Put a lipstick in the hands of a Chinese woman. Make her smile, and she’ll buy another lipstick.
Welcome to the fickle world of beauty marketing; a beauty brand should never go without makeup for more than a day, lest consumers find it haggard and turn away.
Asmita Dubey is intimately familiar with this rule. Dubey became CMO for China and Asia-Pacific at L’Oréal in April last year, but has worked with the French beauty group for the past decade — including six years on the agency side at Mindshare and four at L’Oréal proper, initially as CMO for China until her remit expanded.
Four years makes Dubey a youthful beauty queen in the 20-year marketing pageant history of L’Oréal in China.
The company made its first Chinese foray in 1997, in the context of China’s economic reform and opening-up policy, with a dream of “putting a lipstick in the hands of every Chinese woman”. Back in those early days makeup was both feared and loved by the Chinese, and lipstick was the most easily accepted product. It was a moment that represented the socialism of beauty, you could say.
“I am a woman; I like all lipsticks,” says Dubey when we meet at L’Oréal’s 20th anniversary celebration in Shanghai this January.
A central theme of this event is highlighted by L’Oréal China CEO Stephane Rinderknech, who makes repeated references as to how much the French brand “loves China”. L’Oréal wants to “flourish with the rise of China” and “grow together with China’s transformation and economic boom”, he says.
Such pleasantries, designed to impress the government officials present, are a normal part of business propriety and indeed have paved the way for L’Oréal being rooted in China’s mainland.
“When we make a statement like wanting to put a lipstick in the hands of every Chinese woman, our mission is about sharing beauty with all; and our strategy is about reach, penetration, recruitment,” says Dubey. “If you look at the market 20 years ago, there were less than 1 million internet users in China. Today, there are 710 million. That’s 1,000-fold growth. Phenomenal. For mobile subscribers, there were about 10 million of them 20 years ago, and today there are 1.3 billion. Again, phenomenal.”
Dubey herself entered the workforce 20 years ago, starting out in account management at Rediffusion Dentsu Y&R in New Delhi, India. She has now clocked up 12 years of experience in China’s three main cities: Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. The biggest challenge in her current role, she says, is keeping up with the scale of growth and speed of change in China.
“We are in the communication touchpoint business: talking to people and gathering audiences. And you learn this at a larger scale and faster speed working day in and day out on it at the biggest beauty company in the world.”
One particular milestone achieved by L’Oréal’s beauty empire in China — which includes its headquarters, a research and innovation centre, two plants, and four business divisions — was achieving sales of Rmb 10 billion (US$1.45 billion) in 2011.
The company has established a portfolio of 24 brands here over the past two decades. Alongside the big successes, such as L’Oréal Paris, Maybelline New York, Lancôme and Shu Uemura, there has been the odd blemish on the palette. Garnier, launched in 2006, was pulled from the market in 2014 amid poor sales and remained conspicuously absent from the company’s 20th anniversary launch history document, like a botched tattoo deliberately lasered off.
“The strategy evolved around consumer centricity to become more digital, more sustainable, and more profound at various levels,” says Dubey. “On one hand you are a poet, dreaming about the biggest beauty company changing lives because of the power of beauty. On the other hand, you are just a peasant and you do what needs to be done. China is big and everybody has to roll up their sleeves and do it.”
Recent career highlights include Ultra Doux brand’s China launch last year in a blaze of augmented-reality theatrics, and the release of My UV Patch at the China Beauty Expo, an electronic wearable under the La Roche-Posay brand.
La Roche-Posay’s My UV Patch, a connected wearable that helps
users track their skin’s exposure to harmful rays.
“I’m absolutely fascinated by the UV patch because it changes lives, it digitises beauty, it goes into the space of product innovation,” Dubey says.
“There is so much more than what you see here. There is so much effort, time, energy, investment and all that going into digitalising beauty. The challenge is the pace of change being faster than what we are able to understand or comprehend.”
In terms of addressing this challenge, Dubey is a big advocate of up-skilling in digital literacy. She also champions the forging of close partnerships with “people who are at the cutting edge in connected beauty and working with them so that we are not missing out on what’s new”.
L’Oréal opened its first online mall in 2010, to reflect Chinese consumer shopping habits at the time. “In January 2013, when I first joined, ecommerce was the first thing that management asked me to take charge of,” says Dubey. “We have had almost 10-fold growth in ecommerce since then because we went to where the shoppers were.”
This is just the first step in digitising the beauty consumer’s decision journey. The next is to build direct relationships with different “beauty tribes”.
“That is the hardest part: the data needed for the personalisation,” she says. “We have a strong CRM base in China for that and we are building on it through our partnerships with the BAT [Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent]. With that, the role of digital marketing in our strategy will evolve even more.
“We want to reach the people, where they are. We want to give them content that they want. We want to talk to them individually. Awareness, consideration, purchase, advocacy. It is the same consumer decision journey as always. Because that journey is becoming more digital today, the way we are talking to our beauty consumers is digitising.”
Beauty and digital are a perfect match, she says, just like strategy and tactics, scale and speed — it all fits and comes together.