When Reckitt Benckiser Group (RB/:LN) brought its Veet hair-removal cream to China in 2005, sales were sluggish. Its prices were considered too high and its product sizes too large. But the biggest problem: Most Chinese women don’t have much body hair, and those who do didn’t worry about it. So the company embraced a new marketing plan. Reckitt Benckiser rolled out ads equating hair-free skin with health, confidence, and “shining glory.” In the process, the company has helped make many Chinese women more conscious of every stray follicle. “It’s not how much hair you have, it’s how much you think you have,” says Aditya Sehgal, the company’s China chief. “If your concern level is high enough, even one hair is too much.”
By encouraging fuzz phobia, Veet is now the fastest-growing brand in China for Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser. Asian sales of hair remover are rising 20 percent annually, almost double the rate of women’s razors and blades, Euromonitor International reports.
In the $427 billion global personal-care products business, manufacturers have long convinced women to focus on perceived flaws. Estée Lauder (EL) and L’Oréal (OR:FP) sell skin-whitening creams in China, where women have long been fixated on lighter skin, according to Harriet Evans, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at the University of Westminster. Sehgal says his company is not “here to remind the Chinese how much hair they have. Our job is to talk about the fact that beautiful smooth skin is critical and grooming is critical. Women make their own conclusions as to what that means.”
The message strikes a chord with customers like Maggie Li. The 29-year-old PR consultant in Beijing got a free sample of Veet this summer and has been using it since. Li spends about 400 yuan ($63) a month on beauty products like Procter & Gamble’s (PG) SK-II skin-care creams. A 60-gram bottle of Veet, costing 46 yuan, is enough to keep her legs smooth for about two months. Veet’s marketing, she says, “makes Chinese women more aware of their body hair issue.”
Veet dominates the global market for hair removers with a 41 percent share, five times that of Church & Dwight’s Nair; Veet’s strength makes up for slowing sales in Europe and the U.S. of some of Reckitt Benckiser’s other brands, including Woolite and Vanish toilet bowl cleaner. In China, Veet’s success is not yet a certainty. It’s not well known outside cities and won’t begin its first national advertising campaign until next year. Chinese-made copycats—such as the similarly named “Veet Epilator” available on Alibaba.com, China’s biggest shopping site—might also hurt sales.
Still, there’s plenty of room for growth for Veet, as just 0.6 percent of Chinese women remove body hair, according to a study conducted by Ipsos (IPS:FP) for P&G, maker of Gillette razors. Global sales of Veet, a brand previously called Neet whose roots go back a century, were about £405 million ($657 million) last year, according to research from Sanford C. Bernstein (AB).
For Veet’s reboot in China, Reckitt Benckiser has redesigned the cream’s packaging, positioning it as a product for women “for whom grooming is part of how she gets a promotion, a good husband, and a raise,” says Paul French, an analyst at Mintel in China. Those women increasingly shop at retailers such as drugstore chain Watsons and beauty outlet Sephora (MC:FP), whose expansion across China has been fueled by a 52 percent increase in sales of personal-care products since 2008, Euromonitor reports.
Veet’s new look debuted in 2008 in the southern coastal city of Guangzhou, where summers are hot and women are more likely to wear shorts and T-shirts. Veet flooded local universities with free samples, while online videos taught consumers how to use the creams. “With a product like this you are asking them to change their lifestyle, so it can be a challenging thing,” says Peter Golder, a marketing professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.
Today about 25 varieties of Veet are sold in more than 130 Chinese cities, including scented variants that mask the unpleasant smell of the chemicals that weaken the hair so it can be scraped off. Actress Yang Mi endorses the product, attaching a glamorous Chinese face to the brand in ads that promise “silky femininity.” Veet’s Chinese website goes for a harder sell: “We’ve all been through it, that sudden realization that you’re not prepared for anything,” one pitch warns visitors to the site. “In fact you’ve got stubbly legs, a fuzzy bikini line, and you’ve just fallen head over heels in front of the whole office! It’s moments like this you need Veet.”
Despite such plays on women’s fears of embarrassment, Reckitt Benckiser’s Sehgal says that Chinese women are too “independent-minded” to be coaxed into using a product they don’t really need. Others aren’t so sure. Veet’s Chinese marketing “plays a role that is very similar to that of the apple in the Bible,” says Benjamin Voyer, a social psychologist and assistant professor of marketing at ESCP Europe business school. “It creates an awareness, which subsequently creates a feeling of shame and need.”