Explainer: Why Men’s Skin Care Is Booming in China

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China’s male pop stars have become key marketing vehicles for beauty brands looking to appeal not only to female fans but also to men. So, when another scandal broke last week surrounding a singer who has lucrative contracts with big international brands, it was a reminder of the risks inherent in such partnerships in a country that sees celebrities get cancelled for moral transgressions more easily and dramatically than others.

Prada fashion ambassador Cai Xukun, who also works with beauty players like Givenchy Beauty, Japan’s Effectim, domestic skin care giant Proya and national pharmacy chain Watsons, was accused of pressuring a woman to get an abortion. Cai has denied any wrongdoing but indicated he would change his behaviour in future. So far, the brands appear to have stuck by Cai even though content relating to his endorsements has reportedly been scrubbed on some of their official Weibo accounts.

The most popular male celebrities often strike deals with several brands across different product categories. Actor Xiao Zhan, for example, has partnered with L’Oréal, YSL Beauty, Nars and Shiseido’s Anessa. What’s at stake with such partnerships is market share in China. And in a market where famous young men stare down at the public from billboards with seemingly luminous skin, one category in particular is attracting a lot of attention.

The male skin care market is touted as a growth engine for beauty players in China. The Foresight Industry Research Institute estimates that it was worth 12.5 billion yuan ($1.8 billion) in 2020 and is forecasted to reach 20.7 billion yuan ($3 billion) in 2026, tracking a CAGR of more than 15 percent over the period.

Underpinning this growth is a strong upwards trend for sports and exercise. During last year’s Covid-19 lockdowns, skin care became more of a focus for both men and women, and since the lifting of restrictions, there has been a strong desire to get fit and indulge in self-care. As a result, many brands are educating consumers to do skincare routines before or after sports, focusing on cleansers, anti-acne products, or products that carry SPF.

Arnold Ma, founder of marketing agency Dao Insights, said Chinese brands are making more effort in “leveraging male consumers’ interests such as sports and e-sports to create crossover collaborations, which seems not [as] common among Western brands.”

“Chinese brands also tend to be more active in curating offline events as part of efforts to build community and as a response to the social needs of the young generations of consumers. This also creates a social and peer effect, which would benefit the seeding process, which is not [as] common in Western marketing either,” Ma added.

Local companies also take a more diversified approach to their marketing, focusing on more niche platforms such as streetwear platform Dewu, and popular sports website Hupu. Ma points to one local brand, Mancodes, that initially focused the former, targeting the post-90′s Gen-Z consumer.

“Recognising their desire for a brighter complexion without the appearance of wearing makeup, Mancodes successfully positioned its star product, the bare face cream, which has garnered remarkable success with over two million units sold since its launch,” he said.

“The promotion strategy includes bundled sales, combining its star product… with other skin care items. This approach provides consumers with a time-saving and hassle-free one-stop shopping experience for skin care and cosmetics, while also increasing exposure for other product categories and catering to diverse lifestyle needs.”

Meanwhile, foreign brands are likely to continue down the celebrity marketing track, albeit one that appears slightly lower-risk than local entertainers. Now that Chinese male athletes have started to secure prominent luxury brand campaigns and ambassadorships, it is probably only a matter of time before they are tapped by global beauty brands hoping to ride the same skincare-meets-sports wave.

But another way Chinese brands are making marketing stickier is by focusing on female consumers with boyfriends, tapping into their spending power and a desire to make purchases for their partners. Although these are tried-and-true methods to convert customers elsewhere, they work especially well in emerging markets like China.

Brands across the spectrum are loosely prioritising the same consumer profile. According to a Xiaohongshu report published last year, male skin care shoppers on the social commerce platform are overwhelmingly young — with over 70 percent born post 1990s — and live in first or second tier cities. Although it’s a less mature segment than females, the proportion of men who spend 1,500 yuan a month on skin care products has already surpassed females, the company said.

