Shanghai-based startup O2 (氧气) has managed to achieve something that global lingerie brands like Victoria Secret have not: crowdsourcing lingerie ads from their users.
“[Our models are] from all over China,” says Daini Xu (徐黛妮), the CEO of O2. “Chongqing, Xi’an, Harbin, Tianjin, Changzhou. All different. This one is a reporter, a photographer, a student,” she says, pointing to three different photos.
All of O2’s models are users of O2’s app, which is an e-commerce platform for lingerie, sportswear, bathing suits, and other related products. There’s no money involved, only the promise of free lingerie and being featured on O2’s app. For every three sets of lingerie photographed, models receive one set for free. O2 calls its models “lingerie experience masters.”
“We wanted normal people, like office ladies and students,” says Ms. Xu. “Our [modeling] program is more about letting users experience [our lingerie], to let them wear something they’ve never worn before.”
According to Ms. Xu, O2 currently has about five hundred “lingerie experience masters,” an astonishing number that reflects not only the strength of O2’s brand, but the culture of China’s post 90’s generation. Often compared to millennials, China’s post 90’s generation are characterized by strong individuality and self-expression. They’re the product of a unique mix of phenomena, including the One Child Policy, rapid urbanization, and the internet. Unlike older generations, China’s post 90’s generation have strayed the furthest from traditional Chinese values, such as filial piety and modesty, and are often criticized as selfish, lazy, and promiscuous.
“They’re very self-confident,” says Ms. Xu. “Their self-acceptance comes from themselves. Many of them acknowledge: ‘Yes, I am beautiful.’”
O2 is depending on this new generation to power their brand, which aligns well with post 90’s culture. Each photo collection, which showcases one set of lingerie, centers around a unique setting or concept, like an apartment rooftop or a red, leather couch. Though professional modeling experience is not required, O2 sets a high bar. Aspiring “lingerie experience masters” have to submit a CV, a cover letter, and examples of their photography. Applicants have to prove that they understand O2’s brand and can produce high quality photos with a unique aesthetic. According to Ms. Xu, the company receives around five applications a day.
“Snapping a selfie of your chest – kind of like Taobao advertising – is definitely not okay,” says Ms. Xu. “You must have a [special] setting. I’m not requiring you to be artistic but you must have this.”
In many ways, O2’s brand is promoting a post 90’s attitude towards female sexuality. The company’s culture is built around the idea of independent women who embrace their own bodies. Through its platform, O2 guides users through playful discussions on sex, where hooking up is about having fun, not validation. O2 bras are also deliberately thin and padless, aimed at achieving a “natural” result instead of a bulging chest. Currently, all of the lingerie brands on O2 are foreign, as most traditional Chinese lingerie companies tend to focus on breast size, not design.
“They think that the symbol of female sexuality is having a large chest,” says Ms. Xu. “Most traditional Chinese bras will have a very thick pad that sits very high, as if it’s trying to take all the fat from your back and push it towards your chest.”
“Having grown up with this trend, most [Chinese] women do not feel confident when they see these thin [pieces of lingerie],” says Ms. Xu. That’s another reason why O2 prefers its users over freelance models. It’s not only cheaper, it’s also encouraging to other users.
O2 joins a growing number of Chinese companies that cater to younger consumers, whose purchase decisions are driven by “intangible, emotional factors” and “satisfying emotional needs,” according to a report by McKinsey. For Chinese consumers in the post 90’s generation, blatantly commercial marketing is not effective. The brand has to appeal to the consumer’s tastes, then make the sale. In 2015, post 90’s consumers made up 15.4% of China’s population are expected to reach 31.3% by 2050.
Pre 90’s Chinese consumers in middle to high income brackets are exhibiting similar purchasing habits, as they are increasingly “more conscious of brands, more demanding on quality, and more individualistic in expressing themselves through the products they consume,” according to a report by consulting firm Roland Berger. Chinese e-commerce platforms, such as Mogujie (蘑菇街) and Xiaohongshu (小红书), are tapping into this trend by emphasizing the social aspect of their platforms and offering users high quality, brand-heavy products.
Founded in 2014, O2 received a round of Series A funding in June 2015 led by venture capital firm SIG China. In 2016, the company plans to ramp up the community aspect of O2 by letting O2 models interact directly with and be “followed” by other users. O2 is also hoping to open offline pop-up stores in Chinese shopping malls so users can try on O2 products.
Image credit: O2