When Clarins rapidly built out its global Web presence beginning in 2010 — the brand launched 18 sites in just as many months — Aurélie Brisac, Clarins global digital marketing director, learned some valuable lessons about one of the world’s biggest consumer markets, China. “The first was just the simple fact that the e-commerce beauty category exists and could be applied to Clarins brands,” said Brisac during her on-stage conversation at the WWD Digital Beauty Forum with Molly Prior, financial beauty editor at WWD. There was a caveat, though. Clarins’ global investment — its sites — had local limits, especially in China. 

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

One key to success in that country is “guanxi” or relationships — in this case, with its retail partners. “We had to set up the right partners and move progressively with them,” said Brisac. After establishing the clarins.com site in China, the company moved on to “bigger pieces of the [beauty retail] pie.” That meant setting up a shop on TaoBao Tmall, a digital retail marketplace that, according to Brisac, represents 85 percent of the online transactions in China. “If you go on the site, you would be scared because it’s shiny, there’s information all over the place all the time,” she said. “But Tmall 100 percent respects the brand’s image and its DNA. There is no risk of damaging the online image because you manage your own boutique.”

Though Clarins has successfully navigated the Tmall marketplace, it still faces challenges. They need brand visibility on the site, but are finding that difficult to achieve because the rules for doing so are not clear. “Gaining visibility on Tmall requires a lot of ‘guanxi’ with the Tmall management team to make things work,” said Brisac.

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Also, the company has in effect created two businesses in China — clarins.com and its Tmall boutique — with their customers divided between the two. “We have difficulties converting Tmall consumers into clarins.com consumers, and we’re not even sure that is the right thing to do anyway,” said Brisac. “Should we consider closing clarins.com? We’re not there yet. Clarins.com helps our consumers find the right products for their skin.” Also playing a major role in the Clarins China strategy is the social media platform WeChat. The company aims to use it as an “omnichannel” to reach Chinese customers in China, but equally as important, Chinese customers outside of China, said Brisac. “The Chinese are traveling, and that population [who is traveling and using WeChat] is interesting for Clarins because we know they’re young and Clarins needs to recruit a younger customer.”

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