When I lived in Shanghai, I loved visiting Isetan, the Japanese department store with some of the city’s best luxury cosmetics retailing.
It was always packed with customers and heavily staffed with multilingual salespeople. You might recognize the brands--Chanel, Bobbi Brown, Lancôme, Dior, Shiseido, and many others--but the shades and products were often entirely unique to China.
Yet if you get off the metro at Xintiandi, you will find luxury cosmetics in dirty stalls in the basement of the shopping mall. Big balls of dust drift out from under the counters and mingle with clouds of grease from the noodle stalls. This quite literal debasement of high-end cosmetics brands would be entirely unacceptable in a Western context.
But the truth is, all foreign brands are new to China. The Chinese customer does not necessarily care about the heritage of a Western brand. This relative ignorance of the mythology of a brand can be a good thing for the customer, helping him or her to choose a product based off its efficacy rather than tradition.
There are major differences between the cosmetics market in China and in Western countries like France and the US. One of the biggest differences is the presence of whitening products in skincare and face makeup. Another difference is the shades offered in color cosmetics: light beiges and pinks are more popular than dramatic shades of red, brown, and plum. Also, because of protectionist import policies, foreign brands can have a hard time launching new products in China, leading to a lot of re-promoted shades in makeup campaigns.
But the most beautiful difference, in my opinion, is the Confucian values of happiness in the beauty ideal. When asked about beauty, the Chinese consumer rarely lists solely physical attributes; mental attributes like success, fun and education play an equal role. This makes the market rather unique in how cosmetics fit into a holistic lifestyle.
In 2012, I had an opportunity to do a marketing project with a Chinese luxury skincare company called Ba Yan Ka La. This brand has a beautiful idea: to find inspiration for skincare within the deep traditions of Chinese traditional medicine and to create Chinese luxury made in China.
Ba Yan Ka La products use traditional ingredients with wonderful perfumes and colors. The brand has a marked dedication towards product safety, including a safety rating for each ingredient on the website. The brand does not test on animals or use animal ingredients. The ingredients are grown as wholesomely as possible, an unfortunate rarity in modern China.
I love their soaps in particular. Imagine a simple glycerin-based soap--already a wonderfully hydrating body cleanser--with the addition of some beautifully perfumed essential oils. Each includes a traditional Chinese ingredient, like goji berries, coix seed, or Chinese mulberry, which are grown around China and harvested according to the traditional lunar calendar. The resulting product is romantic, subtle, and deeply tied to Chinese culture and heritage.
These soaps make great gifts for visitors to China. If you are lucky enough to stay in a five-star hotel in Shanghai or Beijing, there is a good chance that you will find them in your hotel bathroom. They are a wonderful way to savor the fragrances of goji and lotus months after you’ve returned home. (I ran out of my favorite Chinese mulberry soap recently, so I am impatiently waiting for the Ba Yan Ka La e-commerce launch here in France.)
In a lot of ways, Ba Yan Ka La’s brand identity touches on a lot of the hot topics in Chinese luxury cosmetics retail. The founder and president Jean Zimmermann, a native Frenchman, has a fascinating viewpoint on the rapid changes in the market. He has agreed to talk with me about the brand, China as a skincare market, and the future of Chinese luxury.
What in your personal background led you to the world of luxury cosmetics?
I’ve lived in China for 18 years now and got involved for more than 10 years in the marketing, public relations and retail operation of luxury brands. During my tenure as General Manager Operations for Mainland China at Hong Kong’s prominent luxury department store Lane Crawford, I came to the conclusion that there were no high-end or luxury Chinese brands in the world of fashion, accessories, furniture or cosmetics. That’s when I decided to create my own concept, a brand that would challenge foreign labels in the Chinese market and beyond.
How did you decide to create a Chinese luxury skincare brand based on traditional Chinese medicine?
I grew up in France, near the German/Swiss border, where organic food, farming and eco-concerns have been the most advanced for as long I can remember. I was raised with herbal remedies as the first and obvious choice for health and skincare.
So when it was time to create the concept and the formulas for the Ba Yan Ka La products, it was evident that we would use active ingredients from traditional Chinese medicine, but also select carefully all other elements that come into composition of the products.
Going against the Chinese logic of low quality, huge quantity, I wanted to create a niche concept with highest quality, for select customers only!
