Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 01 – The Trend Tracker (Stéphane WILMET, L'Oréal China)
With thirty years at L'Oréal, and fifteen of those in leadership roles in China, Stéphane Wilmet has made a career of anticipating trends in China, and catering to the needs of the illusive 'Chinese consumer'.
SW: Another object.
OF: What the hell is that?
SW: Exactly! What the hell is that? I don't know what it is.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
It has been a long time since I released a full episode, so I'm very glad to be back with you today. In so many way, life has shrunk for everyone in 2020, so I'm excited to hopefully open up some new horizons again, even if just over audio.
Since this is Episode 1 of the Season, just a quick reminder about the format of these interviews. The first part is a freestyle conversation, starting with the description of an object that the guest has brought in, which in some way describes their life in China. In the second part, the guest answers 10 questions about their tastes and experiences in China. And the third part is where they nominate someone to appear in the next season of Mosaic of China. So for example, today's interview is with Stéphane Wilmet, who is the Chief Consumer Officer of L'Oréal in China. And he was introduced - in Episode 29 of Season 1 of the show - by Sanford Browne, who at the time was the Head of Research and Innovation at L'Oréal China. And right at the end of this episode, I've also included a little extra catch-up interview with Sanford, so that you can hear what he's been up to since last time.
You're listening to the regular version of the podcast, if you'd like to hear the full interview with Stéphane, and indeed the full interviews in all the 30 episodes of this Season, please go to the Patreon page and subscribe there. All the details are also available at https://mosaicofchina.com. A big thanks goes to those who have already subscribed, mainly because I begged them to. These include a few people who paid extra to get a personal shout-out on the show, so a special thanks to Beecher Ashley-Brown, Sebastien Denes, Amanda Argentieri, Jessica Gleeson, Eric Olander, Mike Golden, and Yang Yi. And finally, the podcast has also been designed to have a strong visual element, so please add us at @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram, or @mosaicofchina on Facebook or WeChat, and you can follow the images there. Enough of me, let's begin.
OF: Thank you so much for coming, Stéphane.
SW: Really, my pleasure.
OF: You have a very unique title in L'Oréal China, what is your title?
SW: I'm the Chief Consumer Officer of L'Oréal China.
OF: Well, we will come into that, of course, but I would first of all like to play you the thing that the person who recommended you in Season 1 said about you last season. So let's just listen to what he said and how he introduced you.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Sanford BROWNE: Stéphane Wilmet, 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 them.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: Well, that was Sanford. So, tell me about your relationship with Sanford.
SW: Now, Sanford lives in Tokyo, as you know, but this is a gentleman who's been all over China. Yes, he's a man of science, he heads our Research and Innovation department. But he also has a very good sense of business and what consumers want.
OF: And that's where I can see the two of you being an interesting team, because you've got someone like him who has a lot of breadth, and then someone like you who of course has breadth but you have a lot of depth within the L'Oréal organisation. Because how many years have you been with L'Oréal now?
SW: Almost 30 years.
OF: Oh, wow. So you've obviously seen it go through different phases, and you yourself have been around different places in the world. Before we go into that then, the first thing I ask everyone sitting in that chair is, what object did you bring that in some way describes your life here in China? Oh! Oh, I remember these!
SW: Do you remember these?
SW: OK. So my object is a bill. It's 10 cents in Chinese. For me, it's a symbol of many of the changes that I've been privileged to be a witness of, in my time in China. When I started coming to China, that was worth a lot of money. You could buy a lunch at my university.
SW: But today, as you know, you can't buy squat with it.
OF: Is it still legal tender?
SW: It's still legal tender. But it's a fact that actually today, nobody actually uses it any more. And there's nothing that costs, 20 RMB and 10 cents. And even more tellingly is that nobody uses cash, actually.
SW: And so today, money is virtual, it's digital. So this bill, nobody uses it, nobody sees it anymore. And yet, it is worth more to some collectors than its face value. You see the irony here? Anyway, it's also a symbol of something that was part of the daily life of Chinese people that was worth a lot. You fast forward a few years, and it doesn't exist. It has been digitalised, replaced, reinvented.
