Oct. 8 (Bloomberg) -- When Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc brought its Veet hair-removal cream to China, sales were sluggish. The problem: Most Chinese women don’t have much body hair, and those who do didn’t worry about it.
So the company came up with a new marketing plan. Instead of simply explaining what Veet does, Reckitt Benckiser introduced ads that equate hair-free skin with health, confidence and “shining glory.” In the process, the company has helped make many Chinese women self-conscious about every stray follicle.
“It’s not how much hair you have, it’s how much you think you have,” Aditya Sehgal, the company’s China chief, said by phone from Beijing. “If your concern level is high enough, even one hair is too much.”
Veet has become Reckitt Benckiser’s fastest-growing brand in China. As the company’s growth slows in Europe and the U.S., Asian sales of hair removers are rising 20 percent annually, Euromonitor reports, almost double the rate of women’s razors and blades.
That makes Reckitt Benckiser more reliant on customers like Maggie Li. The 29-year-old public relations consultant in Beijing got a handout of Veet this summer and she’s been buying the product ever since.
Li spends about 400 yuan ($63) a month on beauty products like Procter & Gamble Co.’s SK-II skincare. A 60-gram bottle of Veet, costing 46 yuan, is enough keep her legs smooth for about two months. Veet’s marketing, she said, “makes Chinese women more aware of their body hair issue.”
In the $427 billion personal-care sector, of course, manufacturers have long convinced women to focus on perceived flaws. Estee Lauder Cos. and L’Oreal SA sell skin-whitening creams in China, where women have been fixated on lighter skin for centuries, according to Harriet Evans, professor of Chinese cultural studies at the University of Westminster.
“We are not here to remind the Chinese how much hair they have,” Sehgal said. “Our job is to talk about the fact that beautiful smooth skin is critical and grooming is critical. Women make their own conclusions as to what that means.”
While Veet dominates the global market for hair removers with a 41 percent share, five times that of Church & Dwight Co.’s Nair, success in China is by no means guaranteed. The brand’s presence and appeal diminish outside of big cities, and professional waxing salons could lure some customers away. Chinese-made copycats might also hurt sales -- like the knockoff “Veet Epilator” available on Alibaba.com.
Sehgal’s opportunity is vast because just 0.6 percent of Chinese women remove body hair, according to a study conducted by Ipsos for P&G, maker of Gillette razors. Global sales of Veet, a brand previously called Neet whose roots go back a century, were about 405 million pounds ($657 million) last year, according to research from Sanford C. Bernstein.
Reckitt Benckiser, based in Slough, England, made other miscalculations when it introduced Veet in China in 2005. The company, which also makes Finish dish detergent and Mortein insecticides, only sold Veet in larger packages, which women unfamiliar with the product were reluctant to buy.
“We got the pricing, sizing and communication wrong,” Sehgal said. “It took a bit of time to fix.”
After those initial missteps, Sehgal applied lessons learned selling Veet in India, where the brand was introduced in 2004. He improved the quality and color of Veet’s packaging, positioning Veet as a product for women “for whom grooming is part of how she gets a promotion, a good husband, and a raise,” said Paul French, an analyst at Mintel in China.
Those women shop at retailers like drugstore chain Watsons and beauty outlet Sephora, whose expansion across China has been fueled by a 52 percent increase in sales of personal-care products since 2008, Euromonitor reports.
Veet’s new look debuted in 2008 in the southern coastal city of Guangzhou, where summers are hot and humid. Veet representatives flooded local universities with free samples and encouraged retailers to push the product, while online videos taught consumers how to use it.
“With a product like this you are asking them to change their lifestyle, so it can be a challenging thing,” said Peter Golder, a professor of marketing at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.
Expansion to Beijing and Shanghai followed, and today about 25 varieties of Veet are sold in more than 130 Chinese cities, including scented variants that mask the unpleasant smell of the chemicals that weaken the hair so it can be scraped off. Actress Yang Mi endorses the product, attaching a glamorous Chinese face to the brand in ads that promise “silky femininity” for users. Next year, Veet plans to unveil its first nationwide campaign in China.
With Veet in China, “marketing plays a role that is very similar to that of the apple in the Bible,” said Ben Voyer, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at ESCP Europe Business School. “It creates an awareness, which subsequently creates a feeling of shame and need.”
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