The lipstick economy

Lipstick effect, according to Wikipedia,

the theory that when facing an economic crisis consumers will be more willing to buy less costly luxury goods. Instead of buying expensive fur coats, for example, people will buy expensive lipstick.The underlying assumption is that consumers will buy luxury goods even if there is a crisis. 

It also has psychological effect – women’s desire to attract mates with resources and depends on the perceived mate attraction function served by these products. In addition to showing how and why economic recessions influence women’s desire for beauty products.

We are not to talk about whetherthe lipstick sales surge is predicting a crisis a not. I can’t avoid seeing any mention of case studies about premium lipsticks reading about beauty Ecommerce in China. (I’m just rewriting based on what I read.) In fact, it’s the fastest growing category in Beauty China, growing a staggering 97% in 2017.

Today, i’m here to talk about how premium lipsticks make it to the top selling products on the Tmall (JD, VIP and koala etc) shelf.

On Tmall, China’s biggest Ecommerce platform (arguably world’s biggest or second biggest), both premium cosmetics brands YSL (only launched on Tmall since apr 2018) and Mac’s lipstick sales are disproportionately huge, accounting for 85% and 92% over total sales respectively. Priced at over RMB200 above per tube, these lipsticks are not cheap as everyday necessity (as you don’t just stop at 1 tube) but definitely not expensive as a feel-good simple indulgence. How are the figures translated into actual tubes of lipsticks? Hmm, I want to know too.

So what’s behind YSL’s lipstick sales?

Oh, they did it so well with influencers – it was glorified as the ONLY gift to signify their love from boyfriends to their girlfriends – testimony of love. Girls where sharing posts about YSL lipsticks on social to subtly (not too subtly) to hint (*wink wink). The lipsticks are built up as the “girlfriend gift”. After all, 1 iPhone 7 equally 22 YSL lipsticks (I didn’t do the calculation, chinese netizen did).

Love wins (or marketing leveraging on it wins).

Stealing old photo from sohu:

It was indeed the counter in Seoul (not China but all the “sold out” or purchase quota “one tube per customer” signs are all written in simplified Chinese (the official language in China)

Let’s talk about Mac – L2 gave it a flash of genius. I have to agree with L2 on this one.

Mac x Tencent’s Honour of Kings (Arena of Valor)

I’m sure you have heard of Tencent – the company that owns WeChat, QQ and many more (most additive mobile games in China for example).

When you think mobile games are for guys only, think twice. Take one of the most popular mobile games in China, Honour of Kings, for example. Most than half of their over 100 million (yes, 9 digits, I counted with my fingers 🤪) monthly active users (MAU) are female. They are not just female, they are Gen Z (18-24) mostly with disposable income (at least to spend on cosmetic items).

Instead of initiated from the brand, the unlikely collaboration was a result of customer’s demand. According Jingdaily, MAC noticed the players of the games always mentioned their brand when creating lip colors for their characters in the game. Also, without constraint from the brand’s headquarter, local team had all the freedom and support to start the collaboration with Tencent. And ta da, born the 5 branded limited edition lipsticks for Honour of the Kings.

14,000 preorder within 24 hours of launch on their brand site, WeChat mini program and their Tmall. Seriously 14,000 is more thing compared to the over 100,000 tubes monthly sales on Tmall alone, the buzz generated and the halo effect is the gold.

The verdict – no matter if the economy blooms or turns gloom, photogenic (Instagramable or ins – the way Chinese netizens call Instagram or Livestreaming-able) makeup products – aka lipstick is one of the most compulsive buying items

See exhibit A – my little collection (after two rounds of life changing magic of tidying up – My Charlotte Tibury lipsticks didn’t make it to the photo) well, they still do spark joy and I’m still tempted every time I see an ad (of any format)

(This post has been stuck at my draft for a few months – the past 11.11 lipsticks are still the highest selling products makeups)


Before Covid19, there was still a strong glow of lipstick sales. The pandemic is very saddening. Hope the worst is already gone and we are on our way to be back to normal!

Mask wearing and working from home is the new normal. That means the way people put on makeup (or the lack of it completely) has changed. Lipsticks had negative growth. A similar form of lipstick economy emerged – Mascara index. (Honestly, Mascara sales especially in the premium category has been in decline for a long while. With the rise of lash extension and even magnetic lashes, it’s not hard to see why). China, the first country that returned to work back to normal saw a 150% increase in eye makeup. I bet is eye liners and brow products. Here’s an interesting take on Mascara index

Has your makeup routine changed? Are you still putting on makeup? Even I’m back to normal work schedule, I haven’t put on any makeup for at least 4 months nor have I bought any makeup items either, instead, I bought skincare and self care products.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s