The beauty industry’s overarching marketing strategy is transitioning away from ‘myth-based’ towards ‘evidence-based’ branding – and Duelstone is perfectly positioned to ride the first wave in the Chinese market, says the company’s CEO and co-founder, Byron Constable.
In little more than a year, Duelstone has built a team of 10,000 beauty content post creators in 60 countries who try out Western beauty products and share their experience in Chinese as a post on Chinese social media. The result? Massive sales upticks for the beauty brands trying to break into the Chinese market – and marketing data that shows, buck for buck, how much more cost-effective this new marketing vehicle is.
“A lot of these brands have tried to enter China but Chinese consumers don’t want to hear from brands, they want to hear from humans,” says Byron. “It’s human-to-human communication. People distrust brand communication, more and more so.”
It’s certainly working so far: one European brand last year went from zero sales in China to £1.5m in retail revenue just using the Duelstone model. So how does it work?
“Beauty brands pay us to facilitate the product, to get the product into creators’ hands, and they talk about the brand and the benefits,” says Byron. “So we find the creators – or actually they find us.”
Duelstone charges the brand £100 per post, and for that small fee they get vast audiences on Chinese social media sites. The creators of the post, meanwhile, enjoy a stream of the very latest products from some of the world’s top beauty brands as their motivation.
“There’s an executive team of seven,” Byron continues of the ground-breaking business model, “then a freelance team of 25 around the world, plus the 10k creators who try out the products. We send them products from the biggest brands and they post their experience: they don’t get paid unless we use their content.
“The creators are from all over the world but not in China – there’s 600 in the Cambridgeshire area. Many are students, mainly they’re Chinese, there’s a few Chinese-speaking westerners, and they post their experience on Chinese websites.
“You can post on Chinese media from anywhere in the world, it’s very easy to download Chinese social media platforms from the West.”
Byron has many years’ business experience in China.
“I’ve lived in China most of my adult life,” he says. “I came back to the UK in 2014 to look at building a bridge between China and the UK for the beauty industry. I’d built a platform in China for brands, which was just local to China, but I wanted to take it international.”
Duelstone emerged in 2022 and is based on Station Road – and its model is rearranging the sector.
“The beauty industry is recentering itself on an evidence-based culture, it’s not myth-based in the sense that people aren’t so easily convinced by the brands saying how great their products are. The industry is being recentered in Cambridge as very much an evidence-based culture – that’s what the brands are hearing from their consumers. We’re pretty much at the forefront of doing this.
“This renaissance is happening in the beauty industry, and Cambridge is best placed for this kind of revolution, especially with its technology and infrastructure.”
To expand the market even further, ‘beauty’ products include cosmetics, wellness, nutrition, and fitness brands.
“It’s skin care, make-up, and nutrition – like vitamins C and D – and eye make-up,” says Byron of the range. “The biggest brand in the US uses Duelstone to expand into China. Probiotics is also a very big part of the sales mix. In China people see wellness as an aspect of beauty, they understand that inner beauty affects outer beauty, so we see wellbeing as very important. Optibac, for instance, they’re based in Reading, is a very popular brand. A lot of these brands have tried to enter China but Chinese consumers don’t want to hear from brands, they want to hear from humans. We integrate with the shops, so when demand for a product happens, we connect brands directly with online retailers and they buy and ship. The hard part is creating demand. Once the product is listed it gets easier. Interest is soaring in China.”
The brands are “mostly multinational” and include Emma Hardie, one of fastest growing British ranges.
Barry Cook, managing director of Emma Hardie, has this to say about this innovative route into the huge Chinese market:
“The Duelstone platform has made it effortless for Emma Hardie to gain market share with intelligently presented product posts being shared on leading Chinese social media platforms including Red, Weibo, Douyln and BilliBilli by reputable creators. We are extremely pleased with the value and service provided by Duelstone.”
Duelstone is being courted by two investors now looking to put £5m into the company this year. So what would this investment be used for?
“We want to recentre the entire beauty industry towards Cambridge and use a Cambridge-based tech platform so we need to communicate that and people are not aware of the infrastructure, so £5m would be to open offices all over the world, to explain the tech model and how the technology works. This year, without any advertising, we’ve generated 25k posts and we want to expand that five-fold every year, so that means 125k posts next year.
“We charge brands £100 per post typically so at the end of five years… that means an income stream of £250m a year. We believe it’s possible.”
The term ‘disruptive’ is over-used, but the Duelstone model is remodelling the marketing of beauty products in a way that looks genuinely game-changing.