Red Pill or Blue Pill

Fantasy or Reality: Are brands telling the truth?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a digital charter to fight extremism and misinformation on social media. He believes that social media and tech companies have “failed their users”. If politicians, government officials, journalists, social media influencers and even our close family and friends benefit from extremism and misinformation who is responsible for defining what is truth and punishing others for abusing our trust?

As journalists and newspapers publish more and more information over social media and apps they tend to be rewarded for more sensational and less factual reporting. The definition of misinformation and related penalties are often left in a grey zone. How can we expect content creators, whether they are individuals, organizations, brands or agencies, to adhere to new framework that hope to eliminate fake news and distortions to reality?

Fake News – Source: Unsplash

PBB is a Beijing based cross-border branding and design agency serving both international and Chinese clients. We work with different versions of the truth on a daily basis. Each of our clients has unique methods for determining and presenting truth and our staff comes from several different countries and across China reflecting divergent local ways of listening to and accepting the truth. Without trust and a group desire to do and understand the right thing, we would have little chance for success.

“Truth as a cultural concept knows many different interpretations such as ‘truth is a lie repeated long enough’, ‘truth is just an illusion’ or the downright cynical ‘truth doesn’t exist’.” – Dr. Martina Olbertova

2018 marked a turning point in the public’s mistrust for foreign social media. In China, this mistrust of traditional news source, combined to the spreading of fake products and brands has already been influencing the way branding and communications is done. As this trend grows, brand managers are facing difficult choices.

“Consumers are experiencing a crisis of faith. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, today only 52 percent of global respondents trust businesses.”

Internet Transparency – Source: Unsplash

At PBB, our brand strategy always aims to start with the product and services and find existing elements and features which can be used as brand assets to connect both emotionally and logically with the target audience, while creating differentiation from the competition.

Before developing an effective brand strategy, slogan or campaigns, we try to sit with our clients to really understand the truth of their products and service values. As we are not technical experts in some of the categories we work in, we are often faced with the dilemma of knowing what is actually true or not. Is there a real science behind the fact that this product makes your skin better? Does this product really help your digestion? Is this really better quality?

Fake Medication – Source: Adweek

While critical thinking is an important feature of any competent agency, our ultimate role is to help brands improve their images and to sell more. In a dynamic of mistrust, the challenge is not really about delivering the truth, but rather about delivering authenticity and telling compelling stories. As Branding is often a fusion of fantasy and reality, brand authenticity is vulnerable to criticism. Just like brands, most of the truths humans live for are a fusion of reality in compelling narratives. Beauty, Health, Success, Relationships are all good examples of concepts in which we may build our own truth based on the imagined world we hope to live in.

Brand Fantasy: If nothing is true, everything is true. (If nothing is real, everything is real.)

Red Bull Campaign – Source: Deviant Art

Many brands are able to achieve success by focusing exclusively on aspirations, dreams and emotional benefits. Research shows that consumers don’t trust advertising and brands, governments and politicians, friends an family. If you distrust most people most of the time how to you choose brands? People tend to pick the most confident and focused brands. Ignoring reality and focusing on fun and adventure has proven to be rather successful for some brands including Red Bull, Mini, Fila and Absolut.

The sales of brands like Nike, which have built a fantasy around values like courage and performance instead of talking about shoes and materials, prove that humans are still very emotional when it comes to purchasing products they wear and sports they follow. Other new brands like Kylie Cosmetics and Tarte have been widely successful by inventing and promoting new fantasy driven standards of fast beauty rather than focusing on product benefits. In China, watch brands like Rolex and Panerai continue to be successful using unrealistic and extravagant images of success and aspirational lifestyles.

Brand Reality: You want the truth? Let us create one for you.

