UX Researcher | Founder of Learn UX Seattle | Dive Bar Karaoke Star



Tatcha and the Geisha: emotional branding


Creating an emotional connection with the user through both the inner- and outer-beauty of the traditional Geisha in modern skincare branding.

I - Background
II - Approach
III - Methodology
IV - Findings
V - Next Steps
VI - Conclusion



48-hour discovery and strategy

This is a mini-case study I did for a very well-known Seattle-based Design Branding and Advertising Agency that has worked with global giants such as Pepsi, Gatorade, and numerous high-profile atheletes.

Everything presented in this case study was done by myself from ideation, execution, to presentation all within 48 hours.

The tatcha brand

The core of the Tatcha brand is bringing traditional Japanese beauty into Modern America.

Founder Vicky Tsai learned of classical Japanese beauty secrets passed down by generations that took a simpler, more natural approach to skincare. She studied and captured the skin care philosophy and ingredients of the original time-honored geisha beauty rituals and transferred them to modern skincare.


After nearly a decade in business, geisha-inspired luxury brand Tatcha is still growing and maintaining a foothold in the competitive space for skincare beauty.



Discovery, Validation, and Strategy

My approach was three-fold:

  1. perform a critical review of Tatcha’s existing brand strategy,

  2. validate the current Tatcha brand strategy through guerilla interview, then

  3. conduct a 1:1 interview with a Japanese-born Professor of Design familiar with Geisha culture.

The existing brand strategy was readily available through the design agency. Based on the existing strategy, I could inject my foundational knowledge of User Experience Strategy and Research to form a hypothesis about how I would build on their existing brand strategy.

I would then go to the Downtown Seattle Sephora to perform validation on their existing brand strategy through guerilla interview with an in-store skincare expert.

Finally, if the base brand strategy was validated I could move on to talking with a subject matter expert to validate or invalidate my hypothesis in expanding on the existing brand strategy.



critical review of current tatcha brand strategy

The current messaging tells a powerful story centered around the fantasy-like qualities of Geisha beauty.

Founder Vicky Tsai , on her first engagement with a Geisha during a trip to Kyoto

Founder Vicky Tsai, on her first engagement with a Geisha during a trip to Kyoto

The anchoring theme for this brand is the allure of Geisha beauty and how deeply traditional, complex, and entrancing it is. While the current position of the brand is a thorough and compelling story around the aesthetic beauty of Geisha, I thought there should have been more emphasis put on the inner-beauty and the inner-strength of the Geisha.

Geisha set themselves apart from any class of entertainer in the world because on top maintaining a flawless aesthetic, Geisha are expected to be masters of conversation, song, dance, and art. There is a strong message of female empowerment and respect in one of the world’s most prominent patriarchal societies, and that is a message most fitting in the world we live in today.

guerilla interview/rapid validation with skincare expert

Since my entire strategy was going to lean on Geisha culture, I wanted to validate that the foundational message of Geisha beauty was indeed associated with the brand at large. To do this, I decided to go into the Seattle Downtown Sephora and simply ask a sales associate, “What can you tell me about Tatcha?”


I fully expected to have to probe a little bit to get any clear indication on whether the Geisha-Tatcha tie was commonplace, but the answer I got was beautiful and succinct.

This is response I got I simply by asking, “Can you tell me what you know about Tatcha?”

[Tatcha] is one of our uprising skin care lines we have in our store. The story behind it, is that she wanted to get inspired about what Geisha wear...they wear so much makeup...and at the end of the day they have really nice skin, like makeup...so there’s an entire beauty ritual behind it.
— Sephora Skincare Expert

I ended up staying in Sephora for about 45 minutes talking to my Sephora skincare expert along with a few other reps about Tatcha. I learned so much about skincare that day, but the two most prominent insights ere:

  1. the tie between Tatcha and Geisha is strong

  2. I apparently don’t take very good care of my skin

phone interview with subject Matter expert

My beloved Professor from ASU took our studio on a study-abroad trip to Japan and gave us a very detailed, insightful tour of Gion, a district of Kyoto known for Geisha.

