On a rainy Halloween afternoon when all anyone wanted to do was eat candy indoors, KK Chua, the President of Mary Kay’s Asia Pacific region, gave Penn students and faculty a reason to leave their rooms. He came into the room with his head held high and with his purpose of explaining how his company’s brand grew so quickly across all of China.
While Chua was humble about his role in the company’s growth, additional research led me to a multitude of resources praising his eye for business opportunities and change. KK Chua gave us the insider scoop that there was actually a debate about how to start Mary Kay China and what the brand should focus on. They were torn between highlighting their products, their research and development process, or even the fact that Mary Kay China gave many opportunities for women. Chua and his colleagues ended up deciding that the smartest tactic for China would be to focus on Chinese culture and history to maximize their market penetration.
Without delving too much into Chinese history, it is important to know that after the 1949 revolution where the gentry was ousted by the peasants, there was a cultural revolution where the culture and value system was thrown out of the window. It was a dark time in Chinese history where people were struggling to see what life was all about. By 1976 the Chinese people were entering the reform era but there was still a noticeable vacuum in society about what their behavior and response should be.
Once Mary Kay China entered the market in 1995, they noticed this wave of people needing to be guided by something and decided that culture was the best way to market their brand. More importantly, culture goes much deeper than highlighting the difficult Chinese history, but it also emphasizes your perceived value of the product, your image, your loyalty, and your priorities.
This strategy of looking for what the market needs at that specific time is what truly sets apart the Mary Kay business. Not only does Mary Kay ride the wave of success when it is evident, they also start their own waves.
For instance, Mary Kay China was completely ahead of the trend when it comes to ecommerce in 2002. Their motto was extremely bold and said they could sell to “anyone, anywhere, anytime.” Branching into online sales is a monumental change for most brands, but it was even more impressive when done by Mary Kay in China. China is actually the largest player in the global ecommerce economy, as seen in the graph below.
One aspect of Chinese business that KK Chua shared with us is how companies use beauty stylists. These women come to centralized Mary Kay locations, buy the products they liked, and then distribute them to their customers. This was very efficient before commercialized shopping and ecommerce exploded, but doesn’t work as well in modern China. So, Mary Kay adapted to more social and direct selling networks. They also focus more on lifestyle and behaviors like nutrition, skincare, and beauty products in their stores.
One of the most fascinating technologies Chua shared with us is this Skin Analyzer that magnifies your skin by 50x. This machine measures skin moisture, dexterity, and shoots your results to the cloud where an algorithm will analyze the condition of your skin. Based on these results, the machine makes a list of recommended products to optimize your skin that you can pay for and have delivered.
What were my biggest takeaways from KK Chua? The biggest lesson he wanted us to learn was that companies need to adapt to local culture if they ever want to be successful in a culturally unique location. The biggest issue of American companies in China is that they don’t realize that what works in the U.S. does NOT work in China. L’oreal and Estee Lauder have only grown a lot recently because they are starting to loosen the reigns and have allowed the locals to take control.
Because Mary Kay cosmetics were not afraid to call the end of an era, they are able to adapt their business model very quickly and keep progressing.
I look forward to seeing what this company will continue to do and see how they will continue to expand in the future — a company whose motto is to always empower women will always be on my top list of companies to watch.