By Jiaqi Luo
Known as the world’s largest shopping event, China’s annual shopping extravaganza Double 11 is drawing closer. At the heart of this ultra-competitive battleground for clicks and buys are beauty brands. In China, consumers see Double 11 as an unmissable occasion to stock up beauty products for the entire year, making the success of this single event extremely crucial for the brand’s annual performance. In 2018, RMB 15.16 billion ($2.2 billion) was spent on Tmall’s beauty and personal care division during the Double 11 festival alone. This year, even before the Double 11 officially starts, Estée Lauder’s Tmall has already sold over 520,000 bottles, RMB 1 billion worth of “little brown bottle” in the pre-sale event.
So, what is a “little brown bottle,” you might ask? It’s a nickname coined by Chinese beauty consumers for Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair eye cream, which is packed in a little brown bottle. Almost no one in China uses its official name in real life. In fact, besides Estée Lauder, nearly all popular selling beauty products have a Chinese nickname. Lately, savvy brands have officially adopted them by putting them in their own e-commerce product byline. Started as an organic social media phenomenon, the nicknames are now a valuable marketing tool for brands to captivate ever-more capricious Chinese consumers.
Take SK-II (their ambassador Ni Ni, above), who sold over RMB 1 billion of products in 2018’s double 11, for example. The brand’s Tmall page currently features products given these nicknames by Chinese consumers on social media: “Ex-boyfriend facial mask,” “Goddess water,” and “Little lightbulb.” The Ex-boyfriend facial mask, really the SK-II facial treatment mask, promises to make your face glow so much that your ex-boyfriend will beg you to come back. The Goddess water, or the SK-II facial treatment essence, promises to make you look like a goddess. The Little Lightbulb promises to switch on your aura like a lightbulb lights up the room. It does sound sexier than the official name: Genoptics aura essence.
(SK-II’s double 11 campaigns for “Ex-boyfriend facial mask,” “Goddess water,” and “Little lightbulb.” Image: SK-II’s official Tmall)
Another consumer-favourite brand Shiseido knows this nickname game well. Its bestseller, the “Red Kidney” serum, has already received more than 110,000+ orders on the October 21st Double 11 pre-sale event. This odd-sounding nickname for Shiseido’s Power Infusing Concentrate comes from the fact that the product is small, red and curvy … like a kidney. In comparison, the “Little Steam Iron” seems a cuter interpretation for Vital-protection wrinklelift mask, by using the metaphor of a steam iron on a piece of cloth to suggest wrinkle removal.
(Shiseido’s “Red kidney” serum and “Little Steam Iron” eye mask. Image: Shiseido’s official Tmall)
In the realm of lipstick, an utterly-important and over-crowded category in China’s beauty market, virtually all best-sellers have their own nicknames. Armani’s Lip Magnet is a “Little Jellypuff (a Pokémon character)” because of its rounded bottom shape. Maybelline’s Superstay Matte Ink is a “Kissing Stick,” after Chinese girls kissing the night away lauded its long-lasting colour: it apparently makes them kiss-ready during a date or whenever the mood so takes them. Christian Louboutin’s lip balm is “Little carrot,” both because the product is shaped like a mignon carrot and because the Chinese pronunciation for carrot resembles the French “Louboutin.”
You get the idea. These nicknames, coined by Chinese netizens and used every day from shop floors to social media, are gutsy, funny, and sometimes irrational. Today, the nickname culture has grown so prevalent that few Chinese beauty consumers will recognise a product’s long, complicated official name that usually features the same western clichés of ‘nutri-‘ and ‘vitali-‘ and ‘rejuve-something’. These don’t match Chinese mindsets and especially don’t work whatsoever on Chinese social media, where everybody has a short attention span and continually seeks the next sensational and fun line.
On lifestyle platform RED AKA Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) there are many posts to educate Chinese beauty lovers, or their boyfriends, on the most-popular nicknames. Some of the best-known ones are:
- “Ten Powerful Tonics Mask”: Filorga’s Anti-wrinkle lightening mask. “Ten powerful tonics” is a Chinese medicine soup formula known to enhance the body’s immune system, referring to the mask’s nutritional potency.
- “White Bandage Cream”: Helena Rubinstein’s Re-Plasty Age Recovery Cream. Chinese beauty junkies perceive the cream is best for after-plastic-surgery use, and this is where the “white bandage” reference comes from.
- “Self-discipline lotion”: Ipsa’s Metabolizer Lotion. The word “self-discipline” comes from the brand’s campaign that recommends users to apply the lotion three drops a time for 42 days in a row, making the process an exercise in self-discipline.
Of course, such a nickname culture is difficult for big global brands to tackle. Standard western marketing logic, which prioritises image control, global brand consistency, and brand equity protection, is inapplicable here. It is also easy for the overseas-trained marketing brains to think the resulting “populism” of their goods will erode the premium that once made their labels so desirable.
But, will any of that really matter if consumers can’t recognise your product? What if they jump to your competitors because they are fascinated by fun, Chinese-created nicknames? To understand China’s competitive beauty market, brands need to let go of prejudice and have an open mind to absorb the nuances of this unique nickname culture – and embrace it. Here are three key notes:
- It’s a sign of affection
Chinese consumers have had a proven history in giving nicknames to international brands they rave about, no matter whether luxury or not. In their day-to-day language, Louis Vuitton is “Donkey brand” (donkey is pronounced as “lv” in Chinese), Chanel is “Granny Cha,” and Serge Lutan is “spiced corn egg (pronounced as ‘ludan’ in Chinese).” To China’s modern shoppers, these nicknames are practical tools that help them navigate seemingly identical brand names that are in difficult-to-pronounce foreign languages. While the language barrier is not a problem for some Chinese millennials, they are still opting for Chinese nicknames out of convenience and affection. In fact, not having a nickname yet is almost a sign of failure for brands in China’s fashion and beauty scene. It means that the product hasn’t earned consumers’ affection yet. It means you are not yet beloved.
- It works magic in a crowded marketplace
Think of the nickname as an elevator pitch created by Chinese consumers themselves. Super-trending nicknames like SK-II’s “ex-boyfriend facial mask” and “goddess water” have largely simplified the product’s description, but then adding humour and irony that will cut through the crowded social space. In the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, authors Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote, “the only defense a person has in our over-communicated society is an over-simplified mind.” This statement is particularly true in China, where the beauty marketplace is over-crowded and over-communicated. A sassy, easy-to-remember nickname will establish the right association in the consumer’s mind immediately and make that association socially sharable.
- It actually defends brands by warding off the copycats
When Chinese consumers search for a product on Tmall, Little Red Book, WeChat, or Douyin, they are most likely to type the nickname since that’s what they know. If a brand decides not to adopt the nickname on its official store, it is saying no to organic traffic. On an especially high-traffic day like the Double 11, all these lost opportunities of nickname searches are likely to go to copycats who will take advantage of the demand.
After all, being able to earn a nickname, funny or not, is a badge of honour for international brands in China’s beauty e-commerce competition. China-smart brands have long embraced this unique culture and made it part of the overall marketing strategy. While these sensational nicknames might appear strange to some, they are exactly what makes China’s retail landscape so alive, exciting and fascinating.