Contributed by Kathryn Sloane, Director of Growth, APAC, at SGK


Bring up men’s beauty at a sports bar in the U.S., UK or Australia, and you’re likely to see some unkept eyebrows get seriously raised.

But it’s not as if men don’t care about their appearance. From the metrosexual look of 10 years ago, to the rise of the bearded hipster, to the “man bun” hairstyles that have appeared almost overnight like mushrooms after a rainstorm, men adopt styles they think will get them noticed – just as they’ve always done.

What Western men don’t do much is talk about personal grooming and beauty – let alone be seen pursuing it in public. You won’t see a guy at a sports bar taking out a compact and doing a quick touch-up on his makeup. So it might surprise you to learn that the U.S. led the world in new men’s grooming product launches in 2014, at 21 percent, followed closely by the UK at 17 percent.1

However, despite all this new product development, Western markets are dwarfed by Asia in terms of actual sales.

From 2012 to 2014, the total global male grooming market grew by 70 percent,2  and is expected to be worth USD 21.4 billion in 2016.3 Asia represents more than 60 percent of that market,4  with projected growth of nearly 10 percent despite already being the leading region in men’s skin-care sales.5  In China, the men’s grooming category is growing at a stunning 20 percent a year.6  And in South Korea, men use an average of 13 grooming products a month while leading the world in use of men’s cosmetics, accounting for one-fifth of global sales.7


Looking at the man in the mirror
So there’s a disconnect. In the East: a well-established, vibrantly growing market. In the West: an attempt to catch up by introducing new products that haven’t always broken through the cultural reticence of many men to appear as if they’re overly concerned about appearances.

We see it as a divide between the image of men’s beauty with a big B versus a little b.

Little b beauty comprises traditional products for routine maintenance and instant results. But with big B, individuality and self-expression are everything.

Little b brand owners focus on convenience and problem-solving: basic hygiene, shaving comfort, oil control, unisex and multifunction products, and so on. Little b products have been around for a long time, and their underlying message is often, “Get cleaned up quickly and get on to more manly things.” The messaging is often about putting in minimal time and effort to get maximum results. And those results are more about meeting the expectations of other people – appealing to women, getting attention at parties or even being a better family man – than expressing one’s true self.

That message runs the risk of appearing condescending. Products can easily fail when they play to the shopper’s disinterest in the category or to forced masculine stereotypes that disregard the shopper’s individuality.

These risks grow greater as big B beauty comes to the fore. The men who are driving the greatest worldwide growth in grooming and beauty products are those who feel liberated to celebrate their vanity and masculinity. They see attention to their appearance not in terms of problem-solving with immediate results, but as a long-term investment in identity and its public expression. These men are actively redefining what it means to be masculine.


Redefining masculinity: The Asian influence
Little b beauty is still the baseline in the West. But in the East, big B beauty has caught on in a big way, particularly in South Korea and Japan. In these highly advanced, and influential societies, big B grooming and cosmetic products are the norm, and personal vanity is socially encouraged.

There are many reasons for this. For one, beauty is seen as an entry to and marker of success. An attractive personal photo may be as important to a job application as an attractive résumé. Popular culture also has a huge influence. J-pop and K-pop artists universally put fashion and beauty at centre stage in their work. For male artists, this means adopting styles that Western men might regard as highly feminised.

For example, the hugely successful South Korean rapper G-Dragon may be the first male celebrity to endorse a bright red lipstick, applying the Saem’s Global Eco Red in an ad clearly intended to get the attention of his male as well as female fans. This blurring of genders is met by a blurring of races and cultures as the megastar sports a bleached blonde “fauxhawk” and unusually pale skin to set off a lipstick colour promoted with the tagline, “It came from Spain.” And that’s just one of his many looks, all carefully put together.


Encountering the market, fresh-faced
Fashion trends in South Korea and Japan exert an outsized influence throughout Asia and beyond, while each culture brings something of its own history and social context to male grooming trends.

In China, the market is expanding at a yearly rate of more than 20 percent as a rapidly growing middle class equates men’s beauty with sophistication and professionalism.

In India, the influence of Bollywood has helped make big B beauty products for men socially acceptable.

Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan are showing the strongest category growth in Asia. In each, the middle class is rising, and a vibrant youth market has shoppers embracing individualism in a way that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. Young men are encountering the full spectrum of grooming and beauty products at once – with no preconceived notion that some products are more manly than others – giving big B brands a clean slate to influence consumer preferences.

