While China remains one of the most important markets for Western brands to excel in, it has also become increasingly complex. Both local and South Korean brands are quickly gaining ground in the market, as are specialty chains and online retailers. At the same time, consumers are becoming ever-more sophisticated and demanding as they are inundated with information from multiple sources. In such a competitive environment, the country’s top beauty editors have solidified their credibility in the eyes of consumers. Here, four leading journalists from the style world weigh in on the evolution of the Chinese beauty market, and share their views on where it’s headed.
This story first appeared in the February 7, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
How have you seen the beauty attitudes and purchasing habits of Chinese women evolve since you started covering the market?
Valerie Zhang: I began as a beauty editor 13 years ago, and Chinese women have changed a lot. First, they can get more trend information from different kinds of media, like social platforms, Web sites and print media. They know much more compared to women in the last generation. Second, we have more choices now. About 15 years ago, China had less than 50 international beauty brands. But now, numerous brands are here. At the same time, consumers are always confused by how to choose the “best” products for themselves. Third, China has become a more and more important market in the world. Fifteen years ago, nobody could imagine that an international brand would design a product only for the Chinese market. But now, not only are there many specially designed products, but also a lot of custom-made brands for China.
The young generation likes to spend more money on beauty purchasing. They could spend all their salary on luxury products, but the elder women don’t do that—they prefer to put money in the bank.
And travelling is so common to Chinese women now. They buy lots of products from every country. Because of the high taxes here, beauty products are always much more expensive compared to abroad.
Another change is that makeup is more and more popular in the last three years. Young people know how to express their personalities through makeup. But less than 10 percent of women were using makeup just 10 years ago. It’s the same situation in the perfume market.
Jie Kang: In recent years, women’s pursuit of beauty has become more and more clear and stronger than ever. They no longer like emulating popular, mainstream beauty, but yearn for unique beauty. In terms of shopping habits, along with the fast development of the Internet and online shops, Chinese women not only go to shopping malls and counters to buy products, they love shopping online too.
Helena Hu: Chinese women want immediate results. They have no patience at all! We use antiaging products starting at age 25, or even earlier. More young women want micro-plastic surgery or laser treatments to enhance their beauty. They want to be educated about products, and they look to magazines, beauty experts, opinion leaders, bloggers and their friends for recommendations.
Arwen Fan: The pressure of society has turned into an incentive for women to beautify themselves. Women in China usually learn information and knowledge concerning beauty and fashion from magazines. With the broadened horizon of magazine editors, our readers are also progressing. With increased income, women are paying more attention to themselves and investing in themselves. Beautifying themselves is one of the most critical aspects of this.
Who is aspirational beauty-wise?
Valerie Zhang: Actress Fan Bingbing is quite famous because of her looks. She has an ideal beauty face to all Chinese—big eyes, small face, high nose, long hair. Her skin is flawless (she once said she uses at least two masks every day). Her makeup is classic but elegant.
Jie Kang: Our editor in chief, Su Mang, embodies a distinctive Chinese combination of beauty and wisdom.
Helena Hu: Fan Bingbing. All the girls want that face through plastic surgery. Her skin is perfect.
Arwen Fan: Chinese women are increasingly beauty-savvy. Young office ladies spend more and more on skin-care products, treatments, gyms and salons. They also learn a lot from magazines in terms of the latest makeup trends and techniques. Professionals and elites have even higher standards for themselves. They pay close attention to diet, health and quality living standards. In other words, they take good care of their body, mind and soul. Again, the pressure of society has turned into an incentive for women to beautify themselves.
What kinds of beauty stories are your readers most interested in?
Valerie Zhang: They love to read practical stories like step-by-step [instructions] and Q&A’s. Beauty is different than fashion—readers would like to know more details, especially the personal experiences. In China, most women are basic beauty users. They need to be educated. Trend reports are always popular, too. Readers like to know what’s going on.
Jie Kang: Our readers are most interested in antiaging, body toning and fitness, and quick ways to look younger.
Helena Hu: Definitely skin-care stories. Over 80 percent of the market share of beauty in China is skin care, especially antiaging products. We do believe good skin is everything and really invest in it.
What is most influential for your readers when it comes to purchasing decisions?
Valerie Zhang: Social media is the most powerful tool influencing purchasing habits. Once a celebrity says, “This product is really useful to me” on Weibo, a lot of fans will rush into a department store to buy it. It’s become a problem—so many celebrities will promote not-so-good products just because they get money from the brands.
