The saga of how one man’s out-of-touch trash(talk) became many a Chinese time-honored brand’s treasure. Following a beauty livestreamer’s fiercely debated faux-pas, the oldies but goldies stand ready to ham it up for the camera and catch that consumer eye.
In recent years, the makeup sector in the Middle Kingdom has witnessed the meteoric rise of domestic products. Among the primary reasons behind this ascent to major acclaim is the Chinese beauty consumer’s increasing interest in buying locally produced goods that are perceived to be better suited to their characteristics and needs. Chinese brands also have a clear advantage in understanding market trends and consumer preferences, enabling them to design products that attract attention.
When designing new makeup products, it is important to adhere to C-beauty (which, stating the obvious, stands for Chinese beauty) standards, which emphasize white skin and a natural yet sophisticated makeup look.
One popular trend is the use of eye shadows and pencils to make eyes appear larger. In fact, consumers are placing more emphasis on their eyes and to further enhance their look, colored contact lenses are becoming increasingly popular.
One hit brand in the makeup industry is Florasis (花西子| huā xīzǐ in Chinese), which has attracted the attention of international audiences in recent years. Florasis is a brand of affordable products inspired by the unique designs of China’s Miao minority. Thanks to its one-and-only features, the label has become one of the most popular Chinese brands–both at home and abroad.
But in early September, when an argument that began with a Florasis eye pencil became the topic of frenzied netizen conversation, consumers ended up casting their perfectly lined gaze on time-honored but lesser-known Chinese brands.
Too faint to fathom? Have no fear, enlightenment is here:
Chinese beauty influencer and top livestreaming host Li Jiaqi met his Waterloo on September 11. During one of his livestreams on that day, his inappropriate response to a potential customer triggered heated discussion and a boycott of his channel. While Li was promoting a domestic brand of eyebrow pencils priced at 79 RMB (10.79 USD) that evening, one netizen left a message saying that the product was becoming increasingly expensive. Li responded that the product’s price had stayed the same for a number of years and commented on the difficult market situation for domestic makeup companies.
Controversially, he went on to question the netizen, “Sometimes you should look to yourself for explanations. After all these years, has your salary increased? Have you been working hard enough?” The questions immediately sparked an online buzz, with many netizens complaining they were hurt by his words, and that Li had become arrogant and indifferent to ordinary customers’ needs. Within a day, he lost 1 million of his more than 30 million followers.
The incident also gave rise to more discussion of Florasis, the up-and-coming Chinese beauty brand that produced the 79-RMB eyebrow pencil. Some homegrown brands took Li’s gaffe as an opportunity and devised promotional strategies related to the incident to attract public attention. For example, Bee & Flower, a longstanding Shanghai-based company that produces toiletries, launched a 79-RMB bulk shampoo and conditioner set in its live-streaming sales immediately after Li’s blunder occurred.
Some other timed-honored but lesser-known (Chinese beauty) brands followed suit and have enjoyed a dramatic increase in popularity, especially among the young.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Established in 1984, Bee & Flower is a name that remains in the memory of many. The plain packaging, customer-friendly price and the quality of its products have earned it a good reputation and some trending discussions online every now and then. Many customers feel sorry for the brand as it cannot outshine the marketing tactics of more modern brands in today’s competitive market. “Bee & Flower is a brand that my parents use. I have been using it since childhood as well and its price hasn’t changed much,” Wu Sisi, a 31-year-old Hubei professional who bought a couple of products from the online store of Bee & Flower to show her support during the campaign, told the author. “For me, the brand represents trustworthiness.”
The recent online controversy is a turning point for the usually unexciting brand. On the night that Li made the remark, Bee & Flower launched its 79-RMB set and gained more than 2.7 million followers on the short video platform Douyin, China’s TikTok. Although it has sold products on the platform via livestreaming in the past, its livestreams typically attracted fewer than 1,000 viewers, but the number hit 1 million on September 11 and 10 million in the days that followed. The estimated sales revenue from the promotion following Li’s scandal was some 25 million RMB (3.42 million USD).
This was not the first time consumers rallied behind the brand. In November 2021, when the company was widely rumored to be on the verge of bankruptcy, its sales volume increased to seven times that of the previous month, mostly because people were nostalgic about and attached to the brand and wanted to save it from bankruptcy.
Erke, a Chinese brand established in 2000 that focuses on sportswear, also piggybacked on the “79-yuan” marketing event and promoted its products at a reduced price during its livestreaming sales in the following days. Its sales hosts not only promoted the Erke brand but also other domestic brands. They used Bee & Flower shampoo to wash their hair live online during the sales event; and drank beverages produced by MIXUE, a popular Chinese ice cream and tea chain, along with other acts that caught the attention of the public.
Mean Girl Marketing?
The campaigns have undoubtedly earned these low-profile brands unprecedented attention, as evidenced by the increased support and sales. Several of Bee & Flower’s 79-yuan product sets had been sold out on its Douyin account at the time of writing. However, some have described the tactics as gimmicks, saying piggybacking on other brands’ scandals is “mean-spirited.”
“It is understandable for brands to seize social media marketing opportunities and make good use of them,” said Ling Yan, Deputy Director of the Shanghai Brand Development Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. She added that although Bee & Flower is an old brand, it is new to most consumers.
Using popular or trending events as marketing opportunities can help brands quickly come to consumers’ attention, which “is a very correct step,” Ling told China Newsweek magazine. “Taking advantage of opportune moments online can temporarily promote domestic product sales. But the growth of homegrown brands requires them to follow consumer needs and put more effort into the basics such as product quality, design and brand culture. It’s a long-term process that demands lasting patience,” Cheng Yingqi, founder of oral care product brand Blispring, told news portal Jimu News.
The Next Frontier
In mid-September, the hashtag “Yu Mei Jing finally got online” was among the hottest on Weibo, China’s equivalent of X, formerly known as Twitter. With a history of 44 years, the skincare brand launched a skin cream product in the 1980s, which was the first to be made specifically for children, and it is still sold on the market today. The company hadn’t registered on popular social media platforms like Douyin and Chinese Instagram slash e-commerce platform 小红书 (xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book) until mid-September. After its registration, in just six days, its Douyin account had attracted nearly 1.5 million followers. In recent years, the traditional brand has been increasing investment in research and development to cater to the needs of Chinese children.
But the quest for new consumers stretches well beyond the realm of Chinese beauty.
“How can we keep consumers and make them loyal to domestic products? The key is product quality and brand strength,” Shi Bin, Chairperson and General Manager of Yu Mei Jing, told Xinhua News Agency. “Moreover, we have been upgrading our product packaging to make it more appealing to young consumers,” Shi said, adding that developing an innovative market strategy is another focus of the company and that opening accounts on social media and livestreaming e-commerce platforms is one of the steps.
As the younger generation becomes the main consumption force, many Chinese brands, like Yu Mei Jing, are trying harder to grab their attention.
Kweichow Moutai is a leading maker of Chinese liquor, which is favored by older generations and mainly consumed at high-end banquets. The top liquor brand has recently joined hands with Chinese coffee chain Luckin Coffee and U.S. chocolate brand Dove, producing a Moutai-flavored coffee with the former and liquor-filled chocolate with the latter, targeting young customers. Ding Xiongjun, Chairman of Kweichow Moutai said at a meeting last December that young people are the main consumers of the future and how to meet their demand with the company’s products and services is the biggest challenge the company faces.
“You cannot build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”
THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF LÜ YAN’S ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN BEIJING REVIEW, VOL 66, NO. 39 (SEPTEMBER 28, 2023)
FEATURED IMAGE: COLLAGE OF LRB SCREENSHOTS
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