NaiTangPai’s Michael Zhang shares how he tapped a niche segment in China’s lingerie business to develop a brand that thrives on customer-centric values.
This article is part of a Spotlight series on what marketers can learn from DTC disruptors in China. Read more
- NaiTangPai entered the lingerie market in China with special big cup bras to meet the needs of larger-sized women.
- The brand uses QQ and WeChat groups to establish communities of users who help it to develop products.
- The e-commerce platform is also used to cultivate the brand and establish brand awareness; the consumer finds the brand first, then sees what she needs, and NaiTangPai says this is what differentiates it from the competition.
NaiTangPai was designed for Chinese busty women, and has developed exclusive big-cup bras in 47 sizes in C to K cups. What gave you, a man, impetus to start this brand?
It came from frustration, as I couldn't find the right maternity lingerie for my pregnant wife, and she had to make do by choosing plus-sized bras with oversized bottom circumferences, which left her breasts unsupported and her shoulders uncomfortably strangled by the bra straps. My wife went through this process only during her pregnancy, but for a plump girl with larger breasts, this is a pain she will have to go through for the rest of her life.
I posted my idea to start a plus-sized bra brand in the lingerie community, and invited a group of users with a common vision to join my establishing team. The team invited more than 3,000 girls with large breasts to participate in the development of the first few products, and we accumulated more than 10 inventions and patents within five years.
Was NaiTangPai less affected than fast-moving consumer goods by the pandemic, as your channels are mainly online?
The biggest impact to our company at the beginning of the pandemic was to our supply chain. At that time, many factories were unable to start production. Therefore, we had to adjust our production rhythm and make flexible preparations for our raw materials to re-stock our inventory.
In addition, everyone's lives have changed as a result of the pandemic because everyone will spend more time at home.
As a result, the underwear that women wear at home is not the same as the underwear that women wear when they go out. Even if the situation is safe for going outside, it would probably be within one kilometre, like strolling around your compound. So early this year, we launched a series called the Lazy Series, which consists of products that are made uniquely for “in-house” underwear.
We started trial sales of the Lazy Series in February. From that, we then extended the product to the entire product portfolio and public feedback is pretty positive.
Regarding the strengths and weaknesses of old brands and so-called emerging brands, and comparing marketing practices, what is your perspective as a newer and cutting-edge brand, and what can other brands learn from you?
One of the reasons why our brand can develop and thrive is our customer-centric values – we are very close to our customers.
For example, 60% of our colleagues are from the community. From being one of our users, they became one of our employees. Since our relationship with users has been very strong, we no longer do customer research through third parties, such as focus groups conducted by research companies, but directly through users. In contrast with traditional methods, the connection between the business and the user is more like one between friends. This is conducive to deeper insights into the needs of consumers.
A negative example is how some companies are superstitious about data and research reports. Sales data and consumer questionnaires reflect only the past but it is difficult to predict the future. These companies only have a macroscopic view of the data but lack micro-understanding of their users and their unmet needs.
I later discovered the best emerging brands that receive commercial favour and media attention are basically doing one thing right – they make excellent products to solve problems that other brands did not care about or did not take seriously in the past.
Can you give an example of the kind of needs that have been solved by NaiTangPai?
Before our company, there were many underwear brands in China, including domestic and overseas enterprises. Although people complained that big cup bras are usually hard to find, the common business approach is: firstly, they think there are not many such consumer types in China and secondly, the former is true because past data shows that sales volume is decreasing when it comes to D, E and F cups.
However, after we communicated with a large number of users, we found that there are a lot of girls in China who need bras with smaller band sizes of 65-70 bottom circumferences but bigger cups. This is a small proportion of the population but they have trouble buying underwear. In the past, they usually had to go overseas to buy them. These consumers feel existing products are uncomfortable but manufacturers did not make better products because, first, they were reluctant, and second, they did not realise the demand.
For example, we have seen a lot of users who are suited to 70G cups and 70H cups but underwear shopping guides will recommend 80C or 80D bras. What you see is data distortion. If you pay attention, you will find that there are very obvious differences.
Michael Zhang, CEO, NaiTangPai
It is also possible that existing manufacturers have discovered this problem but are unwilling to solve it because this will make their products more complicated. The underwear industry, especially for bras, is still based on a mass-production model as a whole. We found that it is indeed necessary to give this group of people a better experience and better products for their different breast shapes.
What unique methods do you use to penetrate the market, do community management and increase user retention? Which public platforms and private domains do you mainly use?
In the early days, we used QQ groups. Now, we will also use WeChat groups.