OF: Well, you're certainly well equipped to talk about this, since this is basically what you do. You look at trends, and you look at how people are acting and behaving. Tell us what you do on a daily basis.
SW: So I work for L'Oréal China, I'm based here in Shanghai, it's the headquarters for L'Oréal China. We have 25 beauty brands: skincare brands, makeup brands, haircare brands, men care, fragrances… Actually, now our focus is to become the leader of beauty tech. And obviously in China, we know we're at the forefront of how tech can enable beauty. And so what I do is work with every team to bring the point of view of Chinese consumers. So it means working with our marketing teams, our sales teams, our training teams, our lab teams, finance teams, our operation teams, our e-commerce teams, our every teams to never forget that, at the centre of all this, we need to hear the voice of the consumer. There's sometimes a temptation to start from the brand. And the brand point of view. "I'm brand XYZ and I think that this and my product does that, and…" But is that relevant to what a Chinese consumer, that could be a target of this brand, wants? And so, my role has been to help our organisation transform our ways of working from being very product-centric to becoming more consumer-centric.
OF: Very good. And when you were listing all the different departments you work with, you have to knock their heads together and keep on saying, "think of the consumer".
SW: Every brand has its own personality, every team will work in its own ways. But there are some very important meetings, or moments during the year when different teams will come together. 'Double 11' is coming up very soon, or it will be Chinese New Year, or the summer makeup looks are coming… And it's in those moments that it's important to either remind what the consumer wants, or is expecting, or help all our teams who are very aware of that, to just always come back to that.
OF: Mmm, Mmm. So were you in China throughout the whole time? Or have you been pinging back and forward?
SW: I started in France. I then worked in Hong Kong, this was before Hong Kong was retroceded to mainland China. And then I moved in '96/'97 to Shanghai. So I was there when we started.
OF: And you mentioned before, 'beauty tech', right?
SW: Yes. Everybody actually lives in his or her smartphone. And all the more so for beauty. Consumers do a lot of research, their levels of expertise is actually very, very high. And that is through a set of apps that bring together a lot of knowledge.
OF: When you say apps, the first thing I think about are the famous apps that help to change the photo so that you look different. You can widen this, and you can shorten that, and you can make this whiter, make this darker. Is that part of your world? Or is it something which actually you can ignore?
SW: Oh, it's absolutely part of our world. It's not a joke, it's extremely serious for us, but we joke that our competitors are these technology companies that you mentioned, these filter changing apps, as well as other skincare or makeup or fragrance companies. For many many years, makeup in China was a very very under-penetrated category. It means, very few women were using makeup. And then a few years ago, maybe 4-5 years ago, the light bulb went on all over China. And do you know why?
OF: No. Tell me why.
SW: What happened in China? If you think back 4-5 years ago…
OF: Oh, OK, so it was better cameras on phones.
SW: Exactly, all these Chinese smartphone makers started to come up with extremely developed technologies to transform the phone into your daily companion. And so, when consumers starting doing the ubiquitous… what?
OF: Yep, selfie.
SW: Selfie, exactly, then they need to look nice in the ways that they define nice being, and that's when makeup boomed. So you see, it boomed because of a technology-related boom.
OF: Well I can see, actually, the parallels between what makeup does in the real world versus what these apps do in the digital world. They're both Augmented Reality after all.
SW: You're absolutely right. And the role that Augmented Reality is going to play, is going to be greater and greater. You know that everyone has his or her avatar now. There will be a day when we will be launching makeup or skincare for avatars. Stay tuned, Oscar.
OF: Wow. What you're making me think of is how, all these traditional companies - and we're talking here about beauty products, but we could be talking about anything - you would never have thought, 10 years ago, that your competitor was a digital company. And yet, here we are, right?
