As I was waiting for the train in Dunhua station–in Taipei, Taiwan– a large advertisement for the body shop caught my eye.
The ad was for a skin care product called “Drops of Youth.” which I assumed was a kind of elite facial lotion promising to keep you at least as young as you look today.
However, the thing that immediately drew my attention was the large message overlapping the product that said: “Tested by Asian woman."
My initial reaction was to laugh a bit. I visualized a single Asian woman dressed in a white lab coat with safety classes on, laboriously testing thousands of bottles of “Drops of Youth” as they flew past on a high-tech conveyor belt.
That, of course, is ridiculous. But my next impression was even more sinister. I visualized a line of Asian woman having product tested on them while researchers observed the effects on clipboards–like those disturbing videos of rabbits and monkeys.
Neither of these scenarios is plausible, yet I felt unable to decipher the true meaning of the message.
Consider the context:
The Body Shop–makers of Drops of Youth–is a British brand. Although the ad is displayed in Taiwan–a Chinese speaking country–it's written entirely in English, which makes one wonder whether it had simply been transplanted from a western campaign into Taiwan.
I began questioning who the ad is intended for. If the target is Taiwanese consumers–which makes the most sense given the location–then why was it written completely in English? Perhaps it was to give it “foreign appeal”; intentionally designed to appear foreign as a way to increase it’s perceived value. Even if that's the case, the “tested by Asian woman” message still doesn't make any sense.
Perhaps the message is playing on the stereotype that Asians generally look younger than most westerners, and must hold some ancient secret to youthful beauty. There’s a famous infomercial from the 80’s for a product called "Pearl Cream” featuring Nancy Kwan– an Asian American actress– that perfectly leveraged this stereotype. The commercial claimed that Pearl Cream was created with “real oriental pearls” and other secret ingredients “just recently introduced to the western world.” The product was a huge success due to this marketing strategy.
But even if this was The Body Shop’s angle it still wouldn't explain why it’s hanging in Zhongxiao Dunhua station in Taipei, Taiwan.
So what could it be? Owned by L’Oreal with over 2,500 retail location in over 61 countries, it’s hard for me to imagine The Body Shop wouldn’t have a strategy behind the communication.
The next day I brought this up to our marketing director–a Taiwanese man–in conversation. He initially seemed as confused as I was, and had many of the same questions. So the confusion didn’t seem to be a cultural one at least.
I posted a photo of the ad to my Facebook, hoping that I might get some comments from my Taiwanese friends which could lead to new insight. However, the post received very few comments beyond an “OMG” and another comment about testing ON Asian woman.
I then did what I probably should have done in the first place. I asked an Asian woman.
My colleague Tina Wu–Brand Strategist at DDG–gave me a swift and confident response. She claimed the message not only made sense to her but actually worked to give her the confidence to try the product.
What she revealed to me was interesting. Cosmetics in Asia is an enormous market. According to ApacMarket, the Asia-Pacific cosmetics market is expected to reach $126.8 billion by 2020. Japan alone is the highest revenue generating market in the region for cosmetics. Japanese cosmetic brands like Shiseido and SKII are brand leaders in the region in part because of their reputation for understanding Asian needs.
These brands are attractive, not cheap, yet not prohibitively expensive, and practically built into the daily lives of millions of woman across Asia.
The Body Shop, on the other hand, doesn’t hold as much brand appeal for most woman in Asia. Their less expensive products simply appear more mass market, and less able to provide a quality product for Asian woman. The Body Shop also hasn’t been around for as long as some of these other Asian brands–in Asia at least–which inevitably creates a lot of skepticism for Asian cosmetic consumers who are happy and confident with the products they’ve been using for years.
For Tina, “Tested by Asian woman” is simply the brands way of communicating that the product has been used by Asian woman who found that the product did indeed work for them.
What’s interesting to me about all this–and what I take away–is that you should never make quick assumptions about whether a piece of advertising communication is effective or not without first asking someone who fits the target market. In other words, don’t change what you’re looking at, Change how you’re looking at it.