The original purpose of our groups was to establish product communities.
Everyone comes to the groups to help us develop products. Once the entire development cycle of a product is over and the product is on the market, we may disband the group. This is also just a way to announce real-life events and inform the media to gather. I call these flash groups.
We are not looking at these groups as traffic pools because, frankly speaking, the lifespan of a group is actually only three to six months. Otherwise, if a group exists for a long time, most of them don’t participate in the group anymore and "mute notifications" for the hundreds of chat records they don’t look at.
We think maintaining relationships with users through these groups is a false proposition. What’s better in the longer term is to not disturb them but have them follow our accounts on Xiaohongshu, Zhihu, Weibo Official Accounts, Weitao, WeChat etc.
When they have problems, they can give us feedback through these channels. When the brand is approachable and customers can interact with the brand’s customer service this way, then I think the relationship is longer and healthier.
Are amateurs, in particular, actively involved in your product design and development groups?
Yes, there is a cute, chubby and confident Chinese girl as our model. She is one of our actual users.
In our product designs, for example, we make strapless innerwear/underwear. Instead of adding silica gel to the bands for friction, we employ triangular force equilibrium using the principles of mechanics so it doesn't fall off easily and is stable when worn on the body.
For example, to make bigger breasts appear small, we use the principles of light and shadow. We make the curved surfaces of the bra relatively straighter, reduce the shadowy areas, and make it look more visually aesthetic.
I am curious about the name NaiTangPai. Also, how do you view Chinese versus Western female psychology and concepts of body confidence?
The NaiTangPai name comes from the community. When we first established this company, we didn't actually think of the brand name. We were only clear in our intention to make underwear for “big breasted goddesses”. Later, I asked everyone to brainstorm to see if they could come up with any good names.
Some people suggested Big White Rabbit, as this language represents a subculture of its own. In internet slang, small breasts are called “small white rabbits” and big breasts “big white rabbits”; bras are the “rabbit cages”. However, White Rabbit is a brand of milk candy manufactured by Shanghai Guan Sheng Yuan Food and has been registered, so we couldn’t use that name.
So I said let’s use the “milk candy” reference instead and add a word meaning “group” or “gang”. So NaiTangPai is like “a milk candy alliance” for big-breasted girls to come together to solve difficulties.
Regarding the different lingerie brands in China and the West, what are your views on your competition?
I really agree with what Neiwai did. We think that although we are targeting different female segments, we especially recognise the diverse needs of women.
In fact, in our recent model shoots, both of us conveyed the same message. There were both tall and slim models who are professional models in the traditional sense, but also some that are not tall, and some are chubby, but they all show that when they are together, they are very harmonious and especially beautiful. Everyone is very confident. Although we are not like the United States with all kinds of races, there are also girls who are different among the Chinese, with more yellowish or whiter skin, fatter or thinner, for instance.
Although we are making underwear for girls with big breasts, in fact, we want to show the market that we don’t mean that you must have big breasts. We think girls need to have a correct understanding of their bodies, whether they have big or small breasts. In fact, everyone can be beautiful; the key is to be confident.
On this matter, our attitude is roughly the same as Neiwai’s – a person's self-confidence will make her charming from the inside out.
So we have a good relationship with Neiwai. Many of their product- development staffers have A cups and find it very difficult to make big cup sizes, so they will recommend suitable users to us. We promote each other.
How about European and American underwear brands? Are there any that you admire the most?
Of the European and American brands, we actually like Third Love and Leila. They have also made a lot of attempts at innovation and we have been paying attention to them.
How do you differentiate the brand value and positioning of NaiTangPai?
We believe that the role we play is actually as a friend or companion of a big-breasted Chinese woman in China. Some people say lingerie brands should be the spiritual leaders of women. Maybe I am more honest – we still don’t consider ourselves as leaders. Let’s be a companion first because in the past, many basic needs of women were not met.
Going further, when we solve their most basic problems, when most college girls no longer worry about their underwear problems, our brand positioning may be upgraded, and the role we play may also be different, and the value we provide will be different.
As a newly-established disrupter brand, did you also start from the big cities, or were your resources deployed in lower-tier cities from the beginning?
Since we are mainly selling online currently, we do not specifically target which cities when we are doing nationwide marketing promotions. But when we do offline activities, we will indeed start with the first and second tiers.
As early as 2016, we began to do offline salons with lingerie consultants instructing everyone on how to wear underwear correctly and how to understand chest shapes. Notably, 58% of our users are in first- and second-tier cities.
Will more marketing strategies be introduced in lower-level cities in the future?