SW: And that's the beauty of being in China. Because these trends, they scale up very quickly. So for us, we pivoted in L'Oréal, we shifted. We're not going to be the number one beauty company only anymore, We're going to be the number one beauty tech company, because tech and beauty, they are a perfect match. To analyse your skin, to do a skin diagnostic, to understand your skin tone…
OF: …Or even to model how your face will age in the future.
SW: You're very right. To understand the ageing of skin of Chinese people linked to the specificities of China.
OF: Let me jump in and go back to something you said before. Which was about how, when you see trends in China, they have a tendency to scale very fast. And I guess that is what your job is, to make sure that when these trends do explode in China, that you are ahead of them.
SW: Our experiences have been that trends don't show up. The key is to link the dots, and then think, "what do they mean?" I mentioned earlier, the smartphone, we had done countless studies about why women didn't buy makeup, or what we should do in terms of better textures, or whatever. But when we started spotting people taking selfies, posting selfies, the the real birth of social media here, we were able to link the need for makeup, but also hair colour, that this would entail. And then we could go back to brands who were saying "I'm not going to launch in China, there's no future for makeup, or…" go back and say "No, connect the dots, look at what's happening."
OF: That's a fascinating skillset. When I hear that, it makes me think about big data in its entirety, how we are bombarded with these little points of data. But the skillset we need now is to filter out the things that aren't important, and make connections with the ones that are, right?
SW: You're very right, we're inundated with data, especially in China, at the scale of China. So finding data, that's not the issue. It's the insights, that's the more difficult, but also of course, the more enjoyable part of the equation.
OF: And how do you exercise those muscles then, in terms of being able to connect these dots? Do you just wallow in the data? Or do you make connections with your personal life, and then have an 'aha' moment? Or how do you actually get to the solution.
SW: The last thing I want to do is bring my personal life into this process, because I'm not the young consumer of beauty of China. So the one thing is, to remove oneself. The beauty of our beauty industry is that consumers love to post their comments, give their rating, review other people's comments… So we all read these reviews, we all read the ratings. It's free, it's plentiful, it's meaningful, and it's there. And it's the real voice of consumers saying "Ah, I received this lipstick, and when I opened it here's what I found out, and they tell you to use it this way, but if you do it my way, you'll see that it lasts longer, or it's actually more matte, or…" Every day, it's so refreshing to be able to get direct feedback from our consumers.
OF: What are the trends that you see that perhaps the average listener would be surprised to hear about?
SW: Say skincare, in the Western markets, anti-age skincare for wrinkles, skincare for early signs of ageing, that's usually women and men around 35-40 years old, when the wrinkles start to show up. Now, any idea how old or young a Chinese consumer using the same anti-ageing skincare products is here?
OF: You're leading me in one direction.
SW: I'm leading you.
OF: Go on, put me out of my misery.
SW: Around 22, 23 years old.
OF: They're already using it?
SW: They're using it.
OF: Ow, wow.
SW: Why? Because this links back to Chinese culture, the Chinese culture of prevention. Just the general culture that you want to keep the balance, you don't wait for things to be broken to then fix them. You prevent this from happening. Now, what does it mean for us, L'Oréal, and our beauty brands? Of course, the texture, the routine, the needs of a 35- or 40-year-old woman in Europe has nothing to do with those of a 22-year old Chinese young lady. So we have to adapt the formula, we have to adapt the packaging. Same brand, same product name, but within a brand, you can have different ranges, some that are more in the 'prevent' categories, and some that are more in the 'corrective' categories. But now that China is so important for the beauty business, now that Chinese consumers are such a key constituent of beauty as an industry, when we come out with a new product we have the Chinese consumer in mind directly.
OF: Fascinating. And what have you learned, with your finger on the pulse, about how China and the Chinese consumer has pivoted in this special time?
SW: We all saw how resilient people were here. They dealt with the crisis and moved on. Now it's not over, we're still learning, we still have to see what the more long-term impact of this COVID-19 crisis will have in terms of behaviours, in terms of mindset. But already, very clearly, we see some very important traits. People stayed home, right? A lot of people used that time to watch tutorials, to watch live streamers, to learn new makeup skills, new beauty skills.
