers with chic, colorful lids that look great all lined up together on a shelf, and an introductory basic range of products that allows consumers to gain familiarity with the brand and get excited when new additions to the range eventually appear. Per Fashion Monitor, employees monitor the brand's performance on social media and use reviews from the public within their own Instagram posts. They may not pay influencers, but they are aware of them; in fact, Babyfacial was actually launched on Instagram and made available exclusively to Sephora VIB Rouge members before its public Sephora debut.

"Clean beauty" is an industry standard now; as of this writing, Sephora has its own clean makeup and skincare options, advertised on their site as "affordable clean beauty," as well as a page devoted to "Clean Meets Clinical," a term Masterson is credited with coining to describe Drunk Elephant. In an interview with the Malaysian beauty website Pamper, Masterson noted "There were no other 'clean' brands out there when I launched Drunk Elephant. Drunk Elephant is clean, as all brands should be, but in my opinion, 'clean' is not nearly enough when it comes to caring for skin and hair. ... We never take into account whether something is synthetic or natural, instead choosing ingredients based on biocompatibility."

What exactly is clean beauty?

Tiffany Masterson tapped into consumers' desire for "clean" skincare at the exact right time. She was also savvy enough to come up with her own definition of what she means by "clean" — that ingredients are "bioavailable," or easily absorbed by skin without causing inflammation, as well as "biocompatability." As she explained to Pamper, "I have isolated both safe naturals and safe synthetics and my formulas contain the right percentages of actives at the ideal pH levels, making the ingredients easy for your skin to recognize, absorb and use." 

Per a January 2023 article in The New York Times, "clean" doesn't really mean anything when it comes to skincare and makeup. British skincare influencer Caroline Hirons told the Times, "If you ask 10 different people what clean beauty means, you'll get 10 different answers." The article traces the "clean beauty" movement back to 1990s Southern California, where the concept took off along with that of "clean eating" — and perhaps this is the reason Masterson compares taking a "#drunkbreak" and using Drunk Elephant products exclusively to reset skin to an elimination diet. The Times notes Tata Harper, who started her eponymous skincare line in 2007, is "widely considered the godmother of the clean beauty movement." Harper told the Times, "At the time, natural skin care was not really made for a serious skincare client like myself. That's when I realized I had to create my own line because there were no options."

Clean beauty is big business

Tiffany Masterson's definition of "clean" is a little different. She makes no claims about only using "natural" products, and indeed calls out her use of "really good" synthetics. She also lists essential oils, which presumably rate highly in many people's definition of "natural," as one of her "suspicious six" ingredients that she avoids. Another big name in the "clean beauty" arena is the website Goop, founded by actor Gwyneth Paltrow in 2008 as a "homespun weekly newsletter," per the site, which claims to "curate the best in clean beauty." (It's now worth $250 million, according to MoneyMade.) The New York Times quotes the Goop definition of clean beauty as "products made without ingredients shown or suspected to harm human health or that of the planet" and reports that Goop's own skincare line uses ingredients that "are at least 99% natural." 

Regardless of its lack of cohesive definition, "clean beauty" is big business, a business that Tiffany Masterson has mastered with Drunk Elephant. According to a Brand Essence trends analysis report released in December 2022, the clean beauty market was valued at $6.46 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach $15.29 billion by 2028. Brand Essence's definition of clean beauty is similar to that of Tiffany Masterson: "Clean beauty means toxins-free and green beauty products that need not to be necessary organic and naturals. These products have transparent labeling of ingredients, and [are] safe to use on [the] face, eliminating the skin damage due to chemical."

The power of social media

As Drunk Elephant's popularity increased, founder Tiffany Masterson and her employees continued employing the techniques that brought them to the forefront of the competitive, well-saturated skincare market. As explained via Fashion Beauty Monitor, the brand still monitors social media platforms and will use Instagram to directly respond to customers' questions and concerns, "thus making their way into the customers' inner social circles and daily routines" by literally meeting people where they are. In a 2018 interview with Fashionista, Masterson said, "I make it a point once or twice a week to pick up the phone and call someone who's emailed in to Drunk Elephant. That's the most genuine way to grow your business because they lob questions at you. You get the real-time feedback."