We are thinking about this question: what kind of model can be better executed in the future? For example, we may form a system that moves from online to offline. This is because we have never defined ourselves as an e-commerce brand. At present, we are currently testing a brick-and-mortar experience store in Guangzhou. This experience store has been tested for more than a year and adopts an appointment system to accept customers.
Our initial holding pattern may be in first- and second-tier cities, opening such physical experience stores. However, since this model is still being explored, it may be a gradual store-opening process. The plan is to open in a city that has accumulated a certain number of users already. Before that, we will operate offline events and pop-up stores, etc.
You don't regard yourself as an e-commerce brand but in this era, digitalisation is a necessary component of brand marketing. What kind of partnership do you want to maintain with various e-commerce platforms?
In the past, many people would interpret “e-commerce brands” as brands that buy traffic in their respective categories. This is the kind of e-commerce brand that is more in line with the public's perception.
Our approach is different. What we have been doing is spreading through word of mouth. We are in Tmall and most of our store traffic comes from keyword searches.
Are they all underwear or bra keywords?
The main logic is guiding shoppers to buy stuff with certain keywords but at NaiTangPai, although we are also completing transactions on the e-commerce platform, we also use it to cultivate the brand and to establish brand awareness. That is, the consumer finds the brand first, and then sees what she needs. This is what we think is a point of differentiation between ourselves and the others.
Our relationship with platforms such as Tmall is a win-win relationship. We will use their advanced data-based tools. They determine how many customers we can have, and where they come from. In addition, the data will eventually be deposited in Tmall data banks and become Tmall’s data assets, so that merchants can see trends and changes in the AIPL (awareness-interest-purchase-loyalty) user journey.
In this way, we can discover what’s right and what’s wrong with the strategy we are currently adopting. In the past, it was difficult for us to evaluate the efficiency of our decision-making. However, through these data-based tools, we can clearly see which actions worked; if penetration rates and conversion rates have increased; and whether the brand is developing in a good direction.
In another example, the FAST model launched by Tmall to measure brand health is also helpful. It is composed of four parts: total marketable target (Fertility), relationship deepening rate (Advancing), total membership (Superiority), and membership activity rate (Thriving). We can observe indicators like repurchase rates from previous customers.
In addition, we also use the Tmall Strategy Centre, which contains more macro data like market demand. At present, due to the limited scale of our company, it is difficult for us to establish a strong data centre at this stage, so we rely on mature data providers such as Tmall.
Tmall has launched a plan for “rookie brands” that will enhance your capabilities in design, marketing, live broadcasting, etc. Will traffic support also be provided? In terms of your e-commerce budget, is it more weighted on Tmall, or also allocated to platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu?
NaiTangPai was one of the brands selected for Tmall’s Super Rookie Program last year. Its team is really willing to support new brands like ours and provided us with a lot of professional opinions. Yesterday afternoon, we had a meeting to discuss how to change our packaging design, provided to us for free. From their perspective, Tmall also hopes to see brands selling well on the Tmall platform and being an example for others.
In terms of marketing investment, our current ratio is about half each – half on Tmall (like recommendation fees in brand zones) and half on platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu.
Although NaiTangPai started with big cup bras, you has expanded the portfolio to include ordinary bras. What is the relationship between the different products?
First of all, our basic product logic is that we want to be part of the underwear wardrobe of big-breasted girls.
Why did we make the Lazy Series during the pandemic? That's because we wanted to meet demand. We used a French triangle cup without steel rims for the lazy wearer.
Why didn’t we continue the series? It was later discovered that everyone was not home long enough, so we did not develop it.
If we understand our customer as an atypical user, she will be a young Chinese girl with big breasts who has a delicate need for underwear with high standards. What underwear products does she need for her different life stages? We will evolve on this basis.
Before any product development, we talk with consumers to determine whether the products we describe will tempt them. If the girls tell us such a product makes sense to them, if she is excited after hearing it, it means that this product may indeed be what they need.
After it is developed, I will go to them for verification. This is us operating at the micro level.
There are two types of products we have developed. One is an “alternative-solution” type, which means there are some similar products for a certain scenario. They will help us verify whether our new product is better. Is our solution to the problem obvious enough? Is there a more significant way to improve the consumer experience?
The second type of product is: there was no such product before. Does this “brand new product” achieve its expected effect?
At the macro level, as far as trends are concerned, we believe that trends start from people’s needs. Only after that do we combine them, for example, with technology, colours, design elements and fashion dynamics.
