Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 29 – The Beauty Biochemist (Sanford BROWNE, L'Oréal)
I'm very happy to squeeze in an episode with a scientist before the end of Season 01. Sanford Browne has a background in microbiology and is the VP of Research and Innovation at L'Oréal China.
SB: Literally, I could not even put half my foot in. And we had arguments that they were fine. And it was like, "Fine for whom?!" because, it's like, it actually has to be able to fit on my foot.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host Oscar Fuchs. So today is the penultimate episode of the series, Episode 29. I have some good news about what's coming next, which I will be saying more about in the next episode. In the meantime, let me quickly address a question that I received online. It was about the risks of a second wave of the Coronavirus here in China. The short answer is that we simply don't know right now, 'now' being April 7 2020. I would hate to say that the risks are low, and then for things to change. But here is what they're doing about it in Shanghai, at least. At the airport, they're testing every passenger who arrives on international flights. And they monitor their quarantine with little sensors that they put on your doors. These sensors go off if you open your door more than twice a day for two minutes each time, allowing you to do things like take deliveries, or throw out the rubbish. And for the rest of us who have been here the whole time, if you leave Shanghai even just to neighbouring provinces, when you come back you need to go through the 14 days of quarantine again. So those are the rules that are giving us a little bit of comfort that there won't be a second wave. Who knows how long these rules will last, that's the big question for me right now, because I'm guessing that if other countries don't put similar things into place, then they could be around for a long time.
My guest today is actually a friend of mine, it's Sanford Brown, who at the time of recording was the VP of Research and Innovation at L'Oréal China. He has since been promoted to the SVP position covering all of Asia Pacific, and has relocated to Tokyo, so I was lucky to grab him before he left. I'm also very grateful because as a microbiologist*, Sanford represents the one scientist that I managed to squeeze into Season 1 of the series. And he talks in a way that makes something quite complicated, incredibly easy for the likes of you and I to digest.
OF: Thank you so much for coming in today, Sanford.
OF: So I asked everyone here to bring in an object that in some way represents what they're doing here in China. So what have you brought today?
SB: So, it's artificial skin. And what we've done is taken a cell of Chinese skin, and then grown skin, much like you've heard for grafting, where people have burns. It's the same technology that we're using to really recreate a three dimensional skin. What's different about this is, we have to make sure that every single one is exactly the same. And the purpose of this… so this is a 10 year effort, and it's building off of work that we've done in the past in France. And what we use it first and foremost is for safety. As L'Oréal was founded by a chemist over 100 years ago, creating the first hair colour that was safe, safety has been a non-negotiable for the company ever since. So we take the raw materials in the products that we're using, and we test them here, on this artificial skin, to ensure that there's no adverse reactions. That's first and foremost. And now we've taken it one step further with the Chinese skin, and have been able to also test it for efficacy. So for example, we were able to see how whitening products work in terms of melanocytes, same thing in terms of ageing, so we use that also for performance. So safety and efficacy. And to avoid animal testing. So we haven't done any animal testing in the company for 30 years. So we've commercialised this EpiSkinTM, and now we make it available to research universities, government agencies - that we've actually helped train to be able to run this type of testing - and even offer it to our competition.
OF: Wow, that's fascinating. I will definitely post a photo of that artificial skin on social media, it probably is not what people expect to see, actually. It's quite interesting, these 12 wells. And what else do you do in the lab?
SB: In China, we really cover from fundamental upstream research - trying to create new molecules, or partnering with other startups - all the way through down to creating the finished products - for skin, for makeup, and for hair - to really meet the needs of the Chinese consumer.
OF: At what stage in the process, then, do you use the end user, the consumer?
SB: So we would begin very early on in understanding the raw material, for example, that we may be looking at, and seeing how it performs at a molecular level. And we have special microscopes that actually give us almost an X-ray effect that we can see how it penetrates in three dimensions for performance. And then when we have this type of level of performance, we then start bringing in consumers. So we can bring 100-200 consumers a day into our facility, and we help co-create the innovations with them. What's really key to success is rapid iteration. So test, fail, learn, test, fail, learn, being able to do that multiple times, and really doing that holistically. So you bring in all aspects of the product - the performance characteristics, that texture, the fragrance, the packaging - much more holistically. And that allows us to move much faster into the marketplace.
OF: So which is the actual starting point? Is the starting point the technology that is available to you, or is the starting point what you hear the consumer needs?
