Three bottles of Marissa Carter’s self tan sell every minute - and we can expect the same success from her brand new make up line, writes Carolyn Moore.
There’s a scene in the movie Joy, where Jennifer Lawrence, as entrepreneur and inventor Joy Mangano, shows up unannounced at the offices of QVC and gets the opportunity to pitch them a mop. The pitch falls flat, but Mangano persists, selling the idea one-on-one to the shopping channel’s executive, and the rest is history.
As the old marketing saying goes, people buy from people, and no one knows this better than beauty entrepreneur and tanning mogul, Marissa Carter. By accident more than design, during her six years in business, Carter has built a strong personal brand alongside her Cocoa Brown tanning line, amassing over 100k followers on Instagram, who tune into her Stories daily to see what life is like behind the scenes of Ireland’s biggest beauty brand.
If not quite ‘warts and all’, the glimpse behind the curtain is nothing if not varied. She could be at the Oscars one day, or wallpapering her office the next. A makeup tutorial is likely to be interrupted by one of her kids – Charlie, 6, or Isabella, 3 – and at the weekends she might be manning a stand at a tradeshow or walking her dog in the Dublin mountains. This summer, her family will enjoy their annual staycation in Castlemartyr. We could see her in wellies visiting Leahy’s Open Farm, or indulging in a little spa time.
“I wouldn’t want to watch someone if everything was always perfect and rosy and amazing and fab and exciting,” she says. “I would want to throw eggs at their house! So I try not to be a whingy bitch, but I also try not to be, ‘Oh my God, look at my amazing life!’ I just try to be as normal as possible without being annoying.” As social media strategies go, you won’t find ‘be normal but not annoying’ in any digital marketing manual, but then Carter never set out to become a social media star. In life as in business, she just followed her gut, and women warmed to her as she navigated the ups and downs of business, honestly and with a healthy dose of humour.
A recent social media hiatus proved her empire won’t collapse overnight if she’s not online personally responding to customer feedback, but she values the platform as a means of interacting with her customers. Now, as she prepares to launch a makeup collection under the new brand name Carter Beauty, she’s hoping she can parlay that personal capital into another business success.
Only a fool would bet against her. She developed her first product – Cocoa Brown’s One Hour Tan – after an overnight formulation she was using tanned both herself and newborn Charlie while they slept. While someone less enterprising might have thought, “Hmmm, I wish someone would make a fast developing tan”, and leave it at that, Carter got on the phone to the cosmetic chemist who supplied spray tan to her salon. “I told him we had a lot right with the formula we were using for the salon, but I thought we could do more with it and it could be a retail product, and we took it from there.”
And take it from there she did. Even then, the tanning market was saturated, but as she explains, “I don’t think you can make decisions based on fear. I certainly wouldn’t have brought out a tanning product if I’d thought too much about all the other people who were selling tan.” She’s applying the same logic to Carter Beauty. “There are lots of pharmacies and retailers who are as excited as I am about getting the products on shelves, and I think once what you have is different, then you have a chance.” Arguably, Carter Beauty has more than a chance. With 103 products, priced from €4 to €15, the range is a hit list of modern makeup must-haves (including dewy and HD foundations, contour sticks, liquid highlighters and matte lipsticks). Inspired by a manicure, no less, the packaging is pale pink with lilac accents; clean, feminine, pretty, it’s playful but sophisticated, and all Marissa.
She’s wearing Carter Beauty today, and she’s been teasing the launch on Instagram Stories. Anticipation is growing amongst those loyal customers who have followed her journey on social media, invested in Carter as a person, and trust her as both an influencer and a businesswoman. For them, Marissa has the Midas touch, but she’s not taking anything for granted. “There’s absolutely no guarantee it’ll be a success, but I believe in it, I think the pharmacies that sell Cocoa Brown believe in it, and I think my customers trust me to give them quality at a very good price,” she says.
Nonetheless, experience has taught her there are no certainties in business. “You feel very vulnerable when you’re trying to get a retailer to stock your product, because there’s always a chance they’ll say no, no mater how big or successful your brand,” she says. “We launched Fresh Start tan eraser recently, and one of our biggest retailers initially didn’t want it. It’s hard not to take that personally.” Nevertheless, she persisted. “We changed their mind, we didn’t give up.” It’s easy to see why retailers would view her as a safe pair of hands. The stats on Cocoa Brown are astonishing. She launched in 2012, landed Penneys as a stockist three months in, and by 2013 Cocoa Brown was Ireland’s best selling tan. It’s remained so for five consecutive years. Stocked in 23 countries, sales average three bottles per minute. Through milestone after milestone, Carter has made it all look effortless, but as she tells me a story about chasing the CEO of a major retailer as he left the stage at a seminar, I’m reminded of that scene in Joy.
“I gave him my product to give to his buyers, and that started a conversation,” she says. “I think the fact that I hate sitting at a desk has stood to me. Any of the big deals we’ve done for Cocoa Brown have never come from a phone call or email; it’s come from me getting a meeting, face to face.” People buy from people, and they love to buy from Marissa Carter.
Today, her dislike of sitting behind a desk is standing to us both. Instead of meeting in her new offices (wallpapered for my benefit, it transpires), we’re sitting in the sun in Dun Laoghaire. Hay fever has reduced her voice to a whisper, but she’s determined and considered as she imparts the words of wisdom she would pass on to budding entrepreneurs. Get out and meet people is one. Learn to be resilient is the other.
Actually, read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open is the other. Though she admits, like anyone in business, she’s had the odd “wobble” and taken some knocks on the path to success, studying the stamina and psychology of successful sportspeople is one of the ways she’s taught herself the resilience needed to get back on the horse.
“You have to accept that you’re going to have really bad days,” she says. “Days when you think, how can anything else go wrong, and then something does, and you have to just mentally pump yourself up, put your game face on, and keep going.
“People always imagine business must be easy for everyone else, but eventually you realise, actually everyone goes through this; it’s not supposed to be easy; you’re supposed to get the stuffing kicked out of you in business.” One thing she refuses to do, though, is collude in kicking the stuffing out of anyone else. She’s unfailingly supportive of other women in business, so when I ask about recent additions to the Irish tanning market, she pauses.
“I think… I think it’s sad when women are pitted against each other as if there can only be one victor,” she says, “so I don’t play into that when people try to make comparisons between me and other Irish woman in business. That doesn’t happen with men, so it irks me a little. I just think fair play to them – her success is not my failure.
“Business is like sport,” she adds. “You just have to focus on your own thing and keep your eye on the finish line. I’m always thinking ahead – what’s the next big thing in beauty? How do we get there first? How will we be the best?” I suspect she already knows the answers to those questions, but that’s a story for another day.
- Styling by Claudia Gocoul, hair and make-up by Sue Brophy
- Carter Beauty has over 100 products, priced from €4 to €15, @carterbeautycosmetics
- Pink Layla Dress, was €275 now €125, Manley, Earrings, €25, Om Diva
- Purple Tulle T-Shirt, €45, Om Diva, Culottes, €65, Om Diva, Earrings, €25, Om Diva
- Striped Dress, €475, Joseph @ Costume, Earrings, €25, Om Diva
- Purple Dress, €37, River Island, Earrings, €25, Om Diva
- All shoes model’s own