Aspirational & Affordable: China's 'Lipstick Effect'

In China’s ferociously competitive cosmetics market, one product sticks out above all others; lipstick.

Despite China’s economic growth being at its slowest in 28 years — 6.6% in 2018, down from 6.8% in 2017 — the colour cosmetics market continues to boom. More than any other product, lipstick accounted for 22% of the colour cosmetics market in 2016, up from 15% in 2014. Lipstick sales in 2017 jumped 97%, pointing to a significant desire for affordable luxury among Chinese consumers.

Feeling the effect

More and more Chinese consumers are reigning in their extravagant spending and shifting focus towards affordable luxuries like lipstick. This trend, known as ‘the lipstick effect, dates back to America’s ‘Great Depression’ ’. Lipstick is the go-to product that can tie any look together and immediately boost one’s confidence, making it somewhat resistant to the perils of economic uncertainty. These key elements coupled with the Chinese shoppers insatiable appetite for luxury spending have contributed to sales and a higher demand for lip products among both men and women.

The combination of convenience and glamour makes the process of choosing the right shade, purchasing and applying lipstick a popular and exciting experience. The added convenience of ecommerce means people can make multiple lipstick purchases in the click of a button, as is often the case — and especially true in China. George Ren, a senior partner with global consultancy Roland Berger speaking with China Daily explained that “if you try a lipstick in a physical store and want another one in the same color or in a different color, you can easily go online and avoid going to the store again.”

Euromonitor reports that lip products recorded growth in 2017 as the second largest category of colour cosmetics, while Veronica Wang from OC&C Strategy Consultants notes that in China, “lipstick is definitely the champion in terms of growth. Since it is one of the most basic and easy to use colour cosmetic products, consumers normally start buying lipsticks when they first start doing make-up.”

Sales of lipstick on Tmall have jumped from strength to strength
Sales of lipstick on Tmall have jumped from strength to strength

Driving factors

So what trends are fueling consumer demand? Research from Mintel finds that products such as ‘natural’ and ‘make-up-free’ are growing in popularity highlighting a preference for looking and feeling healthy and natural.Among women in their early 20s living in tier 1–3 cities, the ideal make-up look focuses on ‘natural’ (41%), ‘fresh’ (17%), ‘light make-up’ (12%), and ‘nude make-up/no make-up’ (12%). Jessica Jin from Mintelsays “brands targeting the younger generation should strengthen the infusion of fresh sensation in product texture in order to meet the needs of this key consumer demographic.”

One unique, fast trending category is what has become known as ‘man slaying colours’ 斩男色 zhan nan se, simply lipstick shades with ‘a reputation for having the power to attract boys’ attention’. Research agency The Luxury Conversation’s findings identified different lipstick shades by luxury cosmetics brands YSL, Armani and Dior as the leading ‘man-slaying’ items that have spearheaded this trend. The preference for ‘man-slaying colours’ not only points out the influence of the male gaze for some shoppers, but importantly it highlights how sheer female spending power holds up almost entire industries in China.

Influencers and opportunities

The lipstick trend in China has taken off so much so that there are KOL (Key Opinion Leaders) influencers dedicated entirely to selling lipstick who share their favourite lipstick shades, makeup tips and videos of lipstick application with their legions of loyal followers. One such example is Li Jiaqi, known by his online persona as ‘Lipstick Brother’. In a competition to see who could sell more lipstick he beat out Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba, China’s largest ecommerce platform, and sold 1,000 pieces while Ma sold a mere 10.

Jack Ma’s lipstick sales competition with Li Jiaqi
Jack Ma’s lipstick sales competition with Li Jiaqi

China’s influencer market is brimming with other emerging KOLs who are willing to go the extra mile for their fans. This is where the differences lie between Chinese and Western influencers and is what we believe makes them a key part of any brands China marketing strategy. The Luxury Conversation write that ‘while Western beauty YouTubers mainly use make-up tutorials to influence their fans, KOLs go a step further by making lipstick ratings in day-to-day situations, from working in an office to ‘extreme lipstick’ situations such as eating hotpot — a favourite meal for every demographic in China’.

Actress Yang Mi became Estée Lauder’s brand ambassador in February 2017
Actress Yang Mi became Estée Lauder’s brand ambassador in February 2017

Key takeaways

There is a keen appetite in China for products with unique storytelling and special edition one-off items that excite consumers. Even the Beijing Palace Museum joined in with series of limited edition lipstick with traditional Chinese patterned packaging that became a sell-out success on Taobao, one of China’s largest online shopping sites, after it went viral, and sold 1,000 pieces of lipstick in a night.

Opportunity lies in product development tailored Chinese customers. Furthermore, honing in on trends such as the man-slaying colours, are important for you as a brand to stand out. Creating bespoke products is a great starting point, but you have to be careful as always with cultural sensitivity and getting the right message across to your audience, which is why partnering with an agency like ours.

We are proud to offer a boutique agency service and a smoother market entry process for brands. Our market expertise and our dedicated team of multilingual Chinese experts work help you navigate your brand’s journey and understand your brand’s potential in China.

If you would like more information on how to bring your brand to China, please reach out at

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