SB: Really, it's the intersection of the two, it can happen both ways, what we call 'technical push' or 'consumer pull'. But usually, a real innovation or invention happens at the intersection between what is more cutting edge of what's technically possible, and where consumers' aspirations - where they want to go - meet. And that's why we have upstream scientists and experts that really are the best in their field, and we also have consumer scientists who work in terms of both evaluation and really understanding the trends of what's coming next.
OF: I like that phrase "Consumer Pull and Technical Push", there must be, sometimes, a gap between the two, like, have you had an examples of where you've been trying to push something technologically, but the consumers just didn't want it?
SB: Yes, that that definitely happens. And then, that's why it's really important to understand what is it that the consumer wants, and what is it that they're really evaluating for. You might have technology that can work, but how you apply it on the face doesn't feel like it's penetrating, doesn't give a nice glow to the skin, then it just doesn't work. So we have to stop there. And because the consumers in the end are very smart. And if you just say something and the product doesn't deliver it, it's not going to work. Particularly in today's world, where you have so much e-commerce, and reviews, and key opinion leaders. It's really critical that we get that right.
OF: Well, you mentioned the consumer there. So let's talk about the consumer, specifically here in China. Have you noticed anything unique about this market?
SB: Most definitely. So I think it's really been transformative, and it continues to transform at an amazing rate. So if I just go back, say, five years ago, at that point in skincare, most of the skincare products were really very much a Western product with a little bit of adaptation. And so, they believed that those Western products were good quality. Maybe they didn't work exactly the way I wanted them to, but they were still good quality. Makeup was not used much, hair colour was just covering grey, mostly men, there wasn't too much of this… Today, a completely different scenario. The Chinese consumer for skin is super demanding. So in the context, you might look, as a Caucasian, at Chinese and Asians' skin for ageing and say "Ah, you know, they don't seem to age, you know, at the same pace".
OF: Right, right.
SB: It is very different, it's true. They don't have the deep-set wrinkles that tend to happen in terms of Caucasians. But at the same time what we find is, the consumer - the Chinese consumer - she's super sensitive. She really looks around her eyes, around the forehead, around the mouth, and those little fine lines, she notices, and she's very, very conscious of. And so this makes her super demanding. Same with hair colour, because it's completely different when you're doing it on dark hair. It's much harder. And Chinese hair is actually the most susceptible to damage. It has the highest cuticle angles - so, cuticle is where the hairs go… scales, like one on top of the other - it's naturally at a higher angle, which means damage can happen very easily. So we have to make sure, not only do you have really the strong colour effect, but at the same time have no damage at all to the hair. So that caring aspect, and performance, are trade offs. So these things are always changing and evolving. And this is how we've created new products. And these new products have started to go into the West as well. They can translate from China successfully into the world, which was not the case at all five years ago.
OF: You know, as we're talking, it's reminding me of an interview I did with Maple Zuo, and she grew up in Inner Mongolia. And I do remember distinctly, she said the first time she saw anyone with makeup was actually when she saw a prostitute with red lipstick. I wonder, like, what has the history been in the last generation about skincare and makeup.
SB: Well I have a similar experience from when I was travelling back as a student around China in 1988. The first time I saw anyone with lipstick was actually in Nanjing train station. And they were prostitutes, and there were people who were asking me to pay money to sit there, otherwise I would be robbed. So it was the only experience like that, so I can relate. But today it's completely different. It's very traditional, in the world, that you would see - if you're a young girl - you'd see your mother or your older sister putting on makeup, and you'd try that as a kid. And so then you get to being a pre-teen, and you start to do that. This generation never had that, their mother didn't really - except for Chinese New Year or a wedding - would not really wear makeup on a regular basis. So she's had to learn all of these things herself. And what we find is, actually she's super demanding. And as a single child with two working parents, and sometimes even four sets of grandparents, they have cash. So they go in, they will buy their first lipstick - it would often be a luxury lipstick - and then that makes them set a very high standard, from the beginning, of what they expect in terms of performance, in terms of perceived value.
OF: And we've been saying 'China' sometimes in the same breath as 'Asia', but what are the differences between, let's say, the Chinese consumer and the other consumers here in North Asia, let's say the Koreans, the Japanese.
SB: So there are some similarities, and there are some differences. So for example, even things like whitening: so Japanese tend to want more of an almost porcelain white, where Chinese want to have more of a rosy glow. Chinese are also much more pragmatic. Japanese tend to have - depending on which segment, if you're very luxury or hyper luxury - you will have a very set routine with products, only in there. Chinese will look at, what is the best product and I will mix a luxury product with mass product, because I want to pick what is the best value. And 'best value' means I'm willing to spend if it really delivers it. If it doesn't, then then I won't. So that's also for us to make sure that we really have what we call 'hero products', that consumers can really see a difference in these, and they really make a big performance.
