How YSL Picked Up a Social Lipstick Trend in China – and Won

By Jiaqi Luo

In a modern world of diversity, cross-cultural interchange and rapidly evolving societies, it remains fair to say: women love lipstick. In the west, the term “lipstick effect” was born; when disposable income drops during a time of economic crisis, lipstick sales rise. Women love lipstick because it is an affordable product that instantly feels luxurious and increases their confidence level. (editor’s safety note – the writer is a woman!)

Chinese women love lipstick, too – while there are culturally-specific reasons for the rocketing sales and entirely new industry of lipstick in China. It’s not just lipstick effect, it’s kou hong ri — ‘lipstick craze’.

When the lipstick craze began

It all began from a common starting point for trends that catch the eyes of Chinese girls: Korean TV dramas. Korean TV soaps have long been an authoritative source of style and beauty for Chinese girls. Korean actresses are admired for their particular looks, and some younger Chinese girls obsess over ‘K Beauty’.

In 2016, Korean soap Descendants Of The Sun bore fruit of a new fascination with lipstick, with fans imitating the styles applied by their idols. Social media followed suit with headlines such as “Every K drama makes me want a new (dream) husband and a new lipstick!” Typical Chinese girls watch (many) more than one K drama each year. Whichever lipstick the stars wore, they wanted. In Chinese society, lipstick moved from a necessity to a desire – and didn’t stop there.

Baidu headlines: “A new ‘husband’ and lipstick for every K drama!”

When YSL picked up on this buzz and took a risk

As well as the Korean angle, 2016 also marked the year of the ‘Lipstick Bitch’ — kou hong biao.

Noticing the wildfire popularity of these Korean soaps and the organic content, questions and issues online, YSL put out a question: “How would your boyfriend react when you ask him to buy you a YSL lipstick?”

This question alone is something of an indicator from which western brands can learn something about Chinese culture. Would such a question in the West draw ire of commentators; “we don’t need men to buy our lipstick?” The pragmatism of China’s society is evident, with a sector openly giving their truthful opinion on a Chinese angle of female power: I asked my boyfriend to buy it for me and he did.

The WeChat buzz for this discussion led to huge exposure for the YSL beauty line.

Across social media, it was said that young ladies online were settling into three opinions:

1. Lipstick bitch: those who asked their boyfriends to buy lipstick and succeeded
2. The feminist: who looked down on the behavior of “lipstick bitch”
3. The elite: who looked down on the previous two because lipstick isn’t expensive enough

Moral questions aside, the YSL beauty line was the absolute winner. This wildfire buzz gained massive exposure and made YSL a ‘must-know’ modern/social element. If you used WeChat, you saw YSL.

The YSL “boyfriend” happening made a long-lasting impact on lipstick marketing in China. It consolidated the idea of lipstick as a romantic gift with which men can please their girlfriends.

From then on, lipstick became automatically associated with receiving gifts from men, getting love, and femininity. These ingrained associations led to the birth of new vocabulary used by Chinese consumers.

The vocabulary that customers look for

There is an entire set of vocabulary that you need to know about lipstick and female society in China. Moreover, these terms give insight into why certain colours are more or less popular with various demographics.

zhǎn nán sè: man-grabbing colour
zhí nán sè: straight-guys favourite colour
shào nǚ sè: the colour that makes you look like a teen girl
huáng pí yǒu hǎo sè: yellow-skin-friendly colour (direct translation)
xiǎn bái sè: a colour that makes your skin look whiter

Many Chinese girls favour lipstick that will make them look younger, whiter/paler, more feminine, and/or more attractive. Behind each lipstick purchase, there is hope for romance and admiration from men and other women.

How KOLs talk about lipsticks

There are several famous lipstick specific KOLs: “Auntie Lipstick”,“hi better me”and countless emerging ones, with live-streaming naturally lending itself to make-up tutorials and the like.

While western beauty YouTubers mainly use make-up tutorials to influence their fans, Chinese lipstick KOLs go a step further by making lipstick ratings in day-to-day situations, from working in an office to ‘extreme lipstick’ situations such as eating hotpot – a favourite meal for every demographic in China. Kissing is one obvious aspect of lipstick testing, though outright raunch is very carefully monitored in China, and any KOL or brand would be wise to remember that the line always draws short and sharp in China’s digital world.

The hotpot test from Auntie Lipstick’s account

Other popular luxury brands in China

1. Tom Ford

Tom Ford’s new collection Lips and Boys struck just the right chord with consumers’ heartstrings – the concept of lipstick equating romance.

One clear success was achieved by the packaging of Tom Ford’s lipstick: luxurious. It makes the user feel good when they apply it in public. The idea that they can collect each lipstick, which has a distinct personality, incentivised them to buy the entire collection – the fantasy of “a different lipstick for a different boy” is like collecting different boyfriends and a social-media-worthy point to show off after each purchase.

2. YSL

Together with Korean TV culture, YSL co-founded the lipstick craze in China. YSL not only succeeded in creating buzz among usual Chinese consumers, but also reaching the previously unreachable — Chinese men who had no previous knowledge about makeup. YSL transformed the humble lipstick into a testing ground for young couples, cultivating the idea of lipstick being a simple yet romantic gift for the Millennial generation.

3. Armani

Armani lipstick symbolises an entry-level luxury cosmetic for Chinese girls. The brand reputation is high, while a lipstick represents a lower cost way to show people that you are on the luxury path.

4. Brands with China-relevant aspects

Besides the top luxury brands, other types of brand are working on clever collaborations – for example, L’Oréal with the National Museum of China. The collection is a smart response to the rising interest in Chinese heritage.

L’Oréal’s collaboration with the National Museum of China

Converse to the ‘lipstick effect’, China’s lipstick push is a story of the new spending power and cultural interests of the Millennial generation (and all of it’s sub-components, without wanting to go into ‘post-Millennial’ etc. at this point). It’s not a symbol of small spending, but a will to spend bigger in the future. It’s an entry-level item for the many millions of aspirational, young Chinese consumers who live their lives on social media buzz and are ready to spend.

Implication for cosmetic brands:

1. Focus on social media values

It sounds very obvious, but specifically; how is your cosmetic product able to provide intruiging talking points for Chinese Millennials? What is the story or discussion that your consumers will want to share with their friends? Where is the product’s ‘me’ factor — the point of sharing is not to share the product but ‘this is about me‘ and ‘look how I am relating to this’.

2. Invest in product design

You might have heard of the importance of “mianzi” in Chinese culture, and that’s no different for Chinese millennials. Comments such as “Tom Ford lipstick looks so classy and that saves me face when I take it out in public” are frequently seen in social media. You want to make your product to look attractive and mianzi-worthy.

3. Think selling products in sets

Tom Ford’s “Lipsticks and Boys” set is a perfect example of an upselling concept for young Chinese consumers. Since lipstick consumption is so heavily tied in with the act of gifting, selling products in sets solidifies its gift value.

4. Find the right time to think out of the box

China’s female cosmetic market is competitive and quite saturated with media buzz. What could be the next big opportunity for brands? This could even be men’s lipstick — given that men wearing lipstick is no longer new in Korea, the trend may soon hit China, as a  data chart from TMall 2016 already indicated that male lipstick sales were on the rise. Anything is possible…