What does “Ba Yan Ka La” mean?
The luxury skincare line is named in reverence to the Ba Yan Ka La mountain range on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in remote Qinghai Province. A name with Mongolian roots, Ba Yan Ka La means "Mountain of Abundance." To us, it represents a journey to the source of purity and the epicenter of Chinese curative wisdom.
What is the image in the logo?
Chinese herbalists traditionally hung a gourd in front of their medicine shops to draw attention to their practice. In the past, it was used on sign boards of drug shops across China. By extension, gourds came to be used as a symbol for conventional shops selling Chinese medicine.
The bottle-gourd is very durable when dried. It is often tied to the backs of children of people living on the rivers of Canton, to help them float if they should fall overboard. Its shape makes it useful as a receptacle for medicine.
Inside the gourd symbol on our logo, the line represents the Yellow River, cradle of Chinese Civilization, and the Chinese characters are the Chinese words for Ba Yan Ka La.
For an entire generation, “Made in China” has had a negative connotation. Do you think this is fair or warranted?
I am the generation that grew up looking down upon Korean brands, when today they dominate the world of high tech electronics. “Made in China” means the iPhone, BMW, Mercedes Benz, Audi, L’Oréal, l’Occitane, Hermès’s latest furniture venture, and Ba Yan Ka La. “Made in China” is a state of mind more than a real label. I don’t think any Apple customer ever thinks of “Made in China” when they hold their beloved iPhone.
We’re pushing the “Made in Shanghai” label and we believe that the tide will turn slowly but surely. Soon, the perception of “Made in Shanghai” and soon after “Made in China” will change completely in the consumers’ imagination. It will become trendy, then fashionable, to buy niche brands. Eventually, the issue will disappear completely.
Do you think that the Chinese will grow to trust and seek out products made domestically? How about foreigners?
Chinese consumers currently face a huge void of locally made, high quality, fashionable, well-designed, reliable products. Most Chinese producers are more attracted by quick profit than building the future with high quality branded items. Therefore, currently local Chinese tend to blindly trust foreign brands, as long as they’re made outside China or by foreigners.
However, this has prompted some short-sighted foreign business operators to make quick money by fooling Chinese consumers. This strategy will backfire soon and consumers will turn back to niche labels made in China.
There are more and more creators and designers launching amazing concepts. Ba Yan Ka La was one of the first, but there are more and more coming. Foreigners are drawn deeper and deeper into buying these niche concepts. Expats living in China or business travelers are the first exposed. Then they buy and bring the products home creating a desire to have the items available in their respective countries.
Foreign brands, especially brands from France, Switzerland, and Japan, dominate the Chinese luxury cosmetics market. Do you anticipate any changes in the market in the years to come?
I heard lately that Jurlique is pulling out of Japan because the brand concept is not strong enough to entice Japanese consumers, some of the toughest and most demanding in the world. China has seen some brands like Biotherm make a big entry and then slowly fade away. The current market leader for mid- to high-end cosmetics, Kiehl’s, is currently selling paraben-loaded formulas in China, even though these ingredients are now prohibited in the EU.
I think it is a serious mistake to try to abuse, take advantage of, or lie to Chinese consumers. They are smart, well informed, and very quick at spreading news over the internet. I question some brands’ strategies when it comes to the Chinese market as I feel they are very dangerous.
We are now able to export our China-made products to Japan or Hong Kong because we have elevated the quality of our ingredients and formulas above those of foreign brands marketing into China. I think our rise is the sign, even small, that trends are shifting.
So where can we find your products? Is Ba Yan Ka La coming abroad anytime soon?
We’re still working with the most prominent five-star luxury hotels and the finest boutique hotels in China. We’re also extending our partnership with five-star property Spa with now 4 Season’s Shanghai, Park Hyatt Ningbo or Shangri La Hotel Pudong Shanghai.
Retail-wise, we’re still keeping distribution very selective in China. We’re in the process of signing retail partners in Hong Kong and will launch the brand in five luxury department stores in Japan in mid-October. You can find a few selected products in Paris at Zoobeetle.com and there will be much more in the months leading to Christmas. Keep in touch for confirmed deals soon.
Finally we’ll launch Ba Yan Ka La’s global e-commerce web platform before Christmas
What do you think? Will Chinese brands be able to overcome the stigma of "Made-in-China?"