OF: What is coming down the pipeline? So if you can talk in general terms about the future of what we're seeing in skincare, haircare and makeup, what trends do you see coming up?
SB: So, I think there's a convergence of a number of different technologies and environmental factors that are going to come into play. And particularly in Asia. You have aspects like more urbanisation. So we've already seen this happen, huge shifts. In terms of China, now 55, or more percent of the population living in urban centres. But that puts pressure on how people live, you see more in terms of tensions with pollution and water scarcity. So that all is going to affect people's daily life, and be able to actually alter what are the products that they want to get. How do they feel, more tired for the skin? How UV rays affect skin, and actually the longer-wavelength UVA, which actually does the damage, and even on cloudy days that can penetrate. We found that plus pollution actually has a negative synergistic effect on skin health. So you're going to have that: urbanisation. You're going to have smart materials: materials that will actually be able to go and attack a specific gene or part of the skin. So it's really quite exciting in terms of what will happen, and I think what's most definitely going to happen is China is going to play an instrumental role in in that future.
OF: Alright, well, now I get it. Now I can see why you'll say busy.
SB: The positive part about that is there's job security. So it's not something that you reach an endpoint, which makes it exciting.
OF: Fascinating. Well, thank you. We're gonna move on now to Part 2.
OF: So, Question 1, do you have any favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SB: 千里之行,始於足下 [Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐ yú zúxià], which roughly translates into: 'A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step'. And that, to me, is a very inspiring way to really think about, when you want to do something, and you're not exactly sure how to do it, begin. And just that first step will have a real big impact. And so, that's one of the aspects of how I live my life. And it's also how we've developed the R&I Centre here in China.
OF: Amen. What is your favourite destination within China?
SB: That's a very hard question, you know. I'm Canadian, and China's is almost the same size as Canada, it's a huge country. I've been to a lot of places, but still only just a few. One, I only went in 1988, so it may be completely different now. And the context was, you know, everything was just, back then, an assault on my senses. It was not anything that I'd seen before, so crowded, bicycles that went everywhere, the buses had no air conditioning (it was during the summer). And then, I went to a city called 曲阜 [Qūfù]. And that was the birthplace of Confucius. And they had a park with a graveyard and a restaurant. And what struck me there - and again, it may not be anything like that today - it was just so quiet. So it was the contrast, versus everything else. Which is also, again, one of the themes that I feel all the time in China, is you see these big contrasts. And that really stood out. And the second one was more recently, I went with my wife and a bunch of friends on a motorcycle trip. We were in a sidecar. And we went to Mount Everest base camp. So, on the China side, on the north face. And we went up, right up to the base camp. And we wake up first thing in the morning, and the clouds part, and you see the top of Everest, with the sun coming through, it was really quite spectacular.
OF: Wow. And you mentioned your wife, so I should probably say right now that it's thanks to your wife that I know you. So a big shout out to Lisa, an amazing photographer here in Shanghai. Next question, if you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you missed the least?
SB: What I would miss the most is just the pace of change. There's an addictive energy that you get from things continuously changing. So you might see little things that change elsewhere, but nowhere else where you have speed and scale that combine: wow. So that is something I'm definitely going to miss. What I won't miss is the pollution aspect. I know the government is making a huge effort on this part. I really think that it's all of our responsibility to do that.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SB: Oh, well, I would say if ever I'm at a point where it doesn't surprise me, then I'd be shocked. I think every time you see things… again, it relates to the pace of change, and how things change so fast, how people adopt the change. Just, you always see these changes. I think for me, this is… Every time when you look on the streets, I'm surprised by something.
OF: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat, to drink, or just to hang out?
SB: So there are some downsides to the pace of change that happens. So I would say a lot of the favourite places that I had no longer exist - my favourite 包子 [bāozi] shop, my favourite 小笼包 [xiǎolóngbāo] shop, some older streets that I would love to walk in, that really felt like you're in older China - unfortunately, those don't really exist anymore in Shanghai. I used to do… when people came to Shanghai for the first time, I used to take my sidecar and go out to the countryside, where you see farmers and everything, and then take them down to the Bund. And you saw that all within one day. And so, it was the complete contrast of that. So that's a that's a little bit… But then on the flipside, you always have new fantastic places. Probably the new restaurant that I like is Hiya in the Edition Hotel. Because, what I like about it, so food's very good there, the quality's there, but the view… So they have a bar upstairs, and you have a rooftop. And of course, Shanghai has lots of rooftop bars. But what was interesting with this one, it's a different view, at least from what I had seen before, because you're further back. And you have a different perspective on the city, that I had never seen before, even though I've seen it a million times. And honestly, I think Shanghai is the most beautiful city at night in the world.