For a product category like men’s skin care, measuring performance across brands can be challenging but one well-known list from Qiang 100, a brand rankings firm using unspecified metrics, put Biotherm as the top men’s skin care label in China. That was followed by Nivea, L’Oréal’s Men’s Expert line, a brand by Chinese beauty giant Shanghai Jahwa called GF (the first ever local men’s skin care brand launched in 1992) and Kiehl’s.

Other international brands on the list include Mentholatum, Shiseido, Innisfree and Laneige from Korean group Amorepacific and Lab Series. Chinese brands that made the cut include Aupres, Inoherb, Pechoin, Doctor Li, Herborist, Yu Ni Fang and Chando.

According to JD.com, the e-commerce major’s current top-selling products are Kiehl’s face moisturiser, followed by face washes from Japanese brands Freeplus, SK-II and Curel rounding out the top five. It isn’t until eighth place that local brands make their mark with a moisturiser from Yuesai, a brand by TV host and media personality Yue-Sai Kan, followed by an acne serum targeting discoloration from Home Facial Pro, and a moisturiser from Proya in the ninth and tenth spots respectively.

However, given the spike in rumours in China of radioactive-contaminated Japanese beauty products, these rankings could swiftly shift.

Last month, there was uproar among some Chinese consumers when news surfaced that Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant wanted to release slightly radioactive wastewater into the ocean. Although the water has been treated and the international nuclear-safety authority gave Japan the go-ahead, it may not be enough to reassure Chinese customers.

SK-II, P&G and Shiseido all released statements in China in an attempt to reassure customers about the safety of their Japanese products’ but the topic trended high on multiple social media platforms with some users saying they wouldn’t dare buy any more Japanese beauty brands.

“The nuclear pollution in Japan has definitely taken a toll on the businesses of Japanese brands,” said Ma.

Many Japanese products have been in demand in China because they have been formulated for Asian skin or sensitive skin, in contrast to Western brands. Young Chinese men and women still prefer a lighter or brighter complexion due to traditional Chinese beauty standards and the influence of the “porcelain skin” trend from Korea, seeking out products that can combat uneven skin tone, enlarged pores and dullness.

Chinese brands are well positioned to capture any potential gap left by Japanese companies. Replacing foreign brands with local alternatives also plays into the ongoing ‘guochao’ wave of national pride.

One possible contender is Simpcare, a brand founded in Guangzhou that targets those with sensitive skin. It has recently enjoyed strong momentum.

“[Simpcare’s] latest [hero] product Aurora Black Spruce Men’s Skincare Series released early this year made an immediate hit,” said Dao Insights’ Ma, citing Tmall sales that “surpassed all other domestic brands listed on the platform in just 30 days following the release.” Performance during the recent 618 festival “took the top spot in ‘Men’s Gift Box’ and ‘Men’s Skincare Set’ rankings… outperforming L’Oréal and Kiehl’s,” he added.

Simpcare has also surged in popularity because it emphasises the scientific efficacy of novel products. For example, the company’s Conotoxin firming serum is named after a neurotoxin secreted by a deep-sea mollusc. In its product description, the brand includes a quote from their in-house R&D scientist explaining how the conotoxin peptide can help relax muscles and improve skin elasticity.

Such science-based pitches, though increasingly popular across the board in China, appear to be particularly attractive in the men’s skin care market.

Coty chief executive Sue Nabi commented that this trend was evident with the multinational group’s brands in China as well.

“In our consumer studies and even in-home visits I’ve done in March… it was very clear that Chinese consumers want skin care products that are first and above all science-backed, and dermatologists approved,” she said. “This is a big change versus what was done just two years ago. In some ways, this is also driving some fatigue with what [are] usually called heritage brand[s].”

Some companies are subtly skewing their approach to attract more men through high-tech language and futuristic touchpoints.

Last year, Unilever launched EB39, a high-end men’s skin care line solely for the Chinese market. The name stands for “Energy Buff’ and references the brand claim that skin cells turnover every 39 days. The premise, pitched by a female brand ambassador who is a metaverse avatar character called “Dr. Lisa”, is that the company’s R&D is driven by artificial intelligence.



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