Brandstorm is a monthly series featuring the most notable brands in the worlds of fashion, beauty, and retail in China. From edgy jewelry designers to the country’s most coveted influencers, these are some of the industry’s most talked-about names.
For many makeup lovers in China, one brand has been on everyone’s lips lately — quite literally.
Founded in 2016, makeup brand Perfect Diary (完美日记) became a hit on social media for its “high-end makeup at an affordable price” — namely lipsticks, eye-popping eyeshadow palettes, and unusual brand crossovers that have been a hit with young buyers all over the country.
The cosmetics brand is now one of three founded by Guangzhou-based parent company Yatsen, and has quickly entered the ranks of the most successful makeup companies in China. In 2019, during Alibaba’s annual November 11 shopping holiday, the brand was the first to rake in 100 million RMB (about 15.4 million USD) in sales, doing so in just 13 minutes. The company is now valued at over 2 billion USD after it went public at the end of 2020.
Wang Ruiqi, a 25-year-old data analyst based in Shanghai, bought her first Perfect Diary product one year ago during 618, another of China’s annual shopping holidays. “The brand was affordable, and the products looked nice,” she says. “At first I was only buying lipsticks, but eventually I started branching out to other products.” She says that now, almost a third of her makeup is from Perfect Diary and that she usually buys her products in bulk during one of the numerous shopping holidays throughout the year.
Wang’s interest in the brand’s lipstick is no coincidence, as Perfect Diary was endorsed early on by China’s “lipstick king,” Li Jiaqi. One of the country’s biggest beauty influencers, he raved about Perfect Diary lipstick on his livestreaming channel. Both Li and his pet dog, Never, were later recruited for a number of campaigns with the brand.
Dao Nguyen, founder of Essenzia — a creative strategy agency specializing in fragrances and beauty — says that Perfect Diary was notably clever in how it used influencers, recruiting everyone from A-listers like Li all the way down to everyday “key consumers” with smaller followings. “The phenomenon of KOLs [key opinion leaders] and KOCs [key opinion consumers] is quite specific to China — not only in beauty, but in all areas,” she says. “It’s a different way of buying. And I think Perfect Diary approached it very well.”
Like many digitally native, direct-to-consumer brands that have become coveted in recent years — such as American makeup brand Glossier — Perfect Diary has employed a number of tactics that feels fresh, innovative, and crucially, tailor-made for China.
“They were one of the first to create cross-branded products with museums,” says Nguyen. “Many brands followed suit, but by that time they were already doing cross-branded products with the National Geographic Institute. And during [the pandemic], one week they were leveraging the pet economy with Li Jiaqi’s puppy, the next working with Oreo, the week after it was Japanese IP. More recently, we went from Korean ASMR to traditional Chinese architecture for Chinese New Year with a siheyuan [四合院, traditional courtyard]. So they are never where you expect them.”
Perfect Diary was also one of the first Chinese brands to adopt its own take on the virtual influencer trend — which is starting to have its moment in China — by creating the persona Xiao Wanzi (小完子). Using the identical Xiao Wanzi name and profile picture, Perfect Diary staff moderate invite-only group chats on Chinese social messaging app WeChat, offering insider deals to their “inner circle” of customers.
“I stay in the group to get better deals,” says Wang matter-of-factly, who joined the chat in early 2020. “It’s cheaper than what you get on [ecommerce platform] TMall, and the Xiao Wanzi staff are always posting promotions in the group.”
Nguyen believes that the brand’s ambassadors also speak volumes as to the company’s identity and ambitions. “At first, for instance, they leaned onto Zhu Zhengting, one of the winners of [variety show] Idol Producer in the first season,” she says. “But this year, they are far ahead again, recruiting gender-fluid singer Troye Sivan and actress Zhou Xun, who is iconic and highly respected. So it sends another kind of message — that it’s not only about ‘little fresh meat.’
“It’s also about making a statement about their beliefs and the level that they want to reach. So because there are these very high profile spokespersons, to me it also says a lot about their ambitions and the way they approach the beauty world.”
Perfect Diary has since been aggressively expanding into regions such as Southeast Asia — and the number of YouTube vloggers endorsing it from Indonesia and the Philippines show that their strategy seems to be paying off.
But in looking at Perfect Diary’s runaway success in China, the overall trend of young consumers increasingly reaching for Chinese-made brands can’t be ignored. This trend has a name: guochao (国潮), literally “national wave.” Brands are beginning to take more pride in the label “made in China,” and young people are responding in kind by buying more of them.
That has only just carried over to China-made makeup, which in many young buyers’ eyes, now matches the quality of imported products from brands such as L’Oreal. “I prefer to buy domestic brands over imported whenever I can,” says Wang. “The quality of domestic makeup products, strictly speaking, definitely seems to have gotten better in recent years. Though for skincare, [Chinese products] still can’t compare to imported.”
Yet for China’s very pragmatic post-‘00s born consumers, guochao isn’t the only thing that matters anymore. “Young Chinese consumers have greater autonomy in choosing cosmetics, and they have higher expectations on product quality and service,” Yatsen co-founder Vincent Chen told Forbes in 2020.
“At the moment Perfect Diary emerged, they were really trying to show that they could create something with a Chinese eye,” says Nguyen. “But now we are three or four years later, and banking on ‘Chinese pride’ is not enough. They still need to make sure that the quality, the colors, and the overall relevance of the product make sense to this savvy younger generation.”
Though the brand achieved cult status through social media, Glossier has been called out by some beauty influencers and media outlets as having inconsistent quality. In a less established beauty industry that is just starting to shed past connotations of “made in China,” will quality concerns plague Perfect Diary as well?
Despite the fact that the company claims to use the same manufacturers as Dior and LVMH, users have previously taken to Chinese social media platform Red (Xiaohongshu, 小红书) to voice complaints about inconsistent quality and shoddy packaging. Writer Lauren Hallanan observed in a 2019 article by Jing Daily: “I think right now consumers’ curiosity about this hyped brand is really high, so they might overlook negative reviews because the price point is low and they want to try it out, but eventually, after the hype dies down, it may be an issue.”
Perfect Diary also has other beauty contenders to worry about. Chinese makeup brand Floraisis has become a hit overseas for its sumptuous packaging and makeup palettes. But while both brands are distinctly Chinese, the two could not be more different otherwise. Whereas Floraisis evokes classical Chinese beauty and historical dramas, Perfect Diary spells out the cosmopolitan inspirations and aspirations of many young people living in China’s urban centers.
“These brands we have now are eye catching, have something to say, are innovative, and not so expensive. That’s what has made them interesting so far,” says Nguyen.
“I recently got hold of an eye palette from Perfect Diary, and I think it’s amazing the quality-to-price ratio that you can now have, and how brands are stepping up so quickly. I would love to do my shopping in China.”
Header image: Perfect Diary makeup palettes (source: Perfect Diary Facebook)