Daily Insights

China Beauty: A COVID-19 Post Mortem

By: Amie Song | Jun 01, 2020

Concentrating on Skincare

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted beauty consumption in China with both immediate and long-term impact. 

In the short-term, during the first quarter of 2020, consumers suspended buying color cosmetics since they were staying at home and wearing masks, thus having limited need for makeup. Compared to the same period last year, tracked beauty brands’ March Tmall sales growth corresponded with the Queen’s Day holiday sales festival, which was driven primarily by skin care and personal care products. 

Skin care brands quickly adapted to the trends and positioned their products as stay-at-home “must-haves”. Smart brands created scenarios—staying up late, viewing screens for long hours, wearing face masks all the time—and provided solutions for consumers. SkinCeuticals, for example, leveraged KOLs (influencers known as Key Opinion Leaders) to promote quarantine skincare routines. Avène quickly updated product images and titles on Tmall to highlight its products as solutions for skin infections caused by wearing masks. Some brands continued with their planned activations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancôme started out quiet on its brand account to show sensitivity, but leveraged eventually KOLs heavily to drive buzz and sales for its new product launch. 

Chinese consumers have emerged from the crisis with a strong sense of nationalism and health consciousness. As such, Chinese cosmetics brands Perfect Diary and Colorkey flourished during the pandemic, releasing low cost, high value, viral products driven by social media in the middle of the lockdown. Going forward, beauty, and particularly skin care, will help meet the consumer’s growing desire for self-care and wellness. There will be even further emphasis on ingredients—already key to the market—and a shift towards clean beauty, which had previously been slow to catch on in China. To stay smart and smooth in China, brands are adapting their messaging and products to the new realities of constant handwashing and mask-wearing.  

Leaning Into Livestreaming 

The pandemic further accelerated the penetration of livestreaming as a sales and engagement channel. According to Gartner’s Digital IQ Index: Beauty China, 84% of beauty brands offer livestreaming content on their Tmall store. Among prestige beauty brands, the number of Taobao livestreams and average views increased significantly year over year. Livestreaming has also become a must-have component for brand campaigns, whether featuring celebrity ambassadors on top Taobao KOLs such as Austin Li and Viya’s livestreams or inviting top KOLs to be on brand account livestreams. WeChat livestreaming also emerged for its role in the private traffic ecosystem. Brands trained their store associates (Beauty Assistants/BAs) and makeup artists to become livestreamers and drive traffic from their personal contacts and WeChat groups to brand livestreams. MAC Cosmetics, for example, launched a contest where 64 of its signed makeup artists were challenged to create looks based on themes and do demos on livestreams, as observed in Gartner research on the topic.

Digital Dominates The Future

During the crisis, many beauty brands chose to postpone their activations, but the post-pandemic months are becoming incredibly crowded as they now begin to reactivate. Consumers are overwhelmed with product launches, Tmall activations, and celebrity announcements. Brands are all hoping to capitalize on the “revenge shopping” trend, making it significantly harder to break through. 

While more time is required to assess permanent behavioral changes that have emerged from this period, there’s no doubt that e-commerce and digital, which were already key for beauty brands prior to the pandemic, have now become the number one priority. According to Alimama, almost half of the beauty customers for Queen’s Day 2020 were new customers. Beauty brands will need to leverage Tmall marketing tools, loyalty, and private traffic/personalized services to retain these customers and drive long-term growth. 98% of tracked beauty brands now have a loyalty program on Tmall and 94% offer points redemption. Post COVID-19, digital infrastructure is key. Brands with robust CRM systems to track client activity online and offline and to connect store BAs with clients will have the best chance to win. Kiehl’s, for example, matches customers to nearby in-store beauty associates with store locators and sampling campaigns.  

To learn more, head to Gartner’s  Digital IQ Index: Beauty China for table stakes and best-in-class executions across digital channels, plus a roadmap for brands to improve their digital capabilities and elevate the digital experience.