This is the difference between ourselves and many underwear apparel companies. I know about many companies that prefer to develop products from the colour and design elements first – from the technical perspective.
Human needs are the most easily overlooked. Even among our designer colleagues, a common problem is that many people do not pay enough attention to other people. For example, they are obsessed with judging a colour’s popularity, the quality of the fabric or the craftsmanship. But we have to ask, how are the products used by consumers?
All in all, our starting point is different from those of our peers.
NaiTangPai’s media strategy has been to go for knowledge-based content marketing. How does this influence your target audience’s decision-making? How do you balance that with sales conversion?
Everyone's time is becoming more and more fragmented. For emerging brands in a competitive environment, I think this is a good opportunity.
In the past, you identify the most important mediums, make a TVC, and you can get a large number of customers. You can’t do it this way anymore.
The biggest difference between a new brand and a big company is that the former doesn't have much money to do this kind of advertising.
We do face some challenges with a customer’s fragmented time and the media landscape. As a new and emerging brand, you need to spend more time and energy to do things to communicate with and influence customers. In our opinion, there are usually two ways. One is shareable content and customer service, and the other is to use quality checks to make better products.
So we make content related to underwear and lingerie and we will make it shorter, more interesting and more frequent, which is very different from two years ago. Two years ago, everyone was still willing to read long articles and watch long videos. Today, these inclinations have been washed away by Douyin’s 15-second videos.
As for anatomical science and popularising such knowledge, I think it will take at least another 10-20 years in China because most Chinese women, including well-informed women, still have very little knowledge of underwear and breast shapes.
Of course, such cognitive impairment is related to education. We can recall that from elementary school to university or even PhD level, there is no formal curriculum to teach consumers about this. Information about human physiology on the internet rarely mentions women’s underwear. Not all breasts are the same, just like people have different face shapes and arm lengths. However, due to domestic media censorship, breast pictures and correct ways of wearing bras are limited.
So this is why your content is more humorous, right? Using males to illustrate sometimes.
Yes, this was forced.
How do you measure the success of your branded content?
This question has actually caused us a lot of pain. When it comes to content, we can't see the ROI directly, so we first look at the interactive section under the piece of content, like comments, to see if people are getting something out of it specifically. In other words, we can judge the attractiveness of the material to readers.
The second dimension is quantitative data – likes, reposts, click-through rates etc. Sometimes we will also observe the changes in store traffic or the increase in followers of our official accounts. This dimension is relatively less intuitive because not all data points are solidly connected.
We discussed this with the people from the Xiaohongshu platform previously. We have always added links to prove the effectiveness of our content. However, tests show that the conversion effect of a piece of content with a shoppable link may be reduced. This is because a linked post quickly makes everyone wary; they think they are looking at an advertisement and therefore question the authenticity of the post.
In short, we still have to start with branding first and not rush to achieve immediate conversion, otherwise it will be counter-productive.
Our methodology is to build an environment that cultivates brand cognition. When it comes to Tmall and Taobao, consumers go there to buy things, so we need to let them quickly find the products they want.
However, outside of Taobao and Tmall, the public is more inclined to obtain information either actively or passively. We only need to help them obtain this information, instead of always thinking about getting the deal.
What do you think of traditional media’s role? In the brand’s mid- or long-term plans, will there be any changes to your media mix?
We may want to participate in TV programs in the future but it will be for mass awareness. Some things like the anatomical science and human physiology content we just talked about is more effective through authoritative media like TV. But the purpose of TV communications is not to directly generate any kind of sales; it’s more for exposure and endorsement.
Maybe when we develop to that stage later, we will consider doing TVCs. Of course, this is a decision to be made at a different development stage of the brand. NaiTangPai is still a relatively small brand, and its sales volume and organisational maturity have not reached that stage yet.
In addition, we will be more cautious about using outdoor media like elevator advertisements in the near term.
In the future, when our brand enters the expansion stage, then spending money on paid media can quickly bring benefits.
What you have been saying is exactly what we have put forward that “building a brand is slow work”. Anything memorable during the difficult process of building the NaiTangPai brand?
In the early days, the biggest difficulties were the lack of resources and public prejudice.
First, it was very difficult for us to find investors. We started the company in 2015 but didn't get the first angel investment until February 2019. And for the last three and a half years, we have been struggling to support ourselves on RMB 1.8 million that we raised on our own.
Since the big-bra market was probably too niche and there was no possibility for the brand to become big, investors were very cautious. Bananain and Neiwai got investments but NaiTangPai did not because of innate factors.
We have gone through this painful process step by step. More than anything, it was our user base who supported us because they felt our sincerity.
