For 500 years, the Forbidden City in Beijing was the seat of power in imperial China. Today, it is home to the Palace Museum, a tourist magnet that houses some of the country’s most treasured relics from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
It’s also become a fashion icon, thanks to a range of museum-branded beauty products that have been a massive hit with young Chinese.
More than 100,000 lipsticks developed by the Palace Museum sold out within a week of their launch last month. A traditional paper fan, emblazoned with a Qing emperor’s calligraphy roughly translating to “I miss you, too,” was also a hit.
The museum’s popularity with a social media-savvy generation has become a case study for how a historic landmark can turn itself into a trendy consumer brand.
With the lipstick, the main draw was its elegant packaging inspired by the museum’s treasures.
The Palace Museum discovered that people were wrapping their lipstick cases with patterned paper tape that it was already selling.
So it decided to design lipstick with tubes bearing patterns from royal embroideries, antique furniture, and paintings of fairy cranes, heavenly birds that symbolize longevity.
“I bought them mainly for the beautiful cases,” says Lizzy Wong, a longtime fan of the Palace Museum’s products. “Their functionality doesn’t really matter to me.”
Making traditional culture hip
In the past, the Palace Museum mainly sold antique replicas and other high-end items as souvenirs.
It wasn’t until 2012 that it started to design everyday items that incorporated traditional culture.
Now, the museum has developed somewhat of a cult following with its contemporary designs inspired by the past.
Sales revenue from these branded products, from patterned paper tape to smartphone cases, reached 1 billion yuan ($145 million) in 2016, according to Shan Jixiang, the head of the museum.
“There is great pride in local, homegrown brands now,” says Tiffany Lung, an analyst at retail company Tofugear. “There is a cultural relevance behind the [Palace Museum’s] packaging. It’s not just for aesthetics. There is a story behind it.”
With cosmetics, the Palace Museum has latched onto China’s fast-expanding beauty products market, which grew 11 percent to 32 billion yuan ($4.6 billion) last year, according to market researcher Euromonitor International.
International brands in the past have tried to seize a share of the market by offering Chinese special editions featuring elements such as dragons and zodiac animals, but many have failed to resonate with younger consumers, Lung says.
“Young consumers are seeking things that are different and new,” says Veronica Wang, an associate partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants, which specializes in consumer goods. “The Forbidden City captured this need.”
The products’ runaway popularity has led to some challenges for the Palace Museum.
Most recently, it had to suspend production of some of its cosmetics because of quality concerns.
The museum’s store on Taobao, China’s Amazon, said it would work on improving the products and roll out better ones.
Online reviewers have suggested the Palace Museum collaborate with major brands to ensure product quality.
Shaun Rein, managing director of the China Market Research Group, believes the museum could benefit from better brand management.
“When you think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you know that the quality will be pretty good and authentic,” Rein says. “But when it comes to the Forbidden City, we really don’t know what the position is.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.