Calsberg Ad | Source: Calsberg Pilsner

Inventing super real benefits that are not based on actual consumers needs has enabled big successes for premium and luxury brands. Carlsberg recently launched a new digital campaign claiming that it was “Probably not the best beer in the world”, using a light and apologetic tone to acknowledge that the company could do better and would do better. In crowded categories with fantasy such as beer, the ad has received a wide coverage and mostly positive feedback from consumers in Europe. In China, Niu has grown very successfully by releasing quality electric bicycles and products while keeping their branding and communication very entertaining and adding humour to consumer needs. Another more traditional Baijiu brand like HongXin 红星 have maintained their successful in a declining industry by romanticizing and celebrating the conservative and traditional lifestyles of their aging customers.

As new regulations and market controls are being implemented, it will be interesting to see how brands will position themselves against the demand for regulated and policed truth. While there are already existing laws that force advertising to stay close to facts, should we expect regulators and consumers to become even more critical towards brands who play with the truth and embrace fantasy? Will consumers become more critical or will they prefer to focus on entertainment value?

Headline: Consistency is key to authenticity

As an agency, our role is to understand and analyze the aspirations, dreams, fears and pushbacks from both regulators and consumers and help our client position their product. It does appear to us that in the eyes of consumers, truth has more to do with consistency than with reality. “Consistency is key to authenticity. In today’s fragmented media environment, brand messaging often varies from source to source.” – Peter Minnium, President Ipsos

Whether a brand message is more geared towards fantasy or reality seems like have little impact on its authenticity. But if a brand is unclear about what it is and what it stands for, it risks creating a trust issue, especially in this era of skepticism. Ironically, this happened to Trudeau himself a few months ago, when his values of integration and diversity were compromised as he and his family dressed up using stereotypical Indian costumes.

Hence, it appears true to say that a “Truth is a lie repeated long enough’ and/or “Truth is a salty snack we prefer to eat than a healthy meal of Truth.”

Our Process

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The Power of “Fast Beauty”   

Beauty and Beauty Standards have become more important for brands and marketing programs due to the increased use of smartphones and social media. Smartphones screens and social media apps allow users to quickly and easily identify, like and share photos and videos of “beautiful people”. Giving and receiving beauty likes and positive comments has proven to be highly desirable and addictive for users especially self image obsessed 12 – 24 year olds. There are over 310 million photos with the hashtag #beauty on Instagram.

Social media algorithms and photo editing apps allow Beauty Standards to be instantly focused so that consumers can quickly react positively to beauty influencers and familiar photo formats. Beautiful faces and attractive bodies have gained in popularity compared to more complicated artistic and cultural images.  Brands that learn how to integrate “Fast Beauty” Creative Directions and “Swipe Friendly” User Interfaces across their consumer touch points will significantly increase engagement and revenues.

Kylie Cosmetic – Fast Beauty Product Leader

Who is leading Fast Beauty and the creation of Fast Beauty Standards? In a word KYLIE.  Kylie Jenner built the superlative Fast Beauty Brand “Kylie Cosmetics”, now worth over US$1 billion, between the ages of 19 and 21. Kylie Cosmetics generated US$ 420 million in digital direct to consumer sales within 18 months. To put that into perspective, it took Tom Ford Beauty a decade to hit the $500 million revenue mark. In addition Kylie has been providing her Fast Beauty Genius to numerous other brands via partnerships including OPI, Puma, Balmain, Beats, Top Shop, Sinful Colors, E! and Quay.

Pitu – A super fun Chinese picture editing app from Tencent

What are the key visual elements of Kylie Beauty?

  • Big eyes looking directly at the camera with a calm confidence.
  • Long thick black eye lashes curled dramatically upwards.
  • Long thick arched eyebrows creating a slight questioning effect.
  • Heavy layers of makeup with a tan, brown and cream pallet that highlight cheekbones and elongated facial features.
  • Long glossy black hair.
  • Highlighted or exposed décolleté with consistent skin tones.


Kylie Jenner – Consistent and clear fast beauty standards

Kylie’s glowing cosmetic looks are now worn by tens of millions of women every day from Singapore to Los Angeles including most top social media influencers regardless of race, religion or sexual preference. Kylie products create a polished and unifying mask that can be applied to augment or cover up facial features helping women to feel more confident and protected.

