Simon Boyd, Sales Director at SmoothSkin
The container ship laden with consumer goods on its way from China to a port somewhere in Europe or the U.S. has become one of the iconic images of the twenty-first century, but Simon Boyd is anxious to stress that the traffic is two way.
“We are a British manufacturing company and we are exporting successfully to China,” he asserts.
Boyd is Sales Director at Swansea-based company, SmoothSkin. Born out of research into lasers at the local university, the business makes and sells hair removal products that uses high energy light beams directed at the skin. The company, which was already exporting to more than 30 countries, entered the Chinese market in 2017. Since then, Boyd says sales in China have grown 35 fold.
Attractive But Difficult
Now everyone knows that China is a massive consumer market, second only to – and constantly on the point of surpassing – the U.S. and, therefore, a honeypot for export-hungry businesses from all over the world. But it’s also true that China is often considered a difficult market in terms of trading regulations and the expectations, culture and behaviour of its consumers. So how did a company from South Wales, selling a relatively niche set of products, succeed in capturing the attention of China’s buyers.
Well, according to Boyd, understanding the culture has been crucial and the company’s embrace of the Chinese way of doing things has included participation in the local internet phenomenon of “live streaming.”
Live streaming via the web is, of course, not unique to China. Anyone can live stream on Youtube and perhaps even monetise the event by asking people to contribute via a payment system such as Paypal.
But live streaming in China is of a different order. Here in Britain or in the U.S., influencers tend to use Instagram or Youtube to build a following and monetise that – transparently or not – through brand endorsement and/or advertising. In China, Live Streaming is carried out from dedicated studios where a new generation of web celebrities broadcast to their fans. But crucially, streaming events are integrated with payment and e-commerce opportunities. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ubiquitous Alibaba runs a live streaming platform as part of its TMall e-commerce hub. It has provided SmoothSkin with a lucrative channel to consumers.
Reaching China’s Consumers
When SmoothSkin began making plans to enter China, the first step was to take advice from a local unit of KPMG on the best way to address consumers. The second stage was to find a partner. The company launched as a vendor on TMall. Crucially, it went on to forge a much closer partnership.
“The big thing about Alibaba is that they offer an open and transparent relationship,” says Boyd. “And once they have identified that you have a differentiated product and that you are finding a market, they give you a lot of support.”
Much of that support, he says, takes the form of data that has allowed Smoothskin to identify customers and market directly to them. But live streaming has thrown an interesting curve into the mix.
As Boyd explains, SmoothSkin has worked with live streamer, Viya, an online personality who can command an audience of millions. The beauty market is Viya’s particular sweet spot and she has been known to rack up sales of close to $50 million to her followers in single twenty four hour period.
Boyd has sat in with Viya and while he won’t quote numbers on the record, he was clearly impressed with her ability to generate product sales.
There is perhaps a bigger point here. China has developed its own unique internet culture and any business seeking to sell successfully must take account of that culture and hone its marketing accordingly. SmoothSkin has taken the time to do that.
And as Boyd points out, every market is different. “In Europe, our customers tend to be older women. In China, our buyers are very young. In Japan, they appeal to males. You have to treat each market separately,” says Boyd.
The question is, will live streaming-enabled commerce find its way to the U.S. and Europe. Will our armies of influencers become live streamers. That remains to be seen. But for the moment, consumer brands entering China might want to take note of this very particular internet trend.