OF: And you're saying this in an anecdotal way, but this is backed up by data, right?
SW: Absolutely. Because we can see, through numerous ways, what people were doing. Audiences for certain shows, on different platforms in China. And then you can see the direct link of what was being discussed, to what was being sold. Because retail didn't stop during this crisis, just morphed a bit more into the digital, e-commerce world, but nothing stopped. And then, coming out of COVID-19, definitely more rationality. It doesn't mean that people were not rational, and now they're rational. It just means if they were a little bit rational, they come out of COVID-19 a bit more rational; if they were very rational, they're extremely rational. So they're thinking about why they're buying this product.
OF: …Which, you mean, is less impulsive stuff.
SW: In a way. Or, from a different angle, it's up to us to create more excitement, to create the new triggers…
OF: …To stimulate the impulse.
SW: To stimulate the impulse.
OF: How interesting. And that's a trend which you saw happening during, and has now sustained beyond it, or is it something which you think will die down?
SW: It's something that is still going, and we see it as a very deep trend. It's a reality check. China pressed on the pause button during this crisis. This had never happened, as we know, in the last 20+ years.
SW: Pause? People have time, they think, they re-evaluate. And now what happened is they unpaused, and it's fast forward again, but in a new way.
OF: Yes, it has been funny how quickly things returned to normal here, in a way that is hard for others to understand. That's something where perhaps you can see more on what's going on under the surface.
SW: I think many people call it the new normal, because people have a much heightened sense of safety, hygiene, health…
OF: …Which was borne out in terms of what they were purchasing, of course. What was being purchased more?
SW: Oh definitely hand creams, for instance. We saw that skincare, haircare and even makeup to a certain degree, in this era that we called "beauty with a mask" has not stopped. We're back to where we were, it's just that maybe people are buying different things within skincare, or within makeup, or within haircare.
OF: Well, thank you so much for that, Stéphane. We're now going to go on to Part 2.
OF: OK, are you ready?
OF: Then let's begin. What is your favourite China related fact?
SW: I think my all-time favourite China-related piece of trivia is this foreign policy anecdote that everybody knows. It's the story of the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, the Premier of Chairman Mao, his response to a question from Henry Kissinger. This is the early 1970s when Nixon and Kissinger are engaging in direct talks with the PRC. And Zhou Enlai is asked by Kissinger to assess the impact of the French Revolution. And as the story goes, Premiere Zhou Enlai responds, "it's too early to tell". But what is interesting is what lies behind the story. Because in China, there's always layers and layers to decode. Actually one of the translators for Kissinger, a few years ago, maybe 3-4 years ago, came out to say that this was a miss-told story. What really took place, according to him, is that Prime Minister Zhou misunderstood the question, and rather than being asked to give his point of view on the impact of the French Revolution of those events of 1789, he thought he was being asked about the student protests that hit Paris in 1968. So you see, in this context Zhou Enlai's answer was very sensible. Taken out of its context, with the years having polished the story into almost a myth, it's totally different. It became an example of the patient and farsighted nature of Chinese leaders who think in increments of centuries, as opposed to the short-termism of our Western democratic politicians. But in recalling the exchange, this one translator said "there was a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction". And as it happens, this example, to me, reveals the difference between a story that is true, and one that contains a good deal of truth. That's China, for me. It's a question that leads to another question, a layer to another layer, but always a good story.
OF: Yes. I love it. Thank you. Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SW: I want to quote a poet from the Tang Dynasty, his name is 白居易 [Bái Jūyì], where he tries to express his perplexity about another philosopher, 老子 [Lǎozi], the founder of Taoism. And it's written in classical Chinese, so very hard to understand, but the title of his poem is "Reading 老子 [Lǎozi]". He's quoting: "Those who speak don't know. And those who know, don't speak. This I have heard from 老子 [Lǎozi]. But if we say that 老子 [Lǎozi] is someone who knows, why did he himself write a book of 5000 characters?"
OF: The paradox.
