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Should brands in China spend on marketing or R&D?

by Antoaneta Becker
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As another Chinese consumer brand falls foul of the Chinese government by concentrating its budget on quick fix marketing, what can companies learn about allocating their priorities in the China market? Asks Mark Tanner from China Skinny

“If you protect yourself from the sun, you will be whiter than others. If not, you will be uglier,” so said a controversial sun hat advertisement last month on Douyin from the multi-billion dollar Chinese sun protection brand, Beneunder.

Beneunder has capitalised on the perennial belief across much of Asia that fairer skin is symbolic of a higher social class, away from working in the fields and rural poverty associations. While whitening skin creams are the best-known products that support the belief, nine years ago, Beneunder started selling premium umbrellas that claimed to block 99% of UV rays, soon establishing itself as the Hermès of umbrellas’. The company was quick to capitalise on its reputation and diversify its range, with top-selling products now including sun-protection clothing, face masks and sleeve gloves.

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Increasing affluence and changing trends are seeing Chinese consumers spend more time in the sun. Theyre holidaying in rural areas more, with a big jump in those going camping and planning outdoor activities such as kayaking or golf. On top of that, the 58% fall in PM2.5 air pollution over the past decade has made Chinas sun harsher.

As a result, Chinas sun protection industry is booming. Sun Protection notes on Xiaohongshu (RED) grew 56% last year, and 115% in the first four months of 2022. Sales of related products grew an average of 80% across Tmall and JD last year. Sunscreen has been among the fastest growing categories for skincare, yet many consumers are opting to use less of the cream on their skin, instead choosing less obtrusive protection such as Beneunders umbrellas and clothing. Sun protection apparel is tracking to grow from RMB 61 billion last year to RMB 96 billion in 2026, according to CIC.

So when Beneunder filed for an IPO in April, things should have been promising. But it didnt quite go that way. In June, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, the Peoples Daily, slammed the company for excessive spending on marketing and underinvesting in research and development. Investors have also been pressuring Beneunder to halve its $3 billion valuation from earlier this year.

Beneunder follows a classic example of many Chinese disrupter brands. When tech companies fell out of favour with Beijing, investors pivoted towards consumer brands, which became awash with cash. Much of this cash was spent on marketing – not strategic marketing investments, but rather transactional initiatives aimed at quick sales.

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Beneunders marketing costs grew from RMB 37 million in 2019 to RMB 586 million in 2021 – 9.6% of revenue to 24.4%. During those three years, R&D investments dropped from 5.3% of revenue to just 3.0%.

The focus on quick-hit marketing over longer-term investments is all-too-common for new, high-profile consumer brands in China. In many cases, these brands source products through contract manufacturing, making them easy to replicate for other brands. As a result, brands then try to stand out through their marketing, not their products.

A lot of the marketing by these disrupter consumer brands isnt overly sophisticated. It typically focuses on transactional spending on KOLs and live streaming. The big problem with sustaining such a strategy is more and more brands are following a similar path, pushing up the costs. The cost of a KOL on Xiaohongshu grew 50% last year, with increases on Douyin and Kuaishou not far behind.

Former darling of Chinas beauty category, Yatsens Perfect Diary, ran into challenges utilising a comparable strategy. In 2020, its marketing costs equated to two-thirds of revenue. But when the same marketing initiative costs as much as 50% more the next year, they had problems, which was why Yatsens share price dropped from a high of $24.55 to as low as 51 cents in less than 18 months.

While many disrupter and DTC brands in China bedazzle with big-spend marketing campaigns in the early years, less than half are still around after five years. But they don’t leave without making an impact, forcing brands across the board to spend more on marketing to get mindshare. The most sustainable and profitable brands are those that balance quick hit and acquisitional marketing with longer-term brand and loyalty building. Sustainable brands also invest in research and development to create products which can be genuinely differentiated — as well as being relevant for Chinese consumers.

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If you are a British company working in the consumer sector concerned about the latest government regulations in China, call +44 (0)20 7802 2000 or email enquiries@cbbc.org now to find out how CBBC’s market research and analysis services could help.

This article first appeared on China Skinny

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