Being the second-largest cosmetics market in the world, China is leaving everyone open-mouthed with almost US$ 60-billion-worth retail sales in cosmetics in 2021, according to Statista. This is up 13% from the previous year. Amidst COVID-19.
How do brands contribute to those figures? They pay the price. Even with its high potential and numerous uncovered opportunities, China remains the most challenging market for both experienced brands and newcomers.
What do we normally know before we start in China?
First, popular platforms where you put your marketing dollars are banned here. But, thank God, the internet is helping us to know how to deal with that. Second, China is renowned for being a cradle of an ancient and distinctive culture. But we know they like red, yellow and dragons! Third, anyone in cosmetics business is aware of the local regulations. (Not of the cost of this dubious honour, though).
However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. At a deeper dive, fundamental differences arise all around, be it a deal with a distributor or conquering your target consumer’s loyalty. “Ah! Distributors don’t buy my stuff!” “Eh! They also don’t invest.!?” “Oh! TMALL is not an easy platform to get sales!” “Ouch! Influencers don’t deliver on a promise…”
You are not prepared!
The process of starting in China should begin months before you enter. I compare it to building a house: it is not the frames that you begin with but site preparations and foundations.
A lot of cosmetic brands plunge into the abyss directly: they open an online store, maybe some local social media account, and, of course, spice it up with some influencers. Or, let’s say, they just contact the distributors.
Firstly, on a scale from preparing a site to decorating the house, where do you think this all sits? The frame stage. At least. Secondly, everyone is doing that. Everyone is contacting Chinese distributors. Everyone is doing ads on TMALL (if accepted!). Everyone pays to KOLs (key opinion leaders), and Chinese people know it! Discounts, festivals, live-streaming, beautiful content, WeChat… Everyone.
How to make a brand stand out?
Site preparation. It’s something you do quietly: a trademark in China, a Chinese name, a brand book, etc. Try working with one distributor in China without this, and next time, trust me, you will rush in fury to do it. I hope it’s not too late?
Research is also part of that. Remember, China is a big non-homogeneous market where skin problems, hair problems, make up preferences, pain points, consumer behaviours vary. Chinese consumers are picky, demanding and spoilt. They are price-sensitive, brand value-sensitive, experience-sensitive, language-sensitive and so on and so forth. Next, how about your competitors? Perfect experts can give you useful but very superficial ideas because they are, unfortunately, not data banks and computers to paint the full picture for your brand.
This is the thinking part that constitutes your marketing approach and it has to be done. Sadly, most of the brands skip it, and then they pay a lot to rectify their mistakes.
Once the site is ready, laying the foundations is essential. This is what no-one around really notices unless it’s an expert taking a closer look. However, it’s where the decision to buy derives from.
If site preparation is quite universal, the foundation might look different depending on business specifics, product and goals. Someone needs a website for China, someone needs WeChat to replace emailing whose usage in China is incredibly low, someone might find it a waste of money at this stage, etc.
What remains constant in the cosmetic industry in China is a need for Trust. Do you know what would motivate a consumer to switch from one brand to yours? Do you know how in a country of fakes and scams a distributor knows he should replace what has already proven to sell with a new product? You can place your product anywhere, but why would it be trusted and preferred? Because you paid for KOLs? I don’t think so.
All of that can be skipped, of course.
It is merely a question of revenues, growth, image, brand control. If long-term prospects matter, prepare well – make sure your brand stands firmly on the ground. Everything is possible in China, but nothing is easy.
Inna Kochanzhi is a Shanghai-based, Chinese-speaking expert on building successful marketing campaigns in the Chinese cosmetic market.
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