SW: So the paradox. And it's like the first point with Zhou Enlai for me: China, the Chinese culture, is always a source of questioning, of looking beyond what you see or what you read.
OF: So can you say that in Chinese?
SW: Sure, it's: 言者不如知者默 [Yán zhě bùrú zhì zhě mò], 此语吾闻于老君 [Cǐ yǔ wú wén yú lǎo jūn], 若道老君是知者 [Ruò dào lǎo jūn shì zhì zhě], 缘何自著五千文 [Yuánhé zìzhe wǔqiān wén]. OF: Very nice. Number three, what is your favourite destination within China?
SW: I've been lucky to have travelled to many places in China, but Beijing remains my favourite destination. So much culture, so many places. And also, of course, for me a lot of memories. It combines modernity and traditions. And a friend of mine told me, quite rightly so, that if Shanghai is the heart of China, Beijing is its head. It's the brain. It's a cold city, it's a mysterious city, but it's a powerful city, it's an energising city, at the scale of China.
OF: Wow. Nicely said, especially since this programme has been largely Shanghai-weighted, and I like the idea of sharing some of that weight with Beijing. Next question. If you left China, what would you miss the most? And what would you miss the least?
SW: I think I would miss the 'ding ding ding', you know, those tricyclers, the peddlers on their tricycles. I would miss this music. I don't know how we would call them, tricyclers? They're recyclers on tricycles. And in this modern city, with so many millions of people that is so tech-advanced, this little music, it comes from another time.
OF: And what about the thing that you would miss the least?
SW: What I would miss the least? Everybody knows everything about you. Everything. You know, what time you went out, what time you came back, what time your kids, what did they do, why you're this, why you're that… And so at some point, it becomes too much.
OF: That's actually a good point. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SW: Every day, all the time. Because again, when I think I finally figured out why or what this means, that's exactly when the cards turn. And I realise, I don't know. So I'm every day constantly amazed and reminded.
OF: Next question, where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?
SW: I'll tell you where it is, it's where sometimes we bump into one another, it's 安福路 [Ānfú Lù]. And I'll tell you why. Because we used to live there, with my wife Sophie and our kids, 25 years ago. And I can tell you at that time, we were the only foreigners in that street. And the transformation over the years is amazing. Now you see all these KOLs coming to 安福路 [Ānfú Lù], around 武康路 [Wǔkāng Lù], taking pictures. It's a street that's always reinventing itself. And to have seen it from when it wasn't that, to where it is today, it just adds meaning to the experience of that very beautiful street.
OF: Mmm. What is the best or worst purchase you have made in China?
SW: Ha, I brought to you one of the many worst purchases I ever made in China. So I will show you.
OF: Ooh an extra object. I like it.
SW: Another object
OF: What the hell is that?
SW: Exactly! What the hell is that? I don't know what it is. It's the type of thing that you're supposed to use when you want to turn the rice.
OF: Is it? OK.
SW: And then you can pour the water out through the skimmer here, and keep the rice. But of course, look at the design.
OF: It's too small. Yeah.
SW: It's too small, it doesn't work. So one of those 'looks great on the Taobao, but ends up being useless in real life'.
OF: Oh, that's great. That's the first time someone's brought in their worst object. I appreciate that. You've elevated the question now. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
SW: Let me send it to you.
OF: Oh, here it is. Can you explain what's going on here?
SW: For me, this one sums up what I experience every day. You know, in the West, we have this image of the hamster in the hamster wheel. You know, running and running and running on the wheel, but going nowhere. But here in China, I feel that it's always up, up. You're always going somewhere better, more challenging, at a pace that accelerates. Up or out. There's no going nowhere or no standing still, here in China.
OF: Mmm. What's your go-to song to sing at KTV?
SW: I do have a song. It's from an older Chinese rock singer called 许巍 [Xǔ Wēi]. It's called The Blue Lotus. And I like it, it's very interesting. The lyrics are quite easy. And the tonality, there's no real ups and downs, very Zen. So for me, very easy to sing, or easier to sing.
