Monday, November 24, 2014

American Women Love South Korea's BB Creams

Coco Masuda
First came the wave of manufacturing, with Samsung and LG; then the K-pop stars, whose ubiquity reached its regrettable height with Psy. Now comes the latest import from South Korea: a formidable array of beauty products.

It all started with the BB cream. In early 2011, the Korean brand Dr. Jart introduced two BB creams at Sephora in the United States. They had dermatologic roots, intended to protect and heal patients’ skin after treatment, and had been popular as all-in-one skin-care and makeup products in Korea for several years before they came to the United States.

The cream was a hit. Major beauty companies took note. Soon enough, it had spawned versions from L’Oréal, Smashbox, Clinique, Jane Iredale, Stila and Dior — and paved the way for a Korean beauty invasion of the United States.

The beauty market has long been led by European countries, which were thought to be the source of innovation. But in recent years, American women (and beauty companies), their interest piqued by the BB cream, began to look more closely at Korean multistep skin-care regimens, and they liked what they saw.

“It shifted our consciousness on what it means to take care of your skin,” said Megan McIntyre, the beauty director at the lifestyle site Refinery29. Seeing the care Korean women devote to their skin made consumers curious about new techniques, Ms. McIntyre said, adding that the often adorably twee packaging, high-tech innovations (peel-off lip stains, overnight masks) and affordable prices have not hurt, either. But let no one think that Korean women just slap on a BB cream and call it a day.

“The American approach is: the simpler the better, the faster I can get out the door,” said Cindy Kim, a founder of Peach and Lily, one of a number of online retailers, including Soko Glam and Memebox, that sells Korean beauty products. “The Korean mentality is comprehensive and detailed.”

And it is exhaustive. First, there’s cleansing, often with two different cleansers (one oil-based to remove makeup, then a foaming cleanser), followed by a toner to balance pH levels on the face.

Then there are “essences” and serums, which is “where the number of steps can blow up,” Ms. Kim said. The serums often target single issues: aging, radiance, hydration, redness. An eye cream, plus moisturizer, and BB cream (for day) or an overnight sleep mask are applied next and all sealed with a mist. There is even a term for the desired plump and sticky feeling after application of these products: “chok chok.”

Taking a half-hour for your skin-care routine “isn’t weird,” said Esther Dong, the senior vice president for marketing at the Korean line Amorepacific, whose Time Response anti-aging moisturizers are selling well in the United States. “When people describe a beautiful girl in the U.S., it’s all about the body, and the third or fourth sentence is about the face. When you describe a beautiful girl in Asia, it’s about her face and how pure and fine her skin is.”

Such standards are reflective of Korean culture at large. “The culture of South Korea is very much tied with technological advancement and the rapid pace of life,” said Richard You, the deputy general manager for Dr. Jart in the United States. “Everyone has a smartphone, is concerned about their looks, and companies are working around the clock to provide new products. Word gets around quickly regarding what’s working and what’s not.” In Korea, more than one television show is devoted to reviewing new beauty products.

Even if American women aren’t likely to massage five different creams into their faces for 30 minutes, they are willing to try new products. Alicia Yoon, the other founder of Peach and Lily, reported that most of its customers are non-Asian and that, month to month, its sales nearly double.

“The appetite is huge,” said Priya Venkatesh, who oversees the merchandising of products with Korean roots at Sephora. And not just for Korean brands. Korean-inspired masks and essences from Dior, Shiseido and SK-II are emerging as popular, she said.

American companies are also hoping to strike a chord with similar products. Peter Thomas Roth, a skin-care line in New York, makes a CC cream (a lighter sibling to the BB cream) in South Korea. Its answer to the Korean essence, a step between cleansing and treatment, is its Un-Wrinkle Turbo Line Smoothing Lotion. It also has a sleeping mask (a concentrated mask you wear overnight) and an oil-like product made from squalene, which comes from sugar cane and has long been popular in Asia.

For sure, there is an exoticism to Korean ingredients, with products like LadyKin Vanpir Dark Repair Cream (which touts Red Dragon Blood Resin Extract) and Mizon Returning Starfish Cream (with 70 percent starfish extract). Alpha-hydroxy acid-based peeling foot masks that remove layers of dead skin have been gaining followers here, the most popular being Baby Foot. (Best not to Google the product. Eeew.) 