OF: What is the best or worst purchase that you've made in China?
SB: Probably the worst purchase I made is, you know, because China you can get some custom made things, right? Relatively inexpensive. And I got a pair of custom made shoes. And it was like a cartoon, they were more than four or five sizes too small. There was literally, I could not even put half my foot in. And we had arguments that they made them, and I had to pay for them, and they were fine. And it was like, "Fine for whom??" because, it's like, it actually has to be able to fit on my foot.
OF: Next question, what is your favourite WeChat sticker?
SB: So for WeChat stickers, for me - probably like many people - you're always "Look what's the most current one? I got to have that one, that's really good". But I find, particularly in the more cartoonish ones, they're great but they're only great for a few weeks. And then there's one that I really like it's a dog, a pug, just walking and then looks straight in the camera, and it's more of that surprise, like you're really - "Huh? What's happening?" - which is more of your daily life in Shanghai, so that's why it relates.
OF: What is your go-to song to sing in KTV?
SB: OK, so if I had any ability to sing, I would not be working in Research and Innovation, I would be a lounge singer, because that is my desire in life. But sometimes you're given gifts, and that is not a gift at all that I have, in any way shape or form. That said, if there was one song… An older one, 小苹果 [Xiǎo Píngguǒ].
SB: Yes. "Small apple". It's a few years old. It was a dance song here.
OF: And it's easy, like, can I learn that one?
SB: Yes. And well, you have to see the video as well.
OF: And finally, what other China-related media, or just general sources of information do you rely on?
SB: I'm a huge fan, for years, of WeChat. So as a one-stop shop, it's fantastic to be able to go there. Then, more for work-related use, I guess now it's called TikTok. That's a really interesting media. We see it, for example, in our business in makeup. These girls didn't know how to use makeup, they couldn't go to their mother. Now the amount of tutorials to be able to do that, to see how to apply eyeshadow, things like this, was really quite different. And then for English language, I guess it's called 'Shine' now, Shanghai Daily.
OF: Great. I must say, you've put it in my head now - the piece you said about how women here in China are more sensitive to the very fine lines - I feel like now I'm going to be looking really closely at Chinese women. Oh, dear. So if you see me in public coming very close to a Chinese woman's face, this is all Sanford's fault.
SB: You can provide us new insights.
OF: Oh, there you go. Well listen, before you leave, the last thing I ask all my guests is, for the next season of Mosaic of China, I would like to interview someone who you recommend. So out of everyone you know in China, who would you recommend that I interview next?
SB: So I have a fascinating person, a colleague of mine, Stéphane Wilmet. He's been in China for a very long time. And his current role is super interesting because he is our Chief Consumer Officer in L'Oréal China. So he is the one with his fingers on the pulse of what's really happening with the Chinese consumer, what are the shifts that are happening with that. And his long history here gives him the right perspective to be able to offer that. So really a fascinating person, I think you'll enjoy talking with him.
OF: Great, I can't wait. Thank you so much again, Sanford.
SB: You're welcome, it's been a pleasure.
OF: Well, here's at least one positive story to come out of the virus outbreak: I have not in fact, been pressing up against Chinese women's faces. So you see, every cloud has a silver restraining order.
Thanks again to Sanford for the chat. I didn't plan on talking about prostitutes to a microbiologist*. But that fascinating connection was with Maple Zuo the comedian from Episode 2, so please do check that out. Sanford also mentioned TikTok just there. That also came up in Episode 21, with the broadcaster Yang Yi. And I've posted a lot of images on social media that you can see on Instagram on @mosaicofchina_** and Facebook search under @mosaicofchina there. Or you can join the community on WeChat. Just add me on ID: mosaicofchina** and I'll add you to the group. I was just taking a look at this actually, and last week, I added the 200th new person who came into the community this way. So thanks to all of you there. Many people who were there came through my own personal networks, so I'm really grateful to those people who I didn't know before. This week's images include Sanford with his object, the set of wells of artificial skin; there is his sticker, the surprised pug; there are some photos at Mount Everest base camp with his wife Lisa; and a whole bunch of other goodies. Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, artwork by Danny Newell, and extra support from Milo de Prieto and Alston Gong. Join us next week for the last episode of the series.
*This is a mistake. Sanford is a biochemist, not a microbiologist.
**Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.