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In recent years, the emergence of a whole new demographic of Chinese consumer has been making a significant splash int eh grooming category–and is becoming a driving force behind a multibillion dollar beauty business.
This story first appeared in the June 15, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Known as du shi yu nan, or “city jade men,” these guys are the metrosexuals of the East and they’re not afraid to show it, spending increasing amounts of money in a sector that has been traditionally driven by women. For this group, good grooming is a way of getting ahead–in both their work life and their love life.
According to Euromonitor, the men’s grooming market in China grew at three times the rate of its female counterpart last year. And this is just the beginning, with the market research firm predicting growth of almost 30 percent per year until 2014.
International players, including L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Nivea and Mentholatum, have proven particularly popular with Chinese men, who are attracted by the reputation for good quality products that international rands have been able to establish. This is, after all, the land of ever-present food and product scandals, and people don’t want to take any chances with lotions and potions designed for use on their face.
L’Oréal controls a 47 percent share of this new-found “city jade men” market. Since launching Biotherm Homme in 2003, the French cosmetics conglomerate has also released L’Oréal Men’s Expert, Garnier and Kérastase for Men. Now, according to Charles de Brabant, a former L’Oréal executive and current chief executive officer and founding partner of market research firm Saint Pierre, Brabant, Lu & Associates, China is L’Oréal’s biggest male grooming market, and it will only get bigger in the future.
“L’Oréal’s business in China became the biggest on the men’s side three or four years ago,” de Brabant says. “The men’s business in China, compared to other markets in the world, certainly is already showing potential that doesn’t exist in other markets.”
L’Oréal China’s chief executive officer, Alexis Perakis-Valat, corroborates de Brabant’s analysis, noting that Chinese sales constitute an important slice of the company’s world-wide men’s grooming sales. In terms of potential development, Perakis-Valat believe that the lack of cultural taboos surrounding men and skincare products in China is a huge advantage for brands looking to expand here.
Ultimately, Perakis-Valat says, it is the pragmatism of Chinese people that makes them so open to spending big money on anything they perceive as an advantage in an increasingly competitive world.
“Chinese men have no taboos,” says Perakis-Valat. “There are no cultural taboos saying that using a beauty product is more of a woman’s thing. They think that if there is a product that can help me have a better family life, a better professional life, be more comfortable with their friends, find their significant other, they will use it.”
Another important factor is China’s environment, which, in first-tier cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, is dominated by cold, dry winters and humid summers that take their toll on everyone’s skin.
Alexander Dony, managing director of Proctor & Gamble’s Asia Pacific grooming business, disagrees with Perakis-Valat’s assessment of Chinese men as being free of hang-ups about the supposed femininity of skin care and good grooming. P&G markets Gillette, the dominant brand in China’s shaving sector. Dony says that Chinese men are still not as open as European men in terms of skin and body care, but they are starting on the road to discovery, with 65 percent of men now using facial cleansers, rather than soap and water.
“[If you take the] European market as a benchmark, where nearly all men have complete skin care and body care [regimes], Chinese men are still struggling with the mind-set of skin care as a feminine behavior, rather than a daily life need,” Dony says.
It is the trend-setting post-eighties and post-Nineties generations (the classification commonly used in China for those born after 1980 and 1990 respectively), Dony continues, who are changing the perception of men’s grooming in China, and the fact that the sector’s development is still in its infancy means there is a long way to go for international players before they see an end to the growth in the men’s grooming market in China.
Despite talk among some in the industry of a market-share war between L’Oréal and P&G, Charles de Brabant points out that their strengths lie in different parts of the sector—while L’Oréal’s brands dominate in hair, beauty and skin care, much of P&G’s market share is in the blades and shaving market.
“If you look at premium skin care, Biotherm is indisputably the best brand, and on the mass premium side, L’Oréal Paris is indisputably the most successful brand,” says de Brabant. “But if you look at shaving products or deodorants— which are all part of men’s grooming—those are all areas where L’Oréal lacks presence and P&G would probably dominate. So you could say it’s split because one dominates certain product categories and the other dominates other product categories.”
In many ways, the extensive growth in men’s grooming in China has been a natural extension of economic development. As men’s disposable income increases, so too does the urge to pamper themselves, to spend some of their extra cash on ensuring they look the part of a successful, modern Chinese man.
Shushmul Maheshwari, chief executive of RNCOS, a research firm based in India, says, “In recent years, what we are seeing is that because of the growing disposable incomes, the growing middle class and the influence of the western world, that particularly among the young population, from 20 to 40 years old, we have a group that is becoming very fashion and grooming conscious.”
This growing awareness of fashion has already made a huge impact on China’s luxury goods sector. In China, luxury spending is dominated by men. According to a report from Bain & Co., Chinese men spent $1.1 billion stocking their wardrobes with expensive brands in 2010, dwarfing the $444 million spent by Chinese women in the same period. Given this context, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that men are also prepared to spend money on skin care and grooming products.
One person who has had a front-row seat for the emergence of male grooming in China is Joseph Xu, who started the men’s-only Spa de Feng in Beijing five years ago. Back then, most of his clients were foreign men living in or visiting the Chinese capital, but these days, 60 percent of his customers are Chinese, and they are becoming an increasingly savvy bunch who know what they want and aren’t afraid to pay for it.
“I find men are more focused on the comfort of the treatment itself, rather than the result,” Xu says. “Women will typically suffer for beauty. They would take a treatment that isn’t so comfortable, but has a fantastic result. Male customers would not do this,” Xu continues, adding that men also seem much less focused on antiaging than female spa-goers in China.