Jie Kang: The product’s effectiveness comes first, followed by its value and cost-performance.
Arwen Fan: I believe that when it comes to essential needs, women will loosen their purse strings to buy. Therefore, our recommendations are always about women’s most-needed items, especially those offering good value for money.
How would you describe the influence of magazines versus Web sites? Where do most people go for information?
Jie Kang: While Web sites can reach readers instantly, magazines enjoy higher credibility and brand value, and readers know they can trust and make purchasing decisions based on the information we publish.
Helena Hu: Magazines remain more influential than Web sites for the Chinese consumer, because magazines provide quality and professional advice they believe in. Of course, when they decide to buy, they will search the Web to check how good it is and look for a better price. But, in China, it’s a risk to shop on the Internet, because there are a lot of fakes, or local copies, and so much inaccurate information and incorrect directions for use, so smart women are more and more careful about what they see and read online.
Arwen Fan: The Internet attracts a lot of intention, but that is it. For detailed information and thorough reading, I believe readers prefer magazines. The content is more credible and trustworthy. As for newspapers, the highlights are the feature stories and objective editorials. Reviews also attract a large number of readers.
What are women looking for in terms of a shopping experience?
Valerie Zhang: More and more women like to shop online so they don’t need to leave home and spend time on the road. The biggest market in China is Taobao, an online-shopping Web site. In beauty stores, service is more important now.
Jie Kang: Women look not only for good products, they also need good service. High efficiency is important, because we are becoming more and more busy.
Helena Hu: Prices for beauty products are very high in China due to the high import tax, so sometimes women try products at the counter, then buy it abroad or online. You can find many buyers abroad to buy things and send them to you by mail, and it is much cheaper. Some brands are trying to lower prices in China to attract consumers to buy here, but the choice is limited and we have fewer products.
Arwen Fan: I believe they expect guidance and experience-sharing during the try-out stage. Smart and beauty-savvy Chinese women will listen to reasonable recommendations and purchase items after a pleasant try-out experience.
What was the last product that you saw that wowed you?
Valerie Zhang: Now I’m trying Helena Rubinstein Surrealist Everfresh Mascara. This mascara claims to have a Never Dry formula, which I think is a very attractive breakthrough. Also, I am obsessed with Astalift Jelly Aquarysta. It is a moisturizing essence. The texture is so special! It is crystal-clear red jelly—you could shake all the jelly into a mess, but after two minutes, it will revert back to a totally flat surface.
Jie Kang: Guerlain Abeille Royale face-treatment oil. It has a unique texture like honey, but it can be easily absorbed by the skin.
Helena Hu: Pola BA Grandluxe Essence. I love the concept. It is said that when you age, your skin gains a certain element that can make you glow—some creatures, like the firefly, have a large amount. This product claims to enhance this element, to let your skin glow, making you look younger. The older, the better—you gain your power glow from aging. I love it!
Arwen Fan: The 2014 Clinique Even Better Dark Spot Defense SPF45/PA++++ has a nice touch. It looks pale at first sight, but when it is spread evenly on the skin, within a minute it looks natural. The protection is amazing, and it doesn’t feel strange even with a foundation on top.
If your job is anything like that of a beauty editor in the U.S., you are receiving enormous amounts of new products and information daily. What makes a launch really stand out for you?
Valerie Zhang: Product is the king. The real breakthrough attracts me. A special media event helps me remember the products.
Jie Kang: What really stands out is a big idea and truly innovative products that deliver great results.
Helena Hu: Yes, I get a lot of products every day. I like brands where the founders are still deeply involved in the business and have power over the brand. Even if it has been bought by a big company, they provide support and guidance. Beauty products must help you dream, share some love, offer the promise of a better life ahead. Each product is designed for a certain woman and her needs—it is not just about marketing.
Arwen Fan: When the public relations person is especially passionate about his/her products, and when he/she can tell me some untold stories behind the product, I will be most interested. Also, if the texture, color or the packaging is impressively unique, I will pay more attention. I also tend to take notice of the product of the month of a certain brand, so as to offer better suggestions to my readers. I try most products first hand and give feedback, good or bad, to the PR.
How do you see beauty evolving in China?
Valerie Zhang: It is evolving fast, we have more choices, but we have more confusion. We have more money, but we need more knowledge. ”