In many urban centres across Asia, men and women often share the beauty experience, frequenting beauty counters and enjoying beauty treatments together. At M.A.C. Cosmetics in Singapore, nearly one in three shoppers are men. It’s now the norm for men to compete with women – or rather, to join with them – in seeking a look that conveys personal perfection, self-expression and life success.


The new machismo: Beyond Asia
Ideals of male beauty are changing around the world – though not always in the same direction and at the speed we see in Asia. For example, sales of men’s grooming and beauty products in Brazil have more than doubled in the past five years, and cosmetic surgery is increasingly common in a culture that puts self-expression on display, as during Carnival.

In other emerging and developing markets, men are using a wider variety of products than ever before, including lip glosses, BB creams, foundations and more. Thirty-five percent of Colombian men use nail polishes on a weekly basis.

All of this makes North America, Australia, the UK and much of Europe seem conservative by comparison. But even in these traditionally little b markets, men are showing new freedom to experiment with self-expression. For example, beard culture has led to a burgeoning market for “craft” beard care and shaving products, and has even reintroduced the traditional male-oriented barbershop to a younger generation.

However, the disconnect still remains between markets that lead the world in new product introductions, and the predominantly Asian markets that lead the world in beauty product sales. It may be time for Western brands to go bigger.


Implications for “man brand” owners
Even if more entrenched male grooming markets aren’t quite ready for Zayn Malik in red lipstick, there’s ample opportunity to gently shift little b consumers toward new ways of embracing and expressing their masculinity. Our recommendations aren’t about playing in either the little b or big B camp, but about exploring the grey area in between.

Here are our “high five” considerations for brand owners:

(1)  Sensible reasons to extend the grooming regimen. Help men see how they can better themselves. Encourage them to go beyond their four preferred core products to using one or two more.

(2)  Trial for loyalty. Even little b men today are far more inclined to try new products and are far less loyal than their fathers. Brand owners need to consider how to encourage trial and loyalty through effective portfolio optimisation, new product development and messaging. Opportunities to inspire trial abound.

(3)  More meaningful segmentation of your male grooming portfolio. Enable men to trade up as they transition from one age group to the next and from little b to big B products.

(4)  Grooming for the older gent. Asia is aging fast (China faster than any large country in recorded history), and so are Western markets. Actively engage older men with specific product benefits and brand messaging.

(5)  Engagement from the shelf out. Reinforce all of the above points by building and elevating the dialogue with solutions-based messaging on-shelf and at the point of sale.

Consider that young men today may be photographed more in a month than their grandfathers were in a lifetime – often in selfies, the ultimate expression of personal vanity. Consider that even their fathers are enjoying the spotlight more than was ever possible when they were younger – and that the market for fitness, health and anti-aging products is growing like never before as the entire population ages.

Consider that men increasingly want to make their own shopping choices rather than leaving it to wives or girlfriends. Consider that they’re encountering an abundance of little b choices – and they’re scanning the shelves and consulting their phones to discover the brands that speak to their individuality. Consider that men who make the effort to better themselves may be yearning for more than the old stereotypes of masculinity.

Sports bar norms aren’t going away anytime soon. But lots of men today are looking to be more than “that guy.” They’re eager to express their individuality. To project success and confidence. To feel good about looking good. To indulge in personal care as an integral part of being and living well.

They’re looking to try something new. Your little b lines still matter. But consider the opportunities to go a little bigger.

Kathryn Sloane is Director of Growth, APAC for SGK, a leading global brand development, activation and deployment company that drives brand performance. Hailing from Melbourne, Kathryn has lived and worked in various parts of the world (including Hong Kong and Singapore), and she has spent the past 10 years working extensively across Asia. Kathryn has more than 20 years experience in strategic brand consultancy, marketing and business development partnering key beauty clients; Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Watsons, Martha Tilaar, Cavinkare, P&G, just to name a few.

[1]   “Trends in the Global Men’s Grooming Market.” In-Cosmetics, January 29, 2015.
[2]   Barbara Booth. “Real Men Don’t Cry – But They Are Exfoliating. Say Hello to ‘Mampering’.” CNBC, December 6, 2014.
[3]   The Statistics Portal.
[4]   “Men’s Grooming Industry: Time for Emerging Markets to Steal the Show,” SpirE-Journal 2012 Q4.
[5]   “South Korea: Largest Market for Men’s Skin Care Globally.” Euromonitor Research, June 10, 2013.
[6]   Rob Walker, “It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Grooming Breaks New Ground.” GCI, February 21, 2014.
[7]   “The East Is Rouge: How Local Cosmetics Brands Are Getting Under Men’s Skin,” The Economist, December 5, 2015.

The author is a 3rd party contributor to AdAsia and this article represents her views.


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