“They are more interested in cleansing,” he says. “They want to be clean and well-groomed, but not necessarily young. I don’t think men attach such an importance on youth, but they do want to be seen as clean-cut and well-maintained at any age.”
This new focus on appearance among young Chinese men is most likely the result of a number of factors, not least of which is competition for women: China’s current male-to-female ratio imbalance is leading demographers to estimate that there will be 24 million more single men than available women by 2020. Although the prerequisites for a marriageable man are still primarily property and a nice car, looking good can’t hurt a young man’s prospects, either.
Because China’s culture is highly peer-influenced, de Brabant says grooming is another way men are demonstrating societal success and giving themselves any edge they can in their personal and professional lives.
“The biggest cultural difference, at least compared to the West, is that Chinese men are going to get into grooming and skin care because it’s going to help them get a wife. They’re going to do this because it will help them get a job—if it’s practical and going to get them what they need, then they are going to do it,” he says.
Xu agrees, noting that the idea of men in China measuring themselves in terms of how good they look in comparison to their peers is a new development, but one he doesn’t expect to see going away any time soon.
“The traditional measure for a man has been what kind of job they have and how much money they make, but now their appearance is part of the deal–it’s interconnected with who you are,” Xu says. “If you have a good job and have a good lifestyle, then you can’t be lacking in the appearance department.”
Another factor enticing young Chinese men to hand over their hard-earned yuan for grooming and skin care products is the increasing influence of Western and pan-Asian cultures. Though it is not on the scale of, for example, Korea’s influence on the women’s cosmetics market in China, with the immense popularity of BB Cream, it is apparent from much of the advertising of men’s cosmetics prospects within China that Chinese men are looking beyond their own borders for aesthetic inspiration.
L’Oréal’s spokespeople in China include American- born Daniel Wu; Ethan Ruan, from Taiwan, and Takeshi Keneshiro, the Biotherm and Armani spokesperson who is half Taiwanese and half Japanese. This lineup has had proven success with men on the mainland, who want to emulate these celebrities, but also, importantly, with women, who are often the first people to purchase grooming products for their menfolk, introducing them to the sector.
“If you take the launch of Biotherm with Takeshi Keneshiro, [it] went well beyond L’Oréal’s expectations,” de Brabant says. “Women loved him and men found him attractive. They could aspire to be like him. So he hit the right notes and he’s not mainland Chinese, which shows there is an influence from places like Japan and Taiwan in terms of looks.”
Just as Chinese men in first-tier cities are influenced by men from abroad, so too are men from second-, third- and fourth-tier cities within mainland China influenced by the men from the major centers. Analysts say this influence will guarantee further explosive growth in the country, as men in China’s regional centers, and eventually even those in the countryside, catch on to the idea that soap and water just aren’t going to cut it anymore.
These men are just as ambitious as China’s market leaders in Beijing and Shanghai, and once they discover the aspirational story being sold by male grooming products, there is little doubt they will jump whole-heartedly on the bandwagon.
Although Perakis-Valat admits that L’Oréal’s China success has been unexpected—even to L’Oréal—he also emphasizes the importance of their strategy, in both the past and the future, of selling an aspirational lifestyle to generations of men who have been born and raised on the promise of incredible and unprecedented economic success.
“Part of it is flair, part of it is luck and it is a good example of our industry being an offer-driven industry,” he says. “If we had asked men in China in 2003, ‘What do you need?’ I’m not sure we would have come up with anything,” Perakis-Valat continues. “But this business is not about fulfilling needs, it’s about capturing dreams and fulfilling needs that you don’t even know that you need.”
CHINA’S RISING MAN POWER: 5 KEY POINTS
Grooming is Booming: Euromonitor predicts the men’s grooming market in China will grow 30 percent annually through 2014.
Young Guns: The sector is primarily being driven by young men aged 20 to 40, who are particularly open to influence from Western brands.
Numbers Game: With an estimated 24 million more single men than women by 2020, Chinese men will continue to place a high premium on their looks.
Get the Girl: As in other markets, women are often the first purchasers of grooming products for their significant others.
The Ripple Effect: Just as men in first-tier cities are influenced by trends from abroad, so too are men from the smaller cities in mainland China influenced by men from the major centers. This influence should guarantee future growth.
Meet the Metrosexuals
While he admits that the grooming industry in China has not reached the level of development he sees in New York, King says he has noticed more and more young Chinese men starting to take an interest in skin care, even if many of them are starting out by sampling their girlfriends’ products before heading out to purchase their own male-centric versions.
Although King says he prefers more niche brands, such as Kiehl’s and Anthony Logistics, he isn’t particularly brand loyal. Willing to try different things, he says finding something that works is important. “Light” and “nongreasy” are key attributes he looks for in a moisturizer; he also uses a weekly mask.
“I know my skin type—I’m a little bit oily—and I know what I should be using. I don’t really have a set way of checking things out. I just look and try it once and if I like it, I keep using it,” King says.
Similarly, Zong uses a variety of brands, from La Mer, Dior and Chanel to Clinique and Origins. However, unlike King, Zong meticulously researches products before he buys, checking out online reviews as well as men’s grooming features in magazines such as GQ and Esquire.
According to Zong, the primary reason for Chinese men’s rapidly increasing interest in grooming and skin care is directly linked to the country’s economic prosperity. He believes that a little bit of grooming can go a long way and is happy to see his countrymen becoming increasingly self- aware, and seeking to better themselves in the process.
“Grooming shows respect for others and respect for the social situation,” Zong says. “This is a good trend. It is good that Chinese men are seeking to improve themselves.”