To find the hottest trend in China's personal care and grooming industries, head to the men's department.
Driven by a shift away from tradition toward metrosexual style and individual expression, China's male skin-care market is worth almost $1 billion in retail sales. That has prompted manufacturers to launch male-specific brands, including Procter & Gamble's Olay Men Solutions, L'Oreal Men Expert, Nivea for Men and Mentholatum, at premium price points.
China's market for men's skin-care products has "exploded" in the past five years, with men adopting a grooming regimen, said Alexander Dony, Procter & Gamble's managing director for male-grooming brands-Greater China. He was speaking on the latest episode of "Thoughtful China," an online marketing-affairs talk show produced in Shanghai.
That's good news for prestige and luxury brands. "Chinese consumers tend to enter the beauty-care category from the high end, and then move lower,"Mr. Dony said. "Common brands of entry include Chanel and Dior, which is obviously very different from Western markets, where consumers start with a lower entry brand and work up."
A key target is young, affluent urbanites focused on career, social success and settling down. Chinese men are more engaged than European men in their personal-care regime, using one additional category per week, according to Kantar Worldpanel. With the exception of oral-care products, frequency of use in all categories is higher in China than in Europe.
Segmentation tends to be strongest by generation, said William Marks, senior account manager at Kantar Worldpanel's Shanghai office, which researches China's grooming and skin-care categories.
One brand that stands out in Kantar's recent study is Unilever's Lynx, known as Axe in some markets. Lynx targets 16- to 25-year-olds with a sexy brand image and racy ads by BBH China featuring Edison Chen, an actor and pop star (with a sex scandal behind him) who is one of Asia's most popular celebrities.
China's uneven gender ratio (106 men to 100 women) is also encouraging skin-care marketers to focus on men. And its 700 million male consumers aren't interested only in personal grooming. Sales in other traditionally masculine categories such as spirits, cars and sports gear are climbing fast.
Most consumers buying luxury goods in China are men. Chinese men spent $1.1 billion on their wardrobes in 2010, dwarfing the $444 million that women spent, according to a recent Bain report. The market for luxury menswear was expected to rise 9% last year, vs. 7% for women's wear (final figures are not yet in).
Marketers should beware that "aspirational" and "premium" are overused words and that their meaning varies dramatically throughout China, said Rob Campbell, regional head of strategy at Wieden & Kennedy, Shanghai, Nike 's agency in China. "Marketers need to understand the conflicted optimism that 's going on."
In another misconception, Western marketers often view Chinese men as passive, said Lawrence Law, brand director-engagement marketing for Moet Hennessy Diageo's Johnnie Walker brand in China. "There is this hunger and motivation to learn about new things. If you do [branding] right and consistently, consumers will share the story with others."
Normandy Madden is senior VP-content development, Asia/Pacific at Thoughtful China, and Ad Age 's former Asia Editor. See earlier episodes of Thoughtful China.