Marketing to Millions: China's Changing Tastes

Crest's Chinese Web site features Li Yuchun

hide captionCrest's Chinese Web site features Li Yuchun, one of China's most popular singers. She was voted "Super Girl" in an American Idol-type contest last year, receiving 3.5 million votes.

crest.com.cn

China's Beauty Boom

Year-over-year growth of beauty product sales: 20 percent (May 2006)

 

Value of China's beauty market: $7.9 billion

 

Number of urban Chinese women who spend 10 percent or more of their income on makeup: 90 million

 

Procter & Gamble ad spending in China: $400 million per year

 

Percentage of rural Chinese who have never brushed their teeth: 57 percent (2004)

 

Sources: Newstrak, Access Asia, Nielsen Media Research, dental disease prevention survey

Ken Zhang brushes his teeth i i

hide captionKen Zhang of the Crest Dental Research Institute in Beijing demonstrates the company's new toothpaste flavors, which include orange mint and lotus. The company's bestseller in China tastes like tea.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Ken Zhang brushes his teeth

Ken Zhang of the Crest Dental Research Institute in Beijing demonstrates the company's new toothpaste flavors, which include orange mint and lotus. The company's bestseller in China tastes like tea.

Louisa Lim, NPR

About the Series

China's economic boom has worldwide repercussions — on international trade, job outsourcing, oil prices and more.

 

But it has also created challenges inside China, some of which we'll explore in a five-part series. We'll look at how to persuade a billion people to buy something new; the perils and the rewards of doing business in China; how soaring property prices are causing heartache; who's profiting from the thriving trade in fakes; and whether economic reform is really bringing democracy to the communist nation.

Scientist at work in a lab i i

hide captionEstee Lauder's research and development center in Shanghai employs a number of scientists who are trying to develop makeup and skin-care products specifically for the Chinese market. Other scientists are researching traditional Chinese medicinal compounds to try to isolate the active ingredients that have anti-aging or skin-whitening functions.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Scientist at work in a lab

Estee Lauder's research and development center in Shanghai employs a number of scientists who are trying to develop makeup and skin-care products specifically for the Chinese market. Other scientists are researching traditional Chinese medicinal compounds to try to isolate the active ingredients that have anti-aging or skin-whitening functions.

Louisa Lim, NPR

In the 1840s, an English author famously wrote that if every person in China lengthened his shirttail by a foot, British cotton mills would work around the clock.

The lure of China's massive untapped market has only increased over time. So how are today's multinationals tailoring their products and their strategies to attract China's millions of newly minted consumers?

Think ancient beauty potions and tea-flavored toothpaste.

Just 40 years ago, wearing makeup or using any beauty product was condemned as bourgeois in China. It's a measure of just how much society has changed that in a swanky shopping mall there's even a waiting list to buy Creme De La Mer skin cream, which retails for nearly $300.

So how are companies like Estee Lauder, which sells this face cream, getting Chinese consumers to part with their money?

Estee Lauder has opened a gleaming new multi-million-dollar research and development center in Shanghai. In this modern facility, company scientists are carrying out clinical trials on the 1,300-year-old beauty secrets of China's only empress, Wu Zetian, who used skin potions made of motherwort.

"China is not just one market — it's many, many little markets," says Ken Zhang, director of Procter & Gamble's Crest Dental Research Institute in Beijing. "And this market is constantly changing. The taste of the consumers and buying power of the consumers is also constantly changing."

For 10 years, Zhang's company has been trying to pinpoint exactly what a variety of Chinese consumers are looking for in their toothpaste.

If you're a millionaire, he says, "you're thinking you're more sophisticated. You're looking for toothpaste with science." But if you're a farmer, "you're looking for herbal, natural, green or Chinese herbs, some kind of regimen to help your oral health."

As market leader, the Crest strategy has depended heavily on advertising; it has spent more on publicity than any other foreign brand in China. The latest toothpaste flavors include orange mint and lotus. They're among a dizzying array of flavors Crest has developed to appeal, it seems, to every one of China's little markets. The bestseller is tea-flavored.

"It's not only tea flavor," Zhang says. "It's also a signal of the culture behind that. It's kitchen logic, it's grandmothers' stories. Chinese people think tea keeps your mouth fresh."

This idea is rooted in the peasant habit of swilling the mouth out with green tea, instead of brushing the teeth. This, incidentally, was the practice adopted by Chairman Mao Zedong, whose logic for spurning a toothbrush was that "a tiger never brushes his teeth."

An official survey three years ago estimated that 57 percent of rural Chinese residents — or 500 million people — had never brushed their teeth, a figure that spells megabucks to oral health-care companies.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: