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Marketing to Millions: China's Changing Tastes

Ken Zhang of the Crest Dental Research Institute in Beijing demonstrates the company's new toothpaste flavors, which include orange mint and lotus. The company's bestseller in China tastes like tea.
Ken Zhang of the Crest Dental Research Institute in Beijing demonstrates the company's new toothpaste flavors, which include orange mint and lotus. The company's bestseller in China tastes like tea.
Estee Lauder's research and development center in Shanghai employs a number of scientists who are trying to develop makeup and skin-care products specifically for the Chinese market. Other scientists are researching traditional Chinese medicinal compounds to try to isolate the active ingredients that have anti-aging or skin-whitening functions.
Louisa Lim, NPR /
Estee Lauder's research and development center in Shanghai employs a number of scientists who are trying to develop makeup and skin-care products specifically for the Chinese market. Other scientists are researching traditional Chinese medicinal compounds to try to isolate the active ingredients that have anti-aging or skin-whitening functions.

In the 1840s, an English author famously wrote that if every person in China lengthened his shirttail by a foot, British cotton mills would work around the clock.

The lure of China's massive untapped market has only increased over time. So how are today's multinationals tailoring their products and their strategies to attract China's millions of newly minted consumers?

Think ancient beauty potions and tea-flavored toothpaste.

Just 40 years ago, wearing makeup or using any beauty product was condemned as bourgeois in China. It's a measure of just how much society has changed that in a swanky shopping mall there's even a waiting list to buy Creme De La Mer skin cream, which retails for nearly $300.

So how are companies like Estee Lauder, which sells this face cream, getting Chinese consumers to part with their money?

Estee Lauder has opened a gleaming new multi-million-dollar research and development center in Shanghai. In this modern facility, company scientists are carrying out clinical trials on the 1,300-year-old beauty secrets of China's only empress, Wu Zetian, who used skin potions made of motherwort.

"China is not just one market -- it's many, many little markets," says Ken Zhang, director of Procter & Gamble's Crest Dental Research Institute in Beijing. "And this market is constantly changing. The taste of the consumers and buying power of the consumers is also constantly changing."

For 10 years, Zhang's company has been trying to pinpoint exactly what a variety of Chinese consumers are looking for in their toothpaste.

If you're a millionaire, he says, "you're thinking you're more sophisticated. You're looking for toothpaste with science." But if you're a farmer, "you're looking for herbal, natural, green or Chinese herbs, some kind of regimen to help your oral health."

As market leader, the Crest strategy has depended heavily on advertising; it has spent more on publicity than any other foreign brand in China. The latest toothpaste flavors include orange mint and lotus. They're among a dizzying array of flavors Crest has developed to appeal, it seems, to every one of China's little markets. The bestseller is tea-flavored.

"It's not only tea flavor," Zhang says. "It's also a signal of the culture behind that. It's kitchen logic, it's grandmothers' stories. Chinese people think tea keeps your mouth fresh."

This idea is rooted in the peasant habit of swilling the mouth out with green tea, instead of brushing the teeth. This, incidentally, was the practice adopted by Chairman Mao Zedong, whose logic for spurning a toothbrush was that "a tiger never brushes his teeth."

An official survey three years ago estimated that 57 percent of rural Chinese residents -- or 500 million people -- had never brushed their teeth, a figure that spells megabucks to oral health-care companies.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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