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Selfie Ubiquity Prompts Rethink of Cosmetics Marketing Across SE Asia

Skincare companies look to enlist keen members of the selfie generation as peer-group friendly brand ambassadors.

Photo: Smile please – you’re a skin blemish treatment brand ambassador. (Shutterstock.com)
Smile please – you're a skin blemish treatment brand ambassador.
Photo: Smile please – you’re a skin blemish treatment brand ambassador. (Shutterstock.com)
Smile please – you're a skin blemish treatment brand ambassador.

The world's obsession with both the selfie and social media is having a clear impact on the cosmetics industry across Southeast Asia. Not only is there a new emphasis on products that make the user more photogenic, but a wholly new approach to marketing and promoting cosmetics is also emerging.

The word 'selfie' is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: "A photograph that one has taken of oneself." Typically, it is one taken using a smartphone webcam and then shared via social media. In 2013, the term 'selfie' was chosen as the Word of the Year by the dictionary's publishers.

In 2014, Time magazine set out to rank the world's most selfie-friendly cities, listing those locations with the highest number of images per head of population. Tellingly, both the Philippines and Malaysia had two cities in the overall top 10.

In fact, the Philippines' Makati and Pasig City took the number-one slot, beating Manhattan to become the world's first Selfie Capital. Another Philippines' location – Cebu City – came in ninth place. In the case of Malaysia, Petaling Jaya and Georgetown were ranked as numbers five and 10, respectively.

If allowances are made for the lower rates of smartphone penetration in some emerging ASEAN countries, it is clear that young Asian millennials lead the pack when it comes to being selfie-fixated. With such an obsession requiring them to be selfie-ready anytime and anywhere, this has opened up a number of new opportunities for the personal grooming and beauty sector.

A clear consequence of the popularity of the practice has been a shift in consumer preferences, with many young purchasers now favouring cosmetic and grooming products that improve their photographic appearance on social media over and above those that make them look good in real life. This change was highlighted in Major Trends Driving the Beauty and Personal Care Industry, a 2014 report by Euromonitor International.

Summarising the report's findings, Irina Barbalova, the company's Global Head of Beauty and Personal Care Research, said: "Thanks to the selfie, beauty is now all about the consumers' preoccupation with their image and how they're perceived by others, especially when it comes to social media.

"This means that, in the future, any innovation in the sector will have to be a lot more tailored, personalised and solution-based. When it comes to skincare, it's not about anti-aging and wrinkles anymore – it's about skin perfection."

While brand owners are having to change their focus to address this new obsession with looking good for the camera, a number have also been quick to spot the marketing opportunity that the selfie represents. Those that have managed to successfully align themselves with the phenomenon have been able to transform their selfie-fixated customers into brand ambassadors, promoting their products of choice through their social-media networks.

A prime example of this came when Dove – the UK-headquartered personal-care brand – turned to selfies and social media after losing its number-one slot in Vietnam's shampoo market. Aware that its core market was 18-35 year-old women who tended to be active on social media, the company created an app that rewarded users with discounts whenever they shared selfies on their social networks.

The app proved hugely popular and gave Dove a completely different positioning to that of its rivals, many of which focussed solely on promoting the functional and scientific benefits of their brands. Ultimately, more than a million people engaged with the app's branded videos, resulting in Dove swiftly regaining its lost market share.

Such a strategy, however, is not only effective in the women's market. As proof of this, Himalaya Men – an Indian company that produces a range of male-oriented products designed to treat spots and blemishes – sponsored a series of selfie contests. This saw young males invited to take selfies of themselves with a Himalaya Men product, while cheering for the Royal Challengers Bangalore cricket team, which the brand sponsored. The success of the initiative has seen the brand repeat the promotion several times.

More recently, Shiseido, a Japanese cosmetics brand, has begun testing an app on 5,000 flight attendants working for Japan Airlines. By measuring facial movements, the app is supposedly able to rate the quality of a person's smile, while also indicating how that smile is perceived by others – trustworthy, elegant, attractive, beautiful, positive, friendly, lively and so on. Once the test period is completed, the app is set to become a key part of the promotional activity for the brand's toothpaste range.

Such innovative approaches to cosmetics marketing look set to become commonplace, with the selfie phenomenon showing no signs of flagging. In fact, prompted by a number of new technical enhancements – selfie-friendly phones, selfie-enhancing mobile apps, selfie sticks and even belfie sticks (aids to taking a better picture of your rear view) – the practice looks set to become ever more popular. While essentially a simple vanity-led indulgence for many smartphone users across Southeast Asia, properly harnessed it can clearly prove a powerful and highly credible marketing tool.

Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Cebu

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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