Millennial men’s obsession with beauty in China is no longer a secret. Influenced by the extremely popular K-pop aesthetic and its increasingly androgynous fashions, this generation cares about their appearance in a way older Chinese would’ve surely defined as “sissy” or “unmanly.” These days, blemish balm cream and facial masks have become commonplace in the Chinese man’s beauty routine, yet perfume has remained a relatively silent category. Just two years ago, in 2017, Chinese consumers accounted for a mere 1% of the global perfume market, according to Forward, a local research institute. But now, things are starting to change.
This July, male perfume was one of the highest trending topics on the lifestyle platform XiaoHongShu (a.k.a. Little Red Book). Hot community hashtags about what smells sexy on a man like “Bad boy scents (渣男香)” and “Girl-slaying scents (斩女香)” spawned over 50k posts last month, and although male perfume has never been a part of traditional Chinese culture, the post-90 generation’s growing interest in perfume making speaks to their desire for more scents. In today’s China, trendy fragrance brands like Diptyque and Jo Malone are the new status symbols for millennial women who want to affirm and refine their lifestyles.
But it’s time for brands to also look at Chinese men, a demographic that has untapped growth potential and is often-overlooked by scent makers. Yet before doing so, brands need to understand two fundamental concepts about those men and the way they want to smell.
A hot but relatively new concept
Perfume culture is still at a nascent stage in China, especially among men. The consensus is that consumers still see perfume as more of a luxury gift rather than a daily necessity. “In the West, perfume is considered a very personal item — an expression of one’s individuality and tastes — and it may take years to find the perfect scent for oneself,” says Amber Cheng, a researcher at Cherry Blossoms Market Research & Consulting. “In China, however, perfume is most often a gift that’s chosen for the recipient predominantly because of its branding,”
That ‘gift’ connotation is especially pronounced with male perfumes. Cheng tells Jing Daily to “bear in mind that, in China, men’s perfume is very likely to be a gift from the girlfriend, and not a man actively choosing a perfume for himself. Perfume is very commonly a gift for love-related festivals in China such as Valentine’s Day, White Valentines, Qixi, etc.” As a matter of fact, most posts on Xiaohongshu with the hashtag “Girl-slaying scents” were written by women.
Industry voices corroborate the fact that for most Chinese men, fragrances are a hot but relatively new concept. Since fragrances are widely perceived as something intrinsically “Western” and “elite,” Chinese men generally buy their first perfumes after they’ve become full-grown adults. A lack of exposure to perfume culture during childhood and adolescence has resulted in Chinese men being less knowledgeable about what fragrance suits them compared to their Western peers.
Shibin Yang, an export manager at 3D TRADE, a French company distributing perfume in China, tells Jing Daily that perfume is not yet part of Chinese men’s dress-up routine. “For many European men, perfume is more like a layer of clothing to wear before going out,” Yang says. “This is the way they are educated. Chinese men largely ignore this step.”
Momo Xie, a Shenzhen-based fragrance evaluator, adds that perfume in China doesn’t have the personal touch it often does in the West. “Compared to Chinese men, European millennial men purchase perfume at a much younger age,” Xie states. “In countries where there’s a deep tradition with perfume such as France and Italy, most men have their first perfume memory from their father or grandfather. This family influence enables them to have a more thorough understanding of what they like and what suits their identities.”
The same statement would never apply to Chinese millennials. But being China’s first generation to grow up with relative wealth and social stability, they represent a new market for luxury fragrance brands.
A different idea of what’s sexy
In the Chinese market, “sexy” smells differently than it does the West.
For Westerners, a classic lady-killer perfume might use spicy or woodsy scents to convey passion, sexuality, and power. But in China, a “bad boy” fragrance smells aquatic and citrusy to accentuate “freshness.” This difference is due to the particular assumptions about sex appeal in each culture. On one hand, Westerners might habitually presume a classic lady-killer to be overtly seductive and often seemingly “dangerous,” while Chinese ladies have conjured up an image of a seductive “bad boy” as someone who cares a great deal about his appearance but is also unusually gentle and sophisticated. In other words, simply being style-conscious is already “bad and sexy” in a Chinese context since that’s what traditional Chinese men are not.
These conceptual differences explain why male Chinese fragrances smell relatively conservative or “tame” compared to Western scents. The consensus in the fragrance industry is that East Asians generally prefer lighter, fresher scents, and this trend is particularly accurate when it comes to the perfume preferences of Chinese men. Xie tells Jing Daily that “both Chinese women and men prefer men to smell clean and fresh. Richer scents are acceptable in fall and winter, but Chinese women usually stay away from overwhelmingly sweet and intense smells on a man.”
That “lighter is better” taste can be found in all sales levels across Chinese boutiques. According to Xie, the most commonly used phrase from sales assistants to Chinese men is “this makes you smell soapy and fresh out of the shower.” A “soapy” impression might seem a far cry from the Western standard for smelling sexy, but it fits the contemporary Chinese expectation of an attractive male. After all, it is the popularity of the “little fresh meat” culture that helped equate prettiness with sexiness in the minds of Chinese women.