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A billion downloads has Chinese selfie app maker Meitu looking good – but will its idea of beauty translate globally?

The selfie, as we all know, is an art form. The light. The tilt of the chin. Not that you’re trying.

But at the Chinese headquarters of Meitu, the maker of some of the world’s most popular beauty apps, the selfie is also science.

Here in the company’s sparse offices, tables of 20-somethings are using facial recognition and 3D modelling to build a suite of apps that, quite literally, transform.

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Their eye-widening, skin-lightening, chin-narrowing photo apps and “beautifying” video platform are ubiquitous on the mainland, downloaded a billion times in total, according to the company. They are known by fans as zipai shenqi, or “godly tools for selfies”.

The company has hundreds of millions of monthly users, a value estimated in the billions of dollars, and plans for global expansion. If you haven’t heard of Meitu yet, you will.

The extraordinary popularity of Meitu says much about today’s China. While it’s true that the web in China is tightly controlled and painfully slow, Chinese tech firms are flourishing nonetheless, building products that capitalise on the spending power of a billion-plus consumers.

In 2015, four of the world’s top 10 internet companies ranked by market capitalisation were Chinese, according to the data website Statista. The country is now the world leader in e-commerce, with ordinary Chinese using their phones to invest, buy groceries or pay for street food.

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To compete, businesses in the West need to understand the forces shaping China’s digital culture and commerce. Understanding Meitu helps.

The company behind some of the world’s biggest beauty apps started out as something much humbler.

When Cai Wensheng and Wu Xinhong founded the company in 2008, “selfie” had yet to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary (that happened in 2013), and Meitu was a desktop photo processor inspired by Google’s Picasa.

Bei Gou, a former portrait photographer who is now Meitu’s senior vice-president for product, says the goal was to bring simple photo editing to China.

The team soon realised that many users seemed focused on one type of editing: fixing their faces. Meitu adjusted accordingly, creating the one- or two-touch “beautifying” options that became its signature. “We recognised a good concept and optimised it,” Bei says.

Their timing was excellent. In the past five years, China’s internet population has soared. There are now more than 700 million Chinese web users, about 20 per cent of the world’s internet users.

China’s online population exceeds 700 million, with more than one in two using Web

That growth is partly explained by the rapid rise of affordable smartphones. Many of the people going online are doing so on mobile. And with each new mobile customer comes the potential for taking and sharing a pouting selfie.

The focus on beauty and self-expression resonates in particular with Chinese women, who are a rising consumer force. A 2012 Boston Consulting Group report estimated that female earnings on the mainland will grow from US$350 billion in 2000 to US$4 trillion in 2020.

“Meitu sits at the intersection of two exploding forces: Chinese mobile use and rising Chinese women,” says Jeffrey Towson, a professor of investment at Peking University in Beijing.

“I don’t know if they saw that coming, but they went with it.”

Meitu’s users “went with it”, too, sharing billions of selfies on their social and online dating accounts. The most devoted users, like Apple fanboys, form groups to share news and arrange offline meetups.

Zhu Tingting, a 24-year-old college student from Nanjing, is among the fans who regularly attend Meitu events. She says, without irony, that Meitu changed her life. She spends about two hours a day taking selfies.

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“Nowadays, when girls go out, it just means finding a place to take pictures and post them on social media,” she says.

Though you’d think that an app designed to “beautify” your face might inspire feelings of inadequacy, superfans insist it gives them confidence, providing an escape from real-world pressures.

Wang Bei, a 33-year-old civil servant from Hebei province, says she appreciates the compliments she gets when she posts “beautified” selfies: “I wish I could live in the world of my Meitu phone forever.”

The company’s tools include MeituPic, a one-touch beauty app that put Meitu on the map; Meipai, a video platform with flattering filters; and a line of souped-up cellphones with twin 21-megapixel cameras optimised for – you guessed it – selfies.

The challenge for Meitu is how to spin the selfie craze into cash. The company’s revenue comes mostly from in-app advertising and its line of cellphones – a real but modest revenue stream.

Investors are impressed by the size and spending potential of Meitu’s young, female user base. What they have to do now, analysts say, is to lock in those users by creating a sense of community and new ways for them to spend.

“I’m still looking for a strong business model for Meitu,” says Terry Zhu, a partner at BlueRun, a Beijing-based venture capital firm.

The company’s plan so far seems to lean toward “digital try-on”, which lets users upload selfies and experiment with different looks. It wants to develop what it calls a “beauty ecosystem”, where brands and shopping are part of the experience.

Meitu is expanding aggressively. Outside mainland China, it now has offices in Santa Monica and Palo Alto, California, and people on the ground in London, Mexico City, Tokyo, New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Sao Paulo.

But there is one important question facing the company as it tries to grow: whether the Meitu conception of beauty will resonate elsewhere.

The app spread quickly in South-east Asia, but the challenge of “localisation” may be harder in the US, a potential market but where the idea of one-touch beauty – particularly skin lightening, Meitu’s signature feature – may seem both offensive and out of date.

Last year, in a feature titled “Women Photoshop themselves with an Asian beauty app”, BuzzFeed filmed a multi-ethnic group of American women experimenting with Meitu’s “BeautyPlus” app.

“Wait, there’s a filter called ‘whitening’?” asks one.

“Oh, gosh, I look really white,” says another. “It definitely just stripped my brownness away.”

Asked to comment on skin lightening, Meitu emphasises its push to “localise” its offerings.

“It’s fascinating to see how a woman’s definition of beauty changes from one market to the next,” the company said in a statement.

Tech analysts say Meitu can become a global brand even without success in the US. The sheer size of China’s domestic market means the web’s centre of gravity is shifting east.

“Companies like this will go global, but it all circles back to their Chinese users in some form,” says Towson, the Peking University investment professor. “If you are the biggest beauty ecosystem in China, you are the biggest in the world.”

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