OF: OK. And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
SW: China Daily. And some of my friends, or some acquaintances, they find this very really strange. But I think the business section of the China Daily, there is not a day when I don't learn something, a statistic, a number, an insight, it's really interesting.
OF: Thank you so much, Stéphane.
SW: Thank you very much, Oscar. Always, always, always a pleasure.
OF: Well, the final thing before you leave is: who, out of everyone you know in China, should I interview in the next season of Mosaic of China?
SW: Since you mentioned extending the reach outside of Shanghai and more towards Beijing, I thought of one gentleman. His name is Jim, Jim Spear. He is a fabulous person, you will love him. He was in the wine business before this was a business. He'll explain to you his eco tourism project that he's been so successful at these days, pioneering it before ecotourism was a thing in China. So enjoy your discussions with Jim.
OF: Thank you so much, Stéphane, I can't wait to meet Jim. And thank you once again for your time today.
SW: My pleasure. Many thanks, Oscar.
OF: And there we have it, a great start to Season 2. Thanks again to Stéphane for his time. If you want to follow the English - or indeed all the Chinese - from this episode, then head to the Transcripts link on Stéphane's page at https://mosaicofchina.com. And while you're there, you can also click the link to subscribe to the PREMIUM version, here are a few clips from today's episode…
SW: So in a way China invented crypto-currency decades ago.
SW: We were one of the very first companies not to start with a joint venture.
SW (With a strong French accent): I don't know what you mean, Mr. Oscar.
SW: We don't know who that famous Chinese consumer is. There is no Chinese consumer.
OF: Oh dear, you're making me feel like a bit of an egotist.
[End of Audio Clips]
OF: You're only going to keep hearing more of these clips as the Season progresses, so I hope they convince you to subscribe sooner rather than later! And then there are the extra images that I've posted on social media, which this week include: Stéphane and his object, the 一角 [Yījiǎo] banknote that's equivalent to one tenth of a Chinese 元 [Yuán]; his favourite WeChat sticker, the one which he describes as the equivalent of the hamster wheel in China; some nice photos that Stéphane shared with me from his life at L'Oréal, including one with the famous Kan Yuesai, whose brand 'Yuesai' was bought by L'Oréal back in 2004; and many more. Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Stick around for a shortened version of my catch-up interview with Sanford Browne from Season 1, and I'll see you again next week.
OF: Well, tell me, where do I find you now?
Sanford BROWNE: So you find me now in Tokyo. New role, I am now responsible for all of Asia for L'Oréal Research and Innovation, based here in Tokyo.
OF: And you moved to Japan shortly after our recording. So you've been there now for over a year by now, right?
SB: Yes, that's right.
OF: And so what has been your COVID story?
SB: Well, you know, I think, I've been fortunate that everyone has been healthy, from a family standpoint, and from a work standpoint. You know, a lot of the things that make Tokyo magical involve the after-work going for dinner, having a beer. All of those little izakayas - little small places - are not always the places where you should go in terms of COVID safety. They're very close, people are talking without the masks, they're drinking whatever. So you haven't been able to experience all of what Japan has to offer in that context. And also some restrictions about travel, that I couldn't leave and return, so that left me not being able to see my family. And then my family still can't come in. So that's a little disheartening, but I'm hopeful that not too long in the future, we'll be able to get through that.
OF: Oh, good. And you and I still communicate on WeChat. But are you now doing other things? Are you on LINE, for example?
SB: I have LINE and WhatsApp. But it's like going back to the 1920s. It just… it's so backwards. I feel the only thing I really use is WeChat. And then when I have to communicate with somebody on some other social network, I use that. So that's still to me the gold standard, and the other ones are very far way away.
OF: Well, look, thank you Sanford. It's very nice to have this excuse to catch up with you, and for you to continue being part of, you know, the Mosaic family. Let's definitely keep in touch.
SB: Great Oscar, thanks for reaching out, and it's good to connect with more people.
*A different Instagram handled was mentioned in the original recording. That handle is now obsolete, and the updated one has 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.