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Marketing Matters: Chinese Culture and its Effect on Skin Care Trends in China

Liz Grubow

In ancient China, the elite liked to adorn themselves with spectacular objects such as jade and silk. Today, particularly in the cities, it is hurtling toward modernity, but China’s ancient culture is interwoven into its steps forward. This interplay between the past and the present is evident even in interactions between the consumer and skin care products. Chinese women—open to education and living in a culture rich with rituals and a history of Chinese medicinal practices—covet even skin tone, for example. Because they carry these cultural influences with them as they choose skin care products, Chinese women want product interaction, status-enhancing products (such as whitening products), luxury packaging, spa-quality treatments and medicinal ingredients.

In the major cities of China, department stores and mega-store chains such as Carrefour and Wal-Mart have taken root, but through LPK Beauty Group’s ongoing work in China, it has witnessed these markets losing sales to up-and-coming specialty drug stores such as Watson’s, which is based outside of China. According to China Daily, Carrefour has 70 stores in China and plans to open 20 hypermarkets in 2006; Wal-Mart has 56 stores in China and plans to open 13 more in 2006. In comparison, Watson’s, the world’s third largest beauty and health care retailer, has 80 outlets and wants to double this number in 2006. But it’s not just the number of locations and low prices that draw customers into Watson’s; it also is the fact that Watson’s has a beauty counter equipped with counselors who can provide instruction and advice to customers about what products are best for their skin. An Olay salesperson is there to help women buy Olay products, for example. Chinese women trust these counselors.

Welcome Advice

In addition, this is a culture that has high standards for knowledge, and, while the population is young (with a median age of 32), the older generation lived through the Cultural Revolution and has a great deal to learn about beauty care. Not surprisingly, women respond to shopper assistance, and welcome advice about skin care. According to a beauty industry publication, L’Oréal hosted an all-day seminar in every Carrefour store in China during the 2004 holiday season that featured workshops on makeup techniques and beauty trends. Avon, which opened stores and kiosks because it wasn’t allowed to sell door-to-door, now is permitted to canvass. Almay and Mary Kay also are allowed to use a direct sales approach, and these companies are sure to build on the individual attention Chinese women appreciate. Most importantly, companies hope these product demonstrations will lead to brand loyalty.

Dating back to ancient culture, pale, even skin implied a dainty and fragile quality that was associated with beauty, as well as the implication of a higher social stature. Even as the cities have become more modern with more women working in the professional arena, this standard of beauty has remained, as seen in the popularity of whitening products. Chinese women want even skin tone, so they aren’t interested in bleaching products. Instead, they want a product like Olay’s White Radiance, which is designed to provide a glow and an appearance of evenness. Due to its popularity, the White Radiance line is offering a new line extension—White Radiance for the Body. This desire for an even tone appeals to every class of women, from the mass to prestige channels. Chinese consumers’ desire for even skin tone and quality is different from the solution-mentality of American women, who address a problem, such as wrinkles, when it arises.

With their deep history of rituals, the Chinese respect order. LPK has found in its caseload that this history of rituals affects how women interact with their skin care products; women want the ritual of skin care, and part of their desire to interact with a product comes from their respect for ritual. They want to arrange their products on the vanity and enjoy the process. They have a great appreciation for product packaging that denotes luxury and status such as heavy glass containers, for example. LPK has observed that Chinese women won’t buy something in plastic, even if it contains more product.

In contrast to the Western desire for products with 2-in-1 qualities, such as a moisturizer and sunscreen in one, Chinese women want a more ritualistic process with separate steps. They are willing to invest more time to care for their skin. American women buy Olay’s Total Effects because it multi-tasks for them. In China, women buy Olay’s Aqua Hydration, which goes on before makeup.

Indulgent Application

Likewise, LPK has observed a trend in areas of skin concentration. Successful brands continue to extend with products such as facial masks, patches and product treatments for eyes—as well as product treatments for the chest.The mask is considered a luxury because it used to be a spa treatment, one that required time and money. Now, products such as the Natural White facial mask are readily available, so they are affordable but still require a time investment. Having to sit down and apply the mask appeals to Chinese consumers, who want to get away and indulge themselves. Again, the application process taps into their sense of ritual.

With an ancient history of Chinese medicinal practices, Chinese women believe that certain ingredients provide a healing benefit. Traditional medicinal herbs and plants such as ginseng are well-known and appeal to both younger and older women. The natural ingredients reassure them because they believe they are safer than other ingredients. Definity, a foaming moisturizer with glucosamine complex, is an example of a product with medicinal aspects. According to Global New Products Database, it contains green tea, which has been used for years in Asia because of its skin-nourishing antioxidants, and its use is expanding into other skin care products. For example, Youngblood introduced Liquid Mineral Foundation, formulated with green tea extract.

The skin care market in China continues to dominate the cosmetics and toiletries market, making it the largest contributor to the strong overall sales growth in the industry in 2004. The skin care industry in China, worth $3 billion, is growing by 20% year on year. As Chinese women gain more income, become more concerned about their appearance and learn more about skin care, the market will remain robust. To excel in this market, remember that Chinese women are being pulled in two directions: one that is influenced by the past and one that embraces the future.

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