The rise of C-beauty: How Chinese consumers are driving beauty innovation
China’s beauty industry has undergone years of rapid growth and even managed to rebound strongly from the pandemic. It’s now the second largest beauty market in the world – after the US – and the fastest growing. Younger and savvier Chinese consumers are pushing beauty brands to innovate and show a willingness to embrace domestic brands over foreign competitors. C-beauty has attracted increasing buzz over social media – but what is it, and what do marketers need to know?
What is C-beauty?
If you work in the beauty industry, or simply love anything beauty related, you’ll be familiar with the terms K-beauty and J-beauty. With holy grail products such as Korean sheet masks and Japanese lightweight sun protection, both Korean and Japanese beauty brands have established cult followings around the world.
In recent years, Chinese beauty or C-beauty has attracted more attention. The signature C-beauty look – sharp eyebrows, lined eyes, royal red lips and a porcelain complexion – is more power woman than J-beauty and K-beauty’s doll-like looks – and has been gaining traction across social media.
China’s beauty market is still dominated by foreign brands, since Chinese consumer behaviour has traditionally been heavily influenced by Western, Japanese and Korean cultures. This is especially true in the larger Chinese cities – often called Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. But the beauty market is dynamic, and home-grown Chinese brands – which have an edge over foreign brands in understanding consumer needs and local nuances – are increasing their market share.
How competitive is the Chinese beauty market?
China’s beauty market is crowded and competitive – the battle among international giants from Europe, the US and Asia is fierce. International brands are still dominant, but local leaders are quickly catching up, with new brands popping up continuously.
In the past, international brands have relied on Chinese tourism for a big percentage of their sales, particularly in Asia. More recently, a direct shift into the massive, growing Chinese market is a key business goal for many beauty brands.
What’s driving the growth of C-beauty?
Younger Chinese consumers are embracing Chinese brands:
Gen Z Chinese consumers are increasingly interested in traditional Chinese culture and style. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Guochao’ (国潮), which loosely translated means ‘national trend’. For earlier generations, the moniker ‘made in China’ sometimes held negative connotations. For newer generations – who have witnessed the rise of China as a global economic powerhouse, boosting their quality of life and wealth – ‘created in China’ is a source of pride. Younger Chinese consumers are often looking for ways to identify with their Chinese roots in a world dominated by Western aesthetics. They are a large spending group in China and are helping to drive the rise of C-beauty.
The power of social media:
Social media is accelerating the Guochao trend. Chinese beauty influencers – sometimes referred to as key opinion leaders or KOLs – often build a community by sharing their daily beauty routines on Weibo (the broad Chinese equivalent of Twitter), Xiaohongshu (a popular e-commerce social media platform), and via live-streaming broadcasts on various social platforms. Opinion leaders are usually paid to promote certain products and are influential amongst younger people. They play an important role in product education – e.g. explaining the importance of skincare, how to use certain products, make-up techniques and so on.
E-commerce has levelled the playing field:
Online channels have allowed upcoming homegrown brands – which can lack the financial resources to secure shelf space in traditional outlets – to sell beauty products directly to customers across the country. In 2010, online sales represented about 3.1% of cosmetics sales in China. By 2019, they represented 33.6% of cosmetic and skincare sales, while sales through traditional brick-and-mortar channels have continued to decline. The pandemic has accelerated this trend.
Chinese men are embracing skincare:
Influenced by Korean pop culture or K-pop, younger Chinese men are embracing skincare in a way their fathers did not, and some show a willingness to experiment with make-up. The rate of men learning how to apply cosmetics is growing twice as fast as women, and the growth of male skincare purchases has overtaken female purchases. Despite an uptick in the segment, international players have been slow to target male beauty customers, allowing niche and C-beauty brands to capitalise on these opportunities. According to Mintel, China’s male beauty sector should grow by around 50% ($2.8 billion) by 2025.
Premiumisation has been a key consumer trend across categories in China in recent years, driven by rising incomes and the growth of the middle class. Gen Z and Millennial consumers are more open to online research and discovery, trying out new brands, and trading up when they can. Affluent younger consumers increasingly have sophisticated skincare regimes with more steps than in the past (often to counter the effects of significant pollution in Chinese cities). They are also interested in anti-ageing products that tend to be more expensive, as well as beauty gadgets and technology, such as the Foreo range which has been successful in China.
What platforms are most relevant for beauty brands in China?
China is the world’s largest social media market and has a different social media landscape to the West. Almost all Western social platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc – are banned in China. China has its own platforms – some of the most relevant to beauty include:
A short video app owned by China’s tech giant Bytedance. The app allows users to create, edit and share videos as well as livestreams, usually set to background music. Douyin’s international name is TikTok, which looks the same as Douyin. However, the two are not identical, despite Bytedance’s efforts to brand it as such – for example, most Douyin videos are narrated by a computerised voice, whereas TikTok videos are narrated by their creator.
A multi-purpose instant messaging, social media and mobile payment app developed by Tencent and released in 2011. In 2018, it became the world’s largest standalone mobile app, with over 1 billion active monthly users. The app offers numerous functions, from making payments to booking flights and hotels. One key feature is called ‘mini-programs’ which are apps within WeChat.
Xiahongshu – loosely, ‘Little Red Book’ in Chinese – is a social media and e-commerce platform which has been compared to Instagram. It’s also China’s most trusted social shopping platform, with over 100 million users – mostly young women – who use it to discover health and beauty products, fashion and luxury brands.