Read more at NYT.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

In a Topsy-Turvy World, China Warms to Sci-Fi

Liu Cixin
With a state-owned power plant in nearby Shanxi Province temporarily shut down to reduce air pollution, one of its engineers, Liu Cixin(刘慈欣), is using the free time to work on his hobby: reigning as China’s best-selling science-fiction author.

Along with working on a new novel and advising on screenplay adaptations of his earlier fiction, Mr. Liu, 51, has been promoting the English translation of “The Three-Body Problem,(《三体》)” the first book in his best-selling apocalyptic space opera trilogy. Translated by Ken Liu, an award-winning science-fiction writer in his own right who is based in the United States (the men are not related), it is one of the few Chinese science-fiction novels to be translated into English. It will be released in the United States on Tuesday by Tor Books.

The success of the “Three-Body” series, as it is called in China, has gained a following beyond the small but flourishing science-fiction world here. Since the third book was published in 2010, each entry in the series has sold about 500,000 copies in the original Chinese, making Mr. Liu the best-selling Chinese science-fiction author in decades.

In addition to the usual high school and college-age fans of science fiction, China’s aerospace and Internet industries have embraced the books. Many interpret the battle of civilizations depicted in the series as an allegory for the ruthless competition in the nation’s Internet industry.

The series has also breathed new life into a genre that, here as elsewhere, the literary establishment often marginalizes.

For decades, science fiction was subject to the whims of Communist Party rule. The genre went from being a vehicle for popularizing science for socialist purposes to drawing criticism in 1983 from party newspapers for “spreading pseudoscience and promoting decadent capitalist elements.” When the prestigious People’s Literature literary magazine published four of Mr. Liu’s short stories in 2012, it was a sign that the genre was back in official good graces.

At its core, science fiction capitalizes on uncertainty about the future to push the boundaries of the reader’s imagination. In fast-changing China, stories that lay out what coming years may hold in store have therefore found deeper resonance among readers.

“China is on the path of rapid modernization and progress, kind of like the U.S. during the golden age of science fiction in the ’30s to the ’60s,” Mr. Liu said. “The future in the people’s eyes is full of attractions, temptations and hope. But at the same time, it is also full of threats and challenges. That makes for very fertile soil.”

Chinese science fiction serves another purpose in the eyes of Xia Jia, a science-fiction writer and professor at Xian Jiaotong University. “Chinese science fiction, in a way, has borne the weight of the ‘Chinese dream’ since the genre first appeared in China in the late Qing dynasty,” she said, referring to the turn of the 20th century.

“The dream is about wanting to overtake the Western countries and become a very powerful modern China while still preserving these old elements,” she added. “This is what we who write science fiction in China have to grapple with.”

The “Three-Body” tomes chronicle a march of the human race into the universe set against the recent past, the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. It is a classic science-fiction story in the style of the British master Arthur C. Clarke, whose work Mr. Liu says he grew up reading. “Everything that I write is a clumsy imitation of Arthur C. Clarke,” he said.

The first book in the series explores the world of the Trisolarans, an alien civilization on the brink of destruction. When a secret military project in China attempts to make contact with aliens, the Trisolarans capture the signals and decide to invade Earth. Back in China, people split into two camps: those who welcome the aliens and those who want to fight them.

The series is likely to be a change of pace for science-fiction fans in the United States, where many leading contemporary writers in the genre are rejecting classic alien-invasion plots in favor of those that take on real-world issues like climate change or shifting gender roles.

Please read more at NYT.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hungry City: The Bao in the East Village

It’s a perilous moment, lifting a soup dumpling from its basket, hoping it won’t tear and spill its beautiful guts. This one’s skin is delicate but does not break, at least not yet, not under the tongs’ little teeth. The dumpling lands in the spoon intact, plump but not sagging, buoyant as a ball gown. Take a bite, gently, from the top; watch the steam flee; sip the broth inside, just enough to taste; then down it whole.

At the Bao, which opened in the East Village in July, the soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, are near perfect. (The menu calls this achievement “kung fu,” using the term in its original sense, as mastery acquired through practice and discipline.) Other specimens in town tend to the thick, to prevent leaks; here the dough is ultrathin, less armor than envelope for the broth — pork-stock jelly, which melts into soup as the dumplings steam — and the ball of minced pork at the center, loose and yielding, as if itself in midmelt. I did wish the soup were more flagrantly meaty, but this far from Shanghai, I’m just grateful.