Professor John Takamura , Assistant Director and Associate Professor at Arizona State University School of Design

Professor John Takamura, Assistant Director and Associate Professor at Arizona State University School of Design

During our call, I asked him about Geisha culture, tradition, and what it means to be a Geisha. While the entire conversation was very insightful, John was able to capture what it is to be Geisha in a beautifully powerful and succinct way:

Professor John Takamura , on Geisha culture, tradition, and what it means to be a Geisha

Professor John Takamura, on Geisha culture, tradition, and what it means to be a Geisha

I had already done a lot of online research about Geisha, but John painted an image of Geisha that moved me. To me, this is the exact message that can bolster the Geisha beauty value prop to further elicit a strong inward emotional response that only elevates the existing value prop of outward beauty.



While the existing brand positioning successfully captures the spirit of Geisha beauty, I believe there is a strong, complementary message that would round out the entire Tatcha value prop. While Geisha may be commonly associated with flawless beauty, the woman behind the beauty is what is truly stunning.

This is the inner-beauty and inner-strength I had originally hypothesized as brand messaging to elevate the Tatcha value prop. Through my approach I was able to get provisional validation that this is a direction worth exploring.

There are three main provisional insights that came from this rapid study:

  1. what it means to be Geisha,

  2. extrinsic vs intrinsic motivations, and

  3. emotional bonding.

the meaning of geisha

Founder Vicky Tsai’s commitment to Tatcha represents all the dedication and spirit of the traditional Japanese Geisha. While the current brand is anchored to the beauty of Geisha, I feel we could strengthen the brand messaging by telling a more complete story of what it means to be Geisha. Telling more of the inner-beauty, strength, and confidence of Geisha rather than focus purely on outer-beauty.

extrinsic, intrinsic, external, internal

The external beauty associated with Geisha is a great way to hook users with the extrinsic motivation of appearing your best in public. I am interested to see what happens when users learn more about the inner-beauty of the Geisha, and the power and principle it takes to truly be Geisha. I believe that once users learn more about Geisha and how truly amazing they are, they will start to associate all of it with the brand as well.

While these extrinsic motivators are driven by the outside world, it’s the intrinsic motivators driven by internal desire that truly affect us. To be a true Geisha is to be strong, dedicated, and masterful on the inside as well as flawlessly beautiful on the outside, and I can’t think of anybody who wouldn’t want that for themselves.

emotion, take the wheel

We don’t make decisions for purely rational reasons. This is especially true for purchasing decisions; hence why companies always advertise to evoke emotion.

Everything I set out to show in this study ultimate leads to creating a stronger emotional bond between Tatcha and the consumer, and that will strengthen the Tatcha brand in a highly competitive, crowded personal beauty market.


Next Steps

This was only a provisional study to demonstrate the possibilities of building upon an existing brand strategy. Were I to move further with this study, I would build upon my findings with further discovery and validation through:

  • interviews with consumers to get their thoughts on Geisha and this unique value prop,

  • a/b testing of messaging to see which elicits stronger emotional responses

  • card sorting and other associative research methods

These methods would lean towards more qualitative, attitudinal-heavy UX Research and Strategy methods to narrow in on consumer emotions towards this brand direction.



I loved this. I could have easily dived deep into cognitive psychology and write an entire thesis paper on this. I believe Vicky Tsai’s dedication to Tatcha represents all of the dedication and spirit of the traditional Japanese Geisha. The current positioning of Tatcha is tethered to the beauty of the Geisha. While I understand there are a lot of emotional ties to skincare and beauty, I believe we can strengthen that messaging and create a stronger emotional bond with customers through telling a more complete story of what it means to be Geisha.

The world associates Geisha with beauty, so that’s a great place to hook the user. But once the user is interested and starts to learn more about the inner-beauty of the Geisha, the power and principle it takes to truly be Geisha, they will start associating that with the brand as well.

concluding thoughts

While many more rounds of research are needed, the three key provisional recommendations from this rapid study are:

  1. elevate the emotional brand experience of Tatcha through a complete story of what it means to Geisha

  2. hook customers with the allure of external beauty, retain them with the confidence of internal beauty

  3. create strong emotions to maintain strong relationships as well as increase sales

Whether it be UX Strategy, Brand Strategy, or Service Design Strategy, you always have to think about the emotions of your users. Strong emotions create strong relationships, and that’s the cornerstone of this study.

A makeup line that is rooted in a tradition of female beauty and female empowerment in a dominant patriarchal society sends a very powerful message. Imagine what a strong emotional connection this would have on consumers around the world, especially in the socio-political climate we live in today.