Refined and sophisticated Beauty Standards and exclusive beauty products with delicately constructed brands have been replaced by simple, bold and inclusive messaging. Building on the success of “Fast Fashion” and the rise of Social Media Commerce, “Fast Beauty” has become a global obsession. “Fast Beauty” is a critical element of social media traffic generation and countless highly profitable digital beauty business models including MAC, Fenty Beauty, Colour Pop and Glossier. “Fast Beauty” brands are now partners with and being acquired by large classic beauty players and their methodologies integrated across product ranges and brands including Tarte, NYX, Urban Decay and Birchbox.

Kylie and sister Kim Kardashian – Social media queens

“If you can’t see anything beautiful in yourself, find a better Mirror.” Kylie Jenner

Social Media is defining global Beauty Standards. Like most things Social Media defines it is doing it faster, simpler and with more consistency than ever before. With the help of increasingly powerful influencers, “Fast Beauty” brands create “on-trend products” that are produced and launched quickly, with the help of agile supply chains, constant digital marketing feedback and user generated content. Selfies, short videos, bold text, likes, follows, shares, comments and KOLs now establish what is Beauty and enable Fast Beauty Products to drive cosmetic industry sales. Traditional Beauty Media and Beauty Institutions including fashion magazines, beauty pageants, beauty products and beauty counters have been forced to adapt to social media and fast beauty trends.

The disruptive, constantly interactive and always on nature of smartphones is perfect for promoting and selling “Fast Beauty” content and products. New Fast Beauty Standards have been made easy to identify, wear, share and celebrate by leading cosmetic, fashion and media brands including e.l.f., FashionNova, Gucci, TikTok, WeChat and Instagram.


“Fast beauty brands are accelerating production cycles and thereby challenging the bigger and more established brands through this agility and speed,” Research Expert Alexandra Rastall, Kantar Millward Brown.

The Fast Beauty trend in cosmetics and media has become big business in Asia, driven first by the rise of Korean KPOP Beauty and then a craze for all things Japanese. The trend has been for young Chinese to skip reserved and classic beauty products and go straight to extreme eye shadow palettes and heavy foundations allowing for a Fast Beauty Transformation. “People are comparing their appearance to people in Instagram images, or whatever platform they’re on, and they often judge themselves to be worse off,” says Jasmine Fardouly, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The insecurities and self image doubts created by social media are quickly and effectively addressed by Fast Beauty products and videos. Fast Beauty models and products are much more down to earth, practical and easy to understand than classic beauty super models and products and solidifies their success.

Smartphones and Apps have become essential for Fast Beauty helping consumers quickly receive, give and share emotional rewards and how to videos. One of the most popular and effective digital rewards is the recognition and affirmation of “Beauty”.  Over 580 million people have used the hashtag #beautiful and 507 million #cute on Instagram and liking a portrait of a person immediately establishes their beauty. Simple positive comments and emojis signifying a persons beauty are commonly used across social media demographics, psychographics and geographies.

Orbis Research estimates that the Global beauty industry will reach over US$ 800 Billion by 2023. The lipstick index seems to be at work here. This is the phenomenon where, when times look tough, women turn to make-up as an affordable treat while they cut back on other purchases. When the digital world becomes too confusing people turn to fast confirmations of their external and internal beauty.

Fast Beauty requires that marketing managers use Slow Brand Strategy Methods. Due to the rapid changes in beauty and fashion products, messaging, pricing and distribution channels consumer brands need to be more focused and carefully designed. If brands want to be recognised and build value in this emotional and fast moving environment they need to establish consistent and clear brand identities based on emotionally relevant big ideas and engaging key visuals. Fragmented social media experiences and distracted consumers prefer simple and clear brands. Consistent Brand Strategy is essential in today’s Fast Beauty World.

Elf Cosmetics – Direct to consumer cosmetic hero brand.

Our Process

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