 The Bao is an outpost of Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, which the owner, Hong Bao, opened two and a half years ago in Flushing, Queens. She oversees the dim sum at both locations, but beyond the classic varieties of soup dumpling — pork and notably briny pork and crab — the restaurants diverge. East Village innovations include xiao long bao jacked up on chile, anticipating the bravado of the young and the drunk, and others spiked with wasabi, a gesture toward the neighborhood’s Japanese expats.

The rest of the menu is greatest-hits Chinese, corralling flamethrowers from Sichuan and Hunan with old-school Cantonese and Taiwanese specialties. Much of this is delicious: a garlicky confetti of chives, with pork nubs and dark pops of salt from fermented black beans; pressed, dense tofu ruddied from steeping in five spice; pickled string beans chopped into tiny rings and bobbing in a sour rice noodle soup; strips of featherweight fried chicken, almost outnumbered by dried red chiles; noodles alchemized by an age-old calculus of soy, sesame oil and sugar; and shrimp dashed with Shaoxing (rice wine) and engulfed in barely set scrambled eggs that slip through the chopsticks. (I ate the leftovers, still slippery, out of the box when I got home.)

 Please read the whole story at

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Catching the Eye of the Chinese Shopper

Photo by Darcy Holdorf
For consumer brands in China, a major battleground is the country's growing hypermarket segment. And the frontline troops are armed with mini-dresses and microphones.

Visit any Chinese Walmart, Carrefour or Tesco on a weekend, and there will be more than 100 promoters in the store dispensing samples and sales pitches. Their role reflects the shopping habits of middle-class Chinese, who are notoriously fickle toward brands.

"Chinese consumers know the brand name through media, but when they go to the store, they want to feel the product and get a detailed understanding before they make a purchase decision," said Alick Ying, business director at Always Marketing Services, which employs 15,000 full-time promoters across China.

The Shanghai-based WPP field-marketing agency, whose clients include Unilever, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft and Johnson & Johnson, hosted Ad Age at a Tesco hypermarket in Shanghai one recent Saturday morning.

A U.S. store has as many as 20,000 stock-keeping units, but a Chinese one can have up to 35,000, Mr. Ying said. Pair this with the tendency of Chinese shoppers to make more than 50% of purchase decisions in-store, and it's clear why brands must work hard to break through the clutter.

Retail growth
China is the world's third-largest retail market, behind the U.S. and Japan. Retail sales in the country have grown at least 16% each year between 2007 and 2011, though sales per capita remain low, according to a report from Smollan Group, another WPP field-marketing agency.

Mom-and-pop stores dominate and most Chinese still buy food in traditional "wet" markets. But the hypermarket segment is growing quickly, and it's fiercely competitive, with major Western players as well as those from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Domestic retailers are also expanding.

In the U.S., promoters are often older women handing out sausage slices on toothpicks. Meanwhile, China's PGs -- for "promoter girls" or "push girls" -- sport eye-catching uniforms, many with short hemlines. They range from the Quaker Oats promoter's blue minidress with frilly apron to the Yili "Children's Growth Milk" promoter's gold satin dress and white pumps.

Surgical masks cover their faces beneath the microphones they wear, speakers slung across the hip. (The masks are for hygiene purposes, since the promoters often hand out food and drink.)

Sometimes there are four promoters or more in one aisle, an aural assault on passing shoppers. The amplification is necessary to overcome the chaos of a Chinese store, which makes a day-before-Thanksgiving American supermarket seem civilized. The Tesco that Ad Age visited has 51 checkout counters. "Western consumers don't enjoy shopping at the hypermarket. They hate it. They want to spend 30 minutes there after work, fill up the car and then leave. Chinese consumers will bring their kids and turn it into a weekend leisure activity," said Serene Tang, who until recently was senior category manager-health and beauty for Tesco in China and previously worked for Tesco in the U.K. and Malaysia.

Lots of Renao
Western consumers "have more entertainment options. They can go to a bar to have fun. Going to the hypermarket is for buying the basics -- food and other necessities," she said. "But Chinese don't feel this way."

A Chinese hypermarket is claustrophobic to Western sensibilities, but local consumers expect renao. (Pronounced "ruh-now," it is literally translated as "heat and noise" and refers to a lively atmosphere like that of a traditional market.) Retailers have tried to replicate renao inside their stores. If it's too sedate, consumers will suspect products aren't fresh or that the store has a bad reputation.