But also because of this process, we had a relatively comfortable time to slowly polish the product. If venture capitalists come in, they often want to accelerate our growth rather than let us refine the product. However, that is something that can't be rushed, especially in the case of lingerie, which requires iteration and is very time-consuming. Specifically, a single iteration requires not only the bra structure to be made but also a large number of users to try on and give feedback. After the sale, we have to fix problems that users face after wearing, washing, drying, storing and rubbing with other clothes when worn for a long time.
Why were investors afraid to invest?
Although big-cup bras were available abroad, there was no precedent in China. In China, you can’t find any brands that make H cups or K cups.
Recently, Perfect Diary reported it will lose money in 2020 due to its marketing investment being relatively large. What do you think of their marketing practices?
The practices of Perfect Diary are not necessarily negative. They are actually a process of accelerating growth by shortening the brand’s lifecycle. From zero to several billion, it only took two or three years.
The biggest difference between us and Perfect Diary is that Perfect Diary’s products are not new. Its products are actually made by the factories and suppliers it works with – just with a different packaging, a brand name, a lower price and a more efficient marketing strategy to obtain customers faster.
They are not doing product innovation; they may just be doing “product packaging innovation” and “marketing concept innovation”.
Although Perfect Diary is seeing corporate losses, they have achieved very good results in terms of valuations. The parent company has also received a lot of funding from the capital markets, so it can acquire other brands if it likes. The key point is whether they can really do a good job with the acquired brands and optimise their products. Their underlying logic is to do reputation first but they also have to prove that a product can be worthy of its name. With that foundation, the brand can then increase its popularity.
One advantage that emerging brands have is that their organisational structure is more flexible and they can make decisions more quickly and invest more easily in a new strategy. Do you think this has positive impact on your business and scale?
Indeed, our company is small and therefore more flexible. During the pandemic last year, more than half of our colleagues worked remotely and we completely opened up remote recruitment. In fact, our adjustments to our business have never stopped. Basically, we will make adjustments once or twice a year.
We are also learning from large companies such as Huawei, specifically its organisational models and business processes. We also adopt a project management system that is similar to Alibaba’s. Specifically, our product manager strings together research and development, supply chain, marketing and customer service colleagues to complete a project.
How do you choose a good mix of people from different generations to ensure the healthy growth and development of the brand?
Contrary to what everyone thinks, our company doesn’t consist of only young people.
For positions in the supply chain and more technical fields like research and development, we will select older colleagues, namely those born in the ‘80s and even the ‘70s because they have sufficient industry experience. Positions that include managing new media are the world of younger colleagues who are post-90s and even post-00s interns.
Colleagues of different ages learn from each other's strengths. The older ones are more stable and more experienced. Young people will have a stronger sense of innovation and are more optimistic about the future.
For example, our younger colleagues think that it is too slow to set a goal of achieving RMB 10 billion in 10 years. They tell me we have to reach the goal faster (laughs). By contrast, employees born in the ‘70s and ‘80s think that even the better companies in the lingerie sector have only achieved a scale of two to three billion. They think the underwear industry is “desolate”.
However, China has a large population base. There are 450-460 million women between the ages of 16 and 59, and the ratio of women needing big bra cups will continue to increase (from the current 20%). The future customer base in China may exceed 100 million. From this perspective, RMB 10 billion is actually not that big a deal.
Do you have any advice for potential founders of new brands in the future?
At the beginning, a new brand may be born after someone finds opportunities in a category with unmet consumer needs. But in fact, this is just the starting point. At the end of the day, all enterprises will come back to the problem of business operation and management.
In my case, in order to master these skills, I constantly study and balance that with my work. I've been taking classes for the past two years to learn about positioning strategy, process-based organisations, corporate culture and other courses, from finance and HR, to marketing management. There is no way to thrive without these because a business cannot develop just on enthusiasm without the mastery of management.
New brands also need to have a sense of responsibility. Some companies want to try out business opportunities, earn a lot of money and exit. We are not the same. We see market growth as a milestone in the future rather than the means to an end point. What we want is a brand that will be loved by our users.
For my part, I hope I can be an entrepreneur, not a businessman. There is a difference between an entrepreneur and a businessman – both have to make money but an entrepreneur must have social responsibility. This is my personal opinion. I don't agree with short-sighted behaviour to realise your financial freedom and have the last laugh.
Actually, many of the apparel companies in China are getting more and more scattered and unfocused. There are only a few that are really strong. To survive, it still depends on entrepreneurial spirit and social responsibility.