How to name a lipstick for the China market

The choice of name for a lipstick can have a powerful impact. In China, it pays to think like the Chinese.

By guest author Evelyn Wang from Vogue Business

All captions courtesy by Vogue Business

Mac Chili, Guerlain Stunning Queen, Dior 999, Armani 405 — for beauty brands, a classic lipstick has come to be the best kind of calling card.

While some globally popular lipsticks are just numbered, others have more imaginative names. Well-established brands can afford to put less effort into the naming process, but those just starting out need to excel in both naming and colour selection if they are to shine in a fiercely competitive Chinese market.

How it works

Numbering: This most simple of naming methods is a favourite of premium luxury brands, used for cosmetics by the likes of Chanel, Dior and YSL.

Specific association: A simple associative game — what things in daily life share a similar colour? In China, this might suggest the likes of milk tea, plum or bean paste. Brands may look for inspiration in Pantone colour cards, too.

Abstract joint idea: The focus is on words with emotional or visual resonance, such as Revlon’s ColorStay Moisture Stain or Miami Fever, which evokes a sunny beach.

Poetry games: Here, it’s a combination of colour plus image, with a focus on alliteration or rhyme, such as Mac’s Jean Genie or Lancôme’s Rose Rendezvous.

Representative figures: This category includes the Rouge Coco series, named after Coco Chanel herself, or Charlotte Tilbury’s collection of 12 lipsticks named after high-profile figures, including Carina’s Love, named after Carina Lau, and Hot Emily, after Emily Ratajkowski.

Professor Debra Merskin of the University of Oregon analysed 1722 lipsticks produced by 52 different brands and concluded that female consumers often buy products named with reference to food or hints of sexuality. Nars Orgasm Blush, for example, is a global bestseller, while other popular Nars products include Pussy Control, Dirty Mind and Damned.

At most cosmetics companies, naming products is the result of teamwork. At Urban Decay, for example, all employees can submit suggestions to a product name library, with selected submissions filed under labels such as “drug names”, “sex names” and more.

The influence of celebs

Product managers and marketing specialists might work overtime to come up with creative names, but film, music and other celebrity connections may turn out to be the key to the marketing process, particularly in China.

In 2014, Korean drama My Love from the Star was viewed over 2.5 billion times on Chinese streaming sites. Some viewers loved the heroine’s lipstick as much as the show — her choice of Barbie-pink YSL Rouge Pur Couture became a runaway bestseller.

Riding the Korean Wave’s influence in China, Korean makeup agents have worked with popular K-drama actors for product promotion. One shade endorsed by Bae Suzy came to be called the Suzy colour. Although the exact shade used by star Korean singer Hyuna is up for debate, many associate her with the fiery colour of Mac Chili lipstick. In this case, the star association has become rather more memorable than the product’s original name.

With the rise of idol culture and Chinese dramas, foreign brands with flagship stores on Tmall have started marketing products as “same-colours” associated with specific celebs.

Guerlain is particularly skilled at this practice — the French brand has led the way in product placement in film and TV drama as well as in the use of male celeb endorsement. Back in 2016, Yang Yang, a Chinese actor with over 17 million followers on Weibo, shot summer campaigns for Guerlain’s Kiss Kiss lipstick series, built around Yang’s image as the “nation’s boyfriend”, based on his role in popular drama Love O2O. Guerlain did not shy away from advertising its #344 Sexy Coral as “Yang Yang colour”.

Since then, lipstick products have increasingly turned to male celebrities for endorsement. In its Celebrity Beauty Consumption Influence List in 2018, CBNData made reference to “Four Little Kings” of lipstick collaboration — Hua Chenyu X Estée Lauder, Wang Yuan X L’Oréal Paris, Wang Junkai X Lancôme and William Chan X Maybelline.

Another high point of Guerlain’s lipstick marketing was its partnership with period TV drama Story of Yanxi Palace, which premiered in 2018. Guerlain named various shades after concubines in the imperial harem, with more shades unlocked as the plot progressed. The drama had 15 billion views — with 130 million views for a related Weibo hashtag.

Urban and costume dramas with large female casts are popular with lipstick brands. Matching up colours has become a simpler process for viewers: brands such as Estée Lauder, Mac and Tom Ford now put stars’ names on the lipstick packaging, making the association official.

Chinese names for Chinese consumers

Global brands wanting to make an impact in China need to be agile in their approach. For brands marketing lipsticks, it’s often easier to choose a Chinese name that local consumers will relate to immediately.

For instance, the Kakao Friends X Mac lipstick series launched early this year wasn’t sold under a direct translation of the English names. For the Chinese name of the Style Shocked Powder Kiss lipstick, the name chosen is a simpler reference to its orange shade, while the Have A Good Day lipstick’s Chinese name plays on a popular song title with a homonym referencing the lipstick’s peach colour.

Chinese beauty marketers say a global brand name is no longer enough — to resonate with consumers, many brands are now using wordplay and referencing internet neologisms [newly coined words or expressions].

That means marketing teams require Chinese expertise. In China, there are legal regulations specifically governing the names of cosmetics, prohibiting, for example, “the use of vulgar language or vocabulary unintelligible to consumers”. Nars Cosmetics lists its Orgasm Blush as Pleasure Pink on Tmall.

At Chinese brand Florasis, the work of naming revolves around a narrative based on East Asian aesthetics. A spokesperson says: “All the product and colour names are an interpretation of the beauty of Chinese culture and are all part of the ‘Florasis style’ system.” An example: the brand’s Floral Dewy In-Porcelain lipstick has eight colours, all with Chinese associations, which correspond to a different shade of red: Lang Kiln Red, Red Brocade, Kidney Bean, Ji Red, Peach Petal, Hongying, Drunk and Pink Glaze.

The creative process at Chinese makeup brand Girlcult is full of what the team calls “divergent thinking”. For Girlcult’s team, mostly born after 1995, thinking out of the box is encouraged, with keywords for inspiration including romance, adventure and weird. After the product content department completes a first round of naming, the marketing department takes over, considering names related to other makeup associations, fashion trends and popular words. “With divergent thinking creativity, there’s more emphasis on informality, leaps of thinking, and the emergence of inspiration,” says Alexia Lan, Girlcult marketing director.

The essence of the product should not be overlooked, insists Lan. An obsession with what’s hip in Chinese pop culture can be taken too far, she says. “If it’s ‘pop’ for the sake of popularity, it strays into vulgarity. If you don’t consider the brand’s own tone and product attributes, and just use buzzwords, what you get in the end is a just short-lived burst of heat.”