The beauty of understanding your clientele

It's said beauty is only skin deep, but nearly every woman wants that skin to look its best, and China's market is booming with plenty challenges and opportunities.
Ti Gong

Sanford Browne, vice-president of research and innovation for L’Oreal China.

It’s said beauty is only skin deep, but nearly every woman wants that skin to look its best.

Thus evolved the vast and profitable global business of cosmetics, skin care and other beauty aids. China’s side of the market is one of the world’s most booming, with a complicated array of products promising every sort of beautiful outcome.

Euromonitor said it expects China’s beauty market to overtake that of the US by the end of this year, accounting for just short of 20 percent of worldwide sales.

 By 2021, the China market is expected to be valued at US$40 billion.Last year, Chinese expenditure on skin-care products rose 17 percent, and that on coloring cosmetics jumped 29 percent. Those gains compared with a mere 4.3 percent increase in the whole consumer goods market, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

The glowing statistics are a backdrop to the success story of Paris-based L’Oreal in China.

L’Oreal has put consumers at the center of its research and development activities since the inauguration of its operations in China.To hear the story of this remarkable progress and discuss the future, Shanghai Daily talked to Sanford Browne, vice-president of research and innovation for L’Oreal China.

After graduating from the University of Waterloo in 1988, Browne joined the personal care industry and held a number of positions at personal care and consumer goods companies. He has been held his current post with L’Oreal China since 2013.

Q: What does your research and innovation center actually do?

A: L’Oréal’s research activities in China began in 2003 with partners in dermatology science and organic chemistry. In 2005, the research facility officially opened with three staff. 

Now we have close to 400 researchers and scientists, and it’s one of L’Oréal’s seven global research hubs.We are always investing in projects that give us a fundamental understanding of Chinese skin, scalp and hair. We’re also developing and growing 3D skin biological models derived from Chinese skin to ensure the safety and performance of our materials.

Q: Is China so different from elsewhere?

A: Chinese are some of, if not the most, demanding consumers in the world. That is why it’s important we invest in science and combine it with speed, agility and flexibility.

There are some things that have not changed at L’Oréal, that is, our commitment to safety and efficacy.We design our products so they deliver perceivable benefits for consumers. China is always evolving, and the combination of speed of change and scale have resulted in seismic shifts.

In the past we may have taken a sequential development of products, one step at a time. But now, we work in a very integrated approach, where we can develop prototypes quickly, evaluate them with consumers and learn very fast.

Q: Could you explain how consumer behavior figures into your work?

A: Consumers are at the center of everything we do. We have the capacity to bring up to 200 consumers a day into our lab to help us gain a deeper understanding of what they want and what works best for them.

We also embrace a holistic approach that includes fragrance, color and efficacy of products.We also look at the effects of the urban environment and how environmental factors influence what consumers need and want.

Q: How has the rise of the digital world affected what you do?

A: China is at the center of the digital revolution. Consumers search for products online and read comments from others about products. That means now the product becomes the hero. That requires us to reinforce innovation and go to extremes to delight consumers.It’s also transforming how we innovate in the lab.

For example, we’re using learning algorithms in research and testing of prototype products. We also develop smart devices, like, for example, UV patches to allow consumers to use connected devices to measure the effects of ultra-violet rays.

Q: What sorts of specific products have come out of your research center?

A: Let me give you an example. We’ve seen a big trend of Chinese consumers starting to talk about and even undergo facial cosmetic surgery. One of the popular procedures requires the injection of hyaluronic acid, but the process is a quite painful process.So we took two specific hyaluronic acids — one of which is an extremely small molecule that can penetrate the outer layer of the skin and help in terms of collagen generation that makes the skin smoother and reduces fine lines. 

Another kind of hyaluronic acid is made up of bigger molecules that help to create a “plumping sensation.”Combining these two types of hyaluronic acid in the L'Oréal Paris Ampoule offers a seven-day cycle in which users can see perceivable benefits.

We’ve also seen that when consumers use tissue masks, they want safety as well as high efficacy and freshness. 

Normally the tissue and essence are put in one package, mixed together. We divided the tissue and the essence, and the user mixes them together before unpacking the mask.

We brought in about 2,000 consumers to test what kind of products work the best. This technology was first used to make the MG mask and has been just launched around the world under other L’Oreal brands.

The overall mission for the L’Oreal China Research and Innovation Center is “innovate for China and inspire the world.” Tissue masks with a separate essence packs are now also being introduced to the global market.

Ti Gong

The Research & innovation Center was established in Shanghai in 2005, focusing on innovations for the Chinese consumers. 

With 2 billion yuan of investment in the past decade, “innovate for China and inspire the world” became the core vision of the L’Oréal R&I Center in China in 2015.

Q: Women are a fragmented group when it comes to ages, definitions of beauty and even national preferences. How do you address that?

A: The Chinese consumer is ever evolving. At L’Oréal we believe in “beauty for all.” There is not one type of beauty, nor is there just one type of Chinese consumer. For example, we’ve done extensive work on understanding and classifying the signs of aging for Chinese women.

We developed technology for hair color products that was a prototype and launched products in India. We also created new skin-care technology used in the Lancôme brand around the world for sensitive skin. 

When it comes to environmental factors, we have found that pollution can have a negative effect on skin health, accelerating signs of aging and causing water-oil imbalances that can increase the incidence of acne.

When combined with exposure to long wavelengths of ultraviolet light, it can cause negative synergy. Based on those findings, we created a line of products to clean, repair and protect the skin, like those in La Roche-Posay.

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