Beauty camera apps are big news in China and Meitu (‘Beautiful picture’) is the biggest of them all. After its launch in 2008 Meitu very quickly became widely popular in China and the company is now valued at close to $6 billion. Meitu’s range of apps let users instantly touch up their selfies using filters, stickers, video editing and other tools.
Beauty apps like this are not without controversy. Meitu’s beauty standards tend to be geared towards making people thinner, whiter and more childlike in appearance. These tools make people look more Western, changing eyelid shape and lightening skin. It’s been accused of trivialising plastic surgery. The apps on offer are also entirely geared towards taking selfies, an activity that many people interpret as the end of civilisation as we know it.
These days close to half a billion people have used or downloaded Meitu apps of some kind, with around 6 billion users each month. Like many online platforms, Meitu’s rise has been enabled by the support of influencers. Many celebrities, vloggers and online personalities have shared their own doctored photos and this has helped to spread the popularity of these apps.
Meitu’s recently branched out to encompass China’s passion for luxury brands and products. Users of Meitu’s beauty apps can customise their photo using branded makeup products, with the opportunity to buy any that appeal to them.
Meitu offers slick eCommerce integration, making it an easy way for top-end makeup brands to promote and sell new lipstick colours, sunglasses or similar products on the platform. Of course, this activity is promoted by China’s army of beauty bloggers who can be brought in to support new campaigns.
Meitu is a good example of how advanced China is when it comes to social commerce. Ecommerce opportunities are embedded into the platform, making it easy for brands to promote products and for consumers to buy them using integrated shopping features.
One of Meitu’s popuar products, MeituBeauty, offers online shops where the content is curated by the ever-important key opinion leaders. These influencers, known as trendsetters, earn commission for making sales.
China is a crowded marketplace for digital platforms and Meitu has its competitors. One example is Tencent’s Tian Tian Pi Tu, which has around a tenth of Meitu’s monthly user base but what seems to be a younger audience. Another is FaceU, which emphasises the social element of beauty camera app use by enabling video chat between users.
They’re all chasing the rising consumer force that is young Chinese women. This group is going to be responsible for an astonishing $4 trillion by 2020 and they are known to be interested in spending on beauty, clothes and accessories.
Different standards of beauty
Meitu is now looking at overseas expansion. It will be interesting to see how the app’s beauty standards will be received outside China. Already there are distinct regional preferences for how users like to change their image.
Chinese users favour clear, pale skin but Norwegians prefer to keep their freckles. There are colour preferences too: Latin American app users tend to prefer more brightly coloured treatments for their photos.
Meitu is already available in the US, where it’s already enjoyed some interest. The concept of beauty is more up for debate in this market. Around 40% of the US audience is from a minority background and Meitu’s skin whitening habit wasn’t well received. There are also very real concerns in this market about the way it uses customer data.
Meitu apps have been especially popular in India, where the company’s products are thought to have around 100 million users. Although women make up 81% of Meitu users, India sees higher numbers of men than women using the app – which may be due to gender disparities in smartphone ownership and digital access in this market.
Here Meitu claims to have localised their offering based on skin tone preferences and facial structure, as well as bringing in local celebrities to popularise the platform.
Part of Meitu’s success lies in its constant adaptation. The app is constantly adding new tools and features; more recently beefing up the social connectivity elements on offer so users can share their images.
In the future, you can expect to see more artificial intelligence being incorporated into the core offering. This will inevitably be integrated with social eCommerce so that the AI tools can offer product recommendations based on the user’s skin tone.
There are opportunities for brands looking to reach Meitu’s growing audience of young Chinese women (and perhaps India’s market too). Some brands have realised that beauty apps are a way to reach consumers in rural areas where it just isn’t possible to have any kind of physical presence.
Instead of launching a store where customers can try products, they can try to give them a virtual brand experience via beauty apps. French cosmetics company Sephora saw a 30% conversion rate in India when users tried products through the brand’s own Virtual Artist app.
There are many flaws to the beauty app’s model. Meitu has never been profitable despite its high user growth rate and passionate audience. There’s high competition from rival beauty cameras and fickle consumers seem to have several beauty apps on the go at once.
With ad revenue not really turning a profit, the next step may be commercialising these platforms. This, in turn, may bring opportunities for brands willing to engage with the beauty app phenomenon.