Sometimes called B Station, Bilibili is a popular cultural community video website, known for sharing anime, comics and games. Gen Z and Millennials make up over 80% of the site’s user base. In recent years, the platform has become one of the biggest mainstream beauty marketing platforms by featuring vloggers’ make-up tips and tutorials, cosmetics testing and unboxing videos.
Alibaba is China’s – and by some metrics, the world’s – largest online commerce company. Its three main sites are Tmall, Taobao and Alibaba.com. Alibaba.com is a B2B marketplace whereas Tmall’s focus is B2C, and Taobao is C2C. Taobao Live is a live stream e-commerce channel – see below for more details.
Formerly known as Taobao Mall, Tmall is an e-commerce platform for local Chinese and international businesses to sell brand-name goods to consumers in greater China. It’s also China’s leading e-commerce destination for beauty. However, brands should view Tmall as more than just a sales channel – it touches upon all parts of the customer journey, from awareness to interest to purchase and loyalty. As a result, as well as considering product, pricing and customer service, platform success requires a content and influencer strategy plus an ongoing media and marketing strategy.
Taobao Live is Alibaba’s live stream e-commerce channel. It’s divided into categories of interest such as food, travel, lifestyle, etc. China has witnessed the explosive development of live streaming e-commerce in recent years, especially since the pandemic. According to China’s Consumers Association, around 70% of Chinese consumers used Alibaba’s broadcast platform in 2020 to watch e-commerce live broadcast.
Tmall’s biggest competitor, with a similar platform and offering. JD stands for Jingdong and the platform was formerly known as 360buy.com. JD has a dedicated beauty division called JD Beauty.
A micro-blogging platform which has a ‘Mini-Shop’ function – i.e. e-commerce integration. This means beauty consumers can use it not only for research and discovery but also purchase. In 2020, Weibo made a concerted effort to turbo-charge its key-opinion-consumer network for beauty brands.
Notable Chinese beauty brands
Founded in 2016, Perfect Diary is a make-up brand which targets women aged 20-35 with a relatively high spending power. It has online stores across the key Chinese platforms as well as dozens of offline stores in China. It is committed to developing cosmetic products suitable for Asian skin tones, and a common marketing theme is for people to express themselves using make-up.
Judydoll entered the market in 2016 and quickly became successful, opening a Tmall store in 2018 which now has over 6 million fans. Judydoll is a leader in colour trends – one of its bestselling products resembles a watercolour paint palette. The brand is also known for offering affordable alternatives – aka dupes – for highly rated cult products.
Founded in 2017, Florasis creates make-up products with natural flower and herb essences, combining traditional Chinese style and culture with modern make-up technology.
8 tips for promoting beauty brands in China
Bear in mind the vastness of the country
China is a massive country – it has 65 cities with populations of over 1 million. Being big in China requires significant and sustained investment. For brands with smaller budgets, China’s sheer size means finding imaginative solutions to build brand awareness in the market. International brands tend to focus on bigger wealthy cities – this gives domestic brands an edge, as they can focus on lower tier cities which still make up a large proportion of the population.
Have a regional strategy
Given the size of the country, there are significant regional differences in consumer behaviour and preferences. Ipsos and Sephora, the multinational beauty and personal care retailer, have some interesting research which shows how cosmetic and skincare preferences vary by Chinese region. The diversity of beauty preferences across the vast country means brands need to have a thoughtful regional strategy. A Local In-Market Expert can help with this.
Omnichannel is slightly different in China
Ensuring a seamless omnichannel approach is a big focus for Western brands, which often had established offline distribution channels in place before building an e-commerce offering. In China, it’s slightly different – online penetration is high, and many beauty players started online and have minimal offline distribution. An omnichannel approach is still relevant but for many brands, the emphasis is usually on succeeding in e-commerce first – since that is where the growth opportunity lies – then focusing on offline expansion.
Consumers are mindful of pollution
China’s air pollution means there is a push for skincare that helps combat so-called ‘polluaging’. Believers in traditional Chinese medicine consider wellness and beauty to be inextricably linked. Products which go beyond beautifying the skin, and help it become more resilient against environmental stressors and pollution do well.
Tap into the hunger for local storytelling
To compete with savvy, emerging Guochao labels, brands must dig deep into local Chinese culture to appeal to younger generations’ desire to connect with their roots. This needs to be executed authentically and sensitively – a Local In-Market Expert can guide you.
Identify the right mix of KOLs and influencers
Chinese beauty consumers are heavily influenced by key opinion leaders, from big names like Austin Li Jiaqi (known as ‘the Lipstick King’) to micro-influencers that might have less than 5,000 followers but are still considered trusted voices. Savvy brands use celebrity KOLs in conjunction with their celebrity ambassadors to drive audience engagement and create viral social moments. Using KOLs during key sales periods is critical.
Livestreaming is essential in China
For beauty brands, livestreaming has become a vital sales channel as well as a vehicle for product education and launches. To maximise livestream performance, brands incentivise audiences to join and purchase early in the livestream with special deals and use tactics like giveaways with purchases or exclusive deals for customers who pre-order. Product demos, swatches and answering consumer questions are also important elements in developing an audience. The choice of host is key – top tier livestream KOLs like Austin Li and Viya draw millions of viewers and can make or break brands within the Chinese market.
Understand key dates and milestones in the retail calendar
As with any market, it’s important to understand the key dates most relevant to e-commerce. For Chinese beauty, these include Chinese New Year, 11:11 (Single’s Day – where singletons celebrate their single status, often with gifts to themselves), 12:12 (a shopping festival in December), plus several dates loosely analogous to Valentine’s Day. These are key sales events, and beauty brands capitalise on them with promotions, special events, limited products, discounts and special offers.