Furthermore, another advantage of keeping a small, tightly edited line of products available is the subsequent ability of Drunk Elephant to respond quickly to customers' needs and requests for new or improved items. After customers complained about the traditional screw-top jars that housed the brand's Lala Cream, Drunk Elephant started packaging cream in the airless pumps used for other products, including Babyfacial. Another example is the reformulation of the Umbra sunscreen with an improved texture and lack of white cast on the skin post-application. If a brand has a history of not only responding to and acknowledging customers' requests but actually making the changes desired by users, users are more likely to show loyalty and continue purchasing the brand's products.

Did Estée Launder nearly buy Drunk Elephant?

While Tiffany Masterson was not eager to sell Drunk Elephant to a larger company too soon, it was part of her plan from the get-go to get acquired. In March 2018, Masterson told Fashionista, "My goals were kind of pie-in-the-sky: I was like, I'm going to do this product line and I'm going to sell it. ... I told my brother-in-law, 'Let's just do this line, get it into Sephora and then let's sell it to one of the big cosmetic companies.'" Successful independent makeup and skincare lines "attract potential investors like blood in the water attracts sharks," per WWD, and Drunk Elephant was no different. The aforementioned potential Estée Launder takeover of Drunk Elephant raised a lot of interest in 2016. Estée Launder had done extremely well in the past by acquiring Victoria Beckham's cosmetics line. Other prominent Estée Launder acquisitions include the By Killian and Le Labo fragrance brands. 

However, it wasn't meant to be. As Masterson told Fashionista, "But as I've gotten further down the path of doing this, I don't feel the need to sell it [soon]. I'm sure I will one day." When asked if she would stay on after an acquisition, she answered, "I don't think you can just sell something that you've worked this hard on. My heart is in it; I feel protective of it. I don't want to just sell it and have somebody come in and change things."

When Shiseido met Drunk Elephant

After several years of rumors and quotes from Tiffany Masterson about not yet being ready to sell to a larger company, in October 2019, cosmetics conglomerate Shiseido announced that they were buying Drunk Elephant for $845 million. According to Forbes, the deal netted Masterson $120 million. It was one of the biggest acquisitions ever for a skincare brand. As reported by The Business of Fashion, Drunk Elephant joined Nars, Cle de Peau, and Laura Mercier within the Shiseido portfolio, and once again its status as a clean beauty power player made it stand out from the rest. Shiseido Americas executive Marc Rey explained, "Drunk Elephant's approach to 'clean' beauty was an important consideration for us at Shiseido. As a global company, we are missing this very key market which we know is growing extremely rapidly and is not going to stop anytime soon." The article notes that Shiseido also hoped to attract younger consumers to its brands, and its acquisition of Drunk Elephant played into this strategy.

In its 2019 annual report, Shiseido listed Tiffany Masterson as the chief creative officer and noted that the brand's net sales were up 61% from 2018. They also provided their own definition of "clean" in which they called it a "major trend primarily with younger consumers" using "materials and ingredients ... selected in consideration of the effect and impact on skin as well as in consideration of environmental burden and ethical standards."

Drunk Elephant is not without controversies

Despite the success of Drunk Elephant from its conception to its sale to Shiseido and beyond, there have been some controversies regarding the brand. As reported by Glam in January 2023, L'Oréal, which at one point was rumored to be interested in acquiring Drunk Elephant, sued the brand in 2018 for alleged patent infringement, claiming the "single-phase solution composition" of Drunk Elephant's C-Firma Day Serum was identical to the patented formula of the L'Oréal-owned SkinCeuticals' vitamin C serum at half the price. The suit was settled two years later; the terms are confidential.

In 2019, popular skincare influencer Hyram Yarb posted a YouTube video titled "No More Drunk Elephant" in which he stated that the brand did not always actually take accountability when consumers complained that Drunk Elephant products irritated their skin, instead blaming consumers for their skincare woes. This goes against Tiffany Masterson's claims that listening and responding to consumers' concerns remains a top priority. The video has over 2 million views. 

In 2020, Drunk Elephant posted to Instagram that in support of Black Lives Matter protests, they had donated to Black Futures Lab, Campaign Zero, Movement for Black Lives, Broken Chains Awareness, and The National Black Justice Coalition. However, when asked by several Instagram users to disclose numbers regarding the company's workforce diversity, there was no response for several hours. Eventually, the brand left a comment that "making a 'human inventory' of our team and then using that information for marketing purposes" went against their ethics.