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

By: Liz Grubow
Posted: September 5, 2008, from the August 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

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.

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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.