Earlier this month, skin care brand Kopari introduced its Pink Soufflé Body Mask, a treatment designed to brighten and clarify skin from the neck down. A cheery launch campaign shows women lathering the whipped pink mask on their thighs, bellies and butts. The women featured are diverse in skin tone, size and stretch marks, hallmarks of the very American “body positivity” movement.
Selling on the other side of the world, however, requires different tactics. Kopari sells many of its core products in China via Tmall, but has had to make tweaks to adapt its e-commerce experience for the Chinese consumer. There won’t be any Pink Soufflé in China (since body masks are “almost non-existent” in that market, according to Susan Kim, Kopari’s chief executive). But the rest of the lineup is seeing success in the region because the marketing has been adjusted — although it still uses the same brand and model imagery — to emphasise what exactly a product does.
“Our ethos is about inclusivity, diversity of body types and positivity when it comes to feeling comfortable in your own skin,” Kim added. “That lends to everything we do, but the product we release in Asia we have to anchor very hard around what it does.”
Kopari is just one example of how beauty brands must adjust to account for different consumer expectations in certain Asian markets versus western ones. In the US, the nascent but growing body and skin positivity movement is influencing the way beauty is marketed and sold. But some Asian markets lag behind in terms of embracing “flaws,” as perfection is still the ideal.
Despite the different perspectives, Asian consumers still want popular western brands. When the brands that were traditionally top sellers in the US were also selling perfection, the message was aligned. Now that that’s changing in the US, experts and founders are unsure if the Asian consumer will follow suit.
The range of conventional beauty standards is narrower in some Asian markets, but that doesn’t mean there’s no diversity of opinion. Nascent movements to challenge historical definitions of beauty are growing in China, Japan and South Korea but have not yet gained mainstream momentum as they have in the US.
In China, for example, it’s still most common for companies to promote porcelain-like skin and a flawless makeup finish, according to Laurie Du, a senior beauty analyst at Mintel who is based in Shanghai. The desire for pale skin dates back to the Han Dynasty, when skin tone was indicative of one’s social status; more recently, the beauty standard has been further popularised by celebrities like Fan Bingbing and K-pop stars, with their “glass skin” complexions.
“In the US we go tanning for fun, for recreation. In China, they don’t do that,” said Erin Schmidt, a beauty industry analyst at Coresight Research, a global consultancy. “They protect their skin vigilantly and use umbrellas. It’s part of their culture for men and women. They take tremendous pride in their skin — it’s a cultural value.”
Du said that standard is unlikely to change in the near-term. A Mintel survey showed that 80 percent of 18 to 49-year-old female Chinese consumers living in bigger cities prioritise skin care benefits when buying facial products. The pursuit of “perfecting skin condition” has also led to a rise in non-invasive cosmetic procedures, Du added.
But change is afoot, albeit more slowly than in the west. Inner beauty is starting to carry more weight than physical appearance in China. According to Mintel, over 70 percent of Chinese consumers said beauty equates to “having a unique style” and 35 percent said beauty means “accepting your flaws.” Brands, too, are making adjustments. For example, Neiwai, a popular Chinese underwear brand (which is expanding into the US), released its “No Body is Nobody” campaign, which featured more diverse body types than what’s commonly seen in Chinese advertising.
In China specifically, Du thinks there is more potential for wider adoption of inclusive fashion, as apparel brands can extend sizing more easily than beauty labels can change deeply ingrained, centuries-old beauty ideals.
Still, there’s optimism about the future of body and skin acceptance-led marketing in Asia. Alicia Yoon, founder and chief executive officer of Peach & Lily, noted that attitudes in South Korea are starting to shift. Brands are seeing that real conversations with their following, whether it’s through an influencer or a live selling strategy online, work better.
“In Korea, things can change pretty quickly,” said Yoon. “As more influencers realise people connect better when they’re like, ‘Oh you look a lot like me, like a normal person,’ they see more success.”
The Immediate Approach
Though changing the narrative around the skin and body positivity conversation in some Asian markets is the end goal for many, in the meantime, experts say brands should focus on specific ingredient attributes and the efficacy of their products if they’re looking to expand their brand into the region.
It’s easier to make the leap when you’re a conventional legacy brand. Asian beauty standards still sell — just ask Estée Lauder and Lancôme, both of which have had enormous success selling in China (strong performance in China led Estée Lauder Companies to a double-digit increase last quarter) and feature porcelain-skinned and conventionally beautiful, thin models or celebrities in their marketing.
“They’re still true to who they are,” said Schmidt. ”They’re still just marketing the way they market.”
For brands with more of a “be who you are” mentality, Schmidt suggests shifting focus to product efficacy, similar to Kopari’s approach. But there is a fine line between staying true to what you stand for as a brand and upending your marketing strategy in hopes of global expansion.
While every product may not work in, for example, the Chinese market, Kopari’s Kim reiterated that the brand’s visual identity is the same globally. Body diversity means showing all different types of bodies and normalising that instead of being fearful that it’s not going to resonate with the consumer. She cited the brand’s “Moisturizing Lip Glossy,” which uses the same product imagery in China and the US.
“You can’t be one brand in one country and a completely different brand in another country,” she said.