They’ve been called affordable, fair quality, and basic. “C-beauty” — a.k.a. Chinese-born beauty brands — used to be what most Chinese beauty consumers relied upon when they couldn’t afford better and cooler foreign brands. But with a new generation of C-beauty brands emerging and evolving, this story is quickly being rewritten. And now, at the dawn of the 2020s, C-beauty’s reputation is set to change from a cheap alternative to an industry trendsetter.
In May, Jing Daily reported on the ascent of C-beauty in 2019, saying that C-beauty brands have seen their sales soar in recent years thanks to their high price-to-quality ratio and consumers’ “buy-Chinese” attitude as an expression of national pride. Yet compared to international brands, most consumers still thought of C-beauty as having inferior branding and a lack of cachet.
For most of the past decade, C-beauty was mostly known for producing ‘copycat’ versions of premium international products at a much lower price. For example, a Huda Beauty-inspired eyeshadow palette from a domestic brand would cost 20 — approximately one-third the price of the real Huda palette, which costs 65. In the past, many of China’s local brands established themselves as affordable alternatives for consumers who couldn’t afford the original thing. Consumers were paying for C-beauty’s use — not its brand value.
But today, a wave of new-gen C-beauty brands is challenging the old “cheap, unoriginal” norms of C-beauty by offering a value upgrade, and China’s young and urban population is its biggest advocate. User data from the lifestyle platform Little Red Book showed that entries of “C-beauty” rose 116 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2019, while over 5 million users shared positive reviews of C-beauty brands. According to CBN Data’s report, 70 percent of C-beauty consumers are age 18-25 and from top-tier cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hangzhou. Sharing an audience with international brands, the new C-beauty poses additional challenges to the multinational stalwarts that have traditionally dominated the beauty industry. Among those C-beauty brands, we picked the top-3 value-breaking brands worth watching in 2020:
The digitally native brand HEDONE is China’s answer to the Euphoria makeup trend that’s captivating American Gen Zers. With a slogan of “Fashion in Chinese Cyber Life,” this modern Gen-Z brand defies all of China’s beauty norms. The world of HEDONE treats makeup as an arena for self-expression rather than a simple self-perfecting tool. Its iconic looks are often topped with sequins, glitter, sharp eyeliner, bright eyeshadow colors, and other elements that would’ve been deemed “too much” in China’s past. To Chinese Gen Z, HEDONE injects makeup with irony and playfulness instead of just focusing on prettiness.
The brand’s daring and defiant stance on beauty is reflected in product names like its “bitch girl” lipstick. Soon after its launch in 2019, “bitch girl” lipstick was endorsed by China’s top influencer, Li Jiaqi, as “the real bitch color” in a livestreaming session, and it soon became one of the most talked-about beauty products on Chinese social media. Young women who were always asked to present themselves as likable “good girls” by Chinese social conventions showed their excitement for this refreshing brand via the community hashtag #HEDONE渣女态度# (bitch girl attitude). And to push the envelope even further, HEDONE frequently features male models on its campaigns, positioning its makeup products as unisex (a rare approach in the beauty world).
Founded in 2001, CHANDO is a natural beauty brand that has topped Tmall’s best-selling brands for the past five years. On the product level, the brand features mostly hyperlocal ingredients from the Himalayas, and in its campaigns, CHANDO addresses female struggles that are hyperlocal to contemporary China — particularly a prejudice towards aging or plus size women.
On March 8, 2019 (International Women’s Day), the brand launched a hugely popular Weibo video series called She’s Gonna Say (#她要说). In the videos, an XXL-size lady and a middle-aged woman with a slightly wrinkled face speak up about the biased comments they often face, such as “you better be on a diet” and “you are too old to put bright colors on your lip.”
Though these themes of size and age discrimination might feel old in the Western hemisphere, they are new and incredibly relevant social topics in China today. Even within the relatively liberal urban Chinese population, the belief that “makeup is only for thin, young, pretty girls” is still very much alive. In this context, the messages that CHANDO is airing are highly necessary: Plus size girls and 45+-year-old women are entitled to be pretty and wear fiery red lipstick as much as anyone else.
As the first Chinese beauty brand sold in Sephora, Marie Dalgar has, since its inception, centered its marketing messages on connecting personality with makeup. Targeted to millennial beauty consumers, the brand promotes modern, global values (including diversity and body positivity) in a Chinese social context.
In August 2018, Marie Dalgar launched the short video I love me as I am, which featured three “social outcasts” and the stigmas they face in China. One was a pole dancer who was looked down upon as a “porno star,” a plus-size food blogger who was frequently discriminated at dinners, and a transvestite who has often been tagged as a “pervert” in China’s conservative social climate. As one of the earliest campaigns to talk openly about social stigmas, the video quickly amassed over 1 million shares and comments on Weibo alone. Although the message of celebrating diversity and “being different” isn’t new, the way Marie Dalgar tailored it to China’s social environment made the brand easier to relate to.
Culturally relevant, digital-first, and extremely cost-effective, today’s C-beauty brands can charm Chinese consumers in a way that international brands still struggle to understand. Doris Ke, the founder of China’s “she economy” network Business of Women, told Jing Daily that agility and trend-responsiveness are what make C-beauty brands stand out from the competition. “Compared to international brands, C-beauty has the advantage of a more agile supply chain that allows it to be more responsive to local trends,” Ke said. “That’s why C-beauty brands can launch new products and experiment with more campaigns at the same time.”
No longer just a badge for cost-effective beauty deals, C-beauty is transforming into a powerhouse of cool brands that embody the spirit of contemporary China. If millennials were buying C-beauty because it was more affordable yesterday, they are buying because it is cool and identifiable today.