Lipstick King and Huaxizi, more than a celebrity faux pas
Published: Sep 20, 2023 11:15 PM

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

Chinese domestic beauty brand Huaxizi issued an apology on Tuesday, topping the trending chart on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo. Following netizen complaints that the apology was insincere, the company's entire PR department has reportedly asked to resign, which has further stirred social media buzz. 

While several trending topics related to the brand reached more than 1.38 billion views by Wednesday evening, the ruckus all started with Chinese makeup and beauty influencer Li Jiaqi, known as the "King of Lipstick." The 31-year-old influencer was trying to sell an eyebrow pencil by Huaxizi for 79 yuan ($10.83) on September 10. 

When a female viewer complained about the price being too expensive, Li rebuked her by saying domestic brands like Huaxizi have been facing a tough situation in recent years. He went so far as to bombard the viewer with a series of questions: "Why do you find a 79-yuan eyebrow pencil expensive? It's your problem. Haven't you gotten a raise after working so many years? Is it because you haven't been working hard enough?" 

His response did not sit well with many. Overnight, Li lost more than 630,000 followers. Li has made several public apologies for his inappropriate remarks. Yet the number of followers on his social media accounts continues to drop.

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) weighed in and published an editorial on September 12. "When facing questions from consumers a livestreamer can explain various aspects of the products, but he chose a nasty way to respond by mocking someone's financial position," the editorial said.

Li's comment not only sparked a widespread backlash aimed at him, but also dragged Huaxizi into hot water. Some started questioning whether the brand was actually a domestic brand and pointed out that the brand offers Li high commissions. Some netizens compared the price between Huaxizi and renowned international brands, noting the price per gram of some Huaxizi products is higher than brands like Chanel or Shu Uemura. "Are you sure that Huaxizi is a domestic brand in a tough situation or a greedy business disguised as a struggling domestic brand?" netizens questioned on social media.

In the apology issued on Tuesday, Huaxizi clarified that it is a homegrown domestic beauty brand, with all its products produced and manufactured in China. Huaxizi emphasized that it has been registered with the State Food and Drug Administration and its products pass strict testing before entering the market. The statement failed to quell public anger with many claiming it was more of an advertisement than an apology. 

Adding fuel to the fire, sources claim that the apology was not written by the PR team at Huaxizi at all, noting that some of the company's PR team have handed in resignation letters to show their disapproval and those who did not are considering leaving the company as well, domestic media Economic View reported Wednesday.

Amid the controversy, there was a silver lining for traditional Chinese brands, as they have seen a sudden surge in popularity. Instead of squandering a fortune on marketing, these domestic brands have been focusing on ensuring quality, which is the fundamental aspect of developing domestic products. Yet with fierce competition from international brands, some of these domestic brands have struggled with a lack of market presence and financial challenges. 

"These products stand the test of time." "They didn't raise the price of the products for more profits." These were just some of the comments left by netizens concerning these smaller brands. 

The 44-year-old children's skincare brand Yumeijing registered accounts on short video platforms Xiaohongshu and Douyin overnight. According to media reports, sales during the brand's first livestreaming event exceeded 1 million yuan ($137,000).

Another skincare brand, Wanziqianhong, with over 100 years of history, began livestreaming on Douyin on Monday. Netizens jokingly labeled the brand's products as "great grandmother products." The account soon garnered over 1 million followers. 

This shift toward traditional brands isn't just a reactionary move. It reflects a deeper sentiment among Chinese consumers. There's a growing appreciation for homegrown brands that offer quality products at affordable prices. 

The incident related to Li and Huaxizi and the subsequent rise of traditional brands provide a window into the evolving Chinese consumer landscape. The new generation of Chinese consumers is not just driven by flashy advertisements or celebrity endorsements. They are discerning, value-driven, and seek a blend of quality and emotional connection.

New domestic brands have their strengths, such as creative marketing, understanding consumer psychology, and the ability to develop new products quickly. Imported brands also have their strengths. For example, beauty and pharmaceutical brands often have strong research capabilities, and many products even incorporate award-winning research results. 

"While the public sympathize and support traditional domestic brands, we must also view market competition rationally," the Economic Daily wrote in an editorial published on Wednesday.