The promotions girls are an important element of the atmosphere. Their amplified sales pitches must win over shoppers who are generally drawn to hypermarkets by the fresh offerings -- vegetables and fruit, eggs sold by weight, meat ranging from unrefrigerated lamb carcasses dangling from hooks to live fish in tanks.

It's apparently a powerful strategy: promotional products (including sale items, bonus activities, sampling and so on) make up 30% of hypermarket sales in terms of value, Ms. Tang said.

At the Shanghai Tesco, a young woman promoting Yili's blended-milk drink called out to an older shopper: "This contains red beans and peanuts, it's good for your blood and especially good for seniors." She offered a sample in a paper cup and tried to entice the woman with an orange hand towel, free with purchase.

In the personal-care section, 21-year-old promoter Ruan Lingli is giving out folding shopping trollies to a steady stream of customers -- free with the purchase of $14 in Unilever shampoo and conditioners.

"For older people, I recommend Hazeline because it's a brand that they recognize. For women who have dyed or permed hair, I'll suggest Dove. And men tend to have oily hair or dandruff, so I tell them about Clear ," she said, speaking in the rapid-fire manner of someone who makes sales pitches for much of her 16-hour shift.

A stylish middle-aged woman stopped in front of the Colgate "Optic White" toothpaste display, then asked promoter Ge Yunxia: Is this the toothpaste being promoted on TV by (Taiwanese celebrity) Big S? What flavors does it come in? Is it new?

The woman inspected the box while Ms. Ge, 24, presented the benefits. "Other whitening toothpastes might work well, but using them constantly will harm your enamel. Our toothpaste works from the inside out. The results won't be as apparent immediately, but you'll notice your teeth whitening over time as you continue to use it," she said.

Satisfied after their three-minute exchange, the customer walked away with a tube of the $4 toothpaste.  |

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Chicken-and-Pepsi Chips in China

PepsiCo is taking its global Power of One program to jointly promote beverages and snacks a step further in China, with the marriage of two Pepsi brands in a single product: Pepsi-Cola chicken-flavor Lay's potato chips.

Cola chicken is a common recipe in China, with chicken wings tossed into a wok and caramelized in soy sauce, spices and cola. In potato-chip form, the flavor is vaguely similar to barbecue with a sugary aftertaste. If there's any hint of Pepsi, it's fleeting and lacks fizz.

Richard Lee, PepsiCo's chief marketing officer in China, said the idea came from a brainstorming session involving teams from marketing and R&D, as well as Pepsi ad agency BBDO, Shanghai. Lay's launches a new flavor every year, and this time the goal was fusion.

"We thought it would be really cool to have a cola combined with chicken. ... It's a very popular dish in China," said Mr. Lee, who in 2010 became the first person to be put in charge of marketing and portfolio management for both food and beverage brands in China. "Also it would be very cool to involve one of our most-iconic soft drinks," he added.

The launch, in August, was much bigger than for any previous Lay's flavor in China, which include such unusual flavors as lemon tea (subtle), cucumber (cloying) and hot-and-sour fish soup (fishy).

The TV ad campaign played a joke on viewers, starting out like a Pepsi ad, with a guy rushing out to buy cola for his girlfriend -- not to drink, it turned out, but to use to cook chicken.

The product's name is a sophisticated word play. String Pepsi's and Lay's Chinese brand names together, and you get a double meaning: "Anything can be happy" as well as "Pepsi can become Lay's."

Lay's overall brand message in China is about enjoying the small things in life, a theme that resonates in a market where people can be dogged about earning more money and getting ahead.

"We want to celebrate a philosophy [that says] you can find happiness all around you,'" Mr. Lee said.

PepsiCo, like Coca-Cola Co., is making big investments in China. In Shanghai in November, it opened its largest R&D center outside North America, part of a 2010 plan to invest $2.5 billion over three years. Coca-Cola's soft-drink brands outsell PepsiCo's, according to Euromonitor International, but PepsiCo's snack portfolio is an extra asset.

"Coke and Pepsi have both stalled out in terms of growth potential in China," said Ben Cavender, associate principal at the China Market Research Group. "It's important for them to be developing new products and driving into these growth categories. I think Pepsi is probably better-positioned with the packaged food that it has to really make some gains there."  |