Sanctions are out, French cosmetics are in: Companies hope to profit in Iran
An Iranian woman checks make up at a cosmetics shop in northern Tehran. (AFP/Atta Kenare)
Published Sunday, January 31, 2016 12:08PM EST
(Paris) - Pucker up, get your brushes and line your eyes -- sanctions on Iran are out, and cosmetics from France are in.
Or at least, that's what some of France's biggest, best-known cosmetic brands are hoping, with a huge market opening up as Iran comes in from the cold after a landmark nuclear deal.
While cosmetics weren't barred from entering the Islamic republic under the sanctions regime, restrictions on banking transactions made it hard to do business there.
For several months however, as anticipation mounted around a November nuclear agreement, "we were approached more and more by people" who were keen to break into the Iranian market, said Virginie d'Enfert, economic affairs director at the French Federation of Beauty Companies (FEDEA).
"'Made in France' gives (brands) a real competitive edge" in Iran, she said, adding that cosmetics companies nonetheless have a lot of work to do to win over the country.
In 2014, German company Beiersdorf and Dutch Unilever dominated in Iran, according to London-based market research company Euromonitor.
Other foreign cosmetics brands, mainly from the United States and South Korea, are also vying for space on Iranian shelves, she added.
Second-biggest cosmetics market
French giant L'Oreal -- which owns luxury brands Lancome and Yves Saint Lauren Beauty -- came seventh place in Iran, overshadowed in the rankings by local brands and Procter and Gamble from the United States.
L'Oreal's CEO Jean-Paul Agon isn't discouraged, as he opts for a slowly-but-surely seduction strategy.
"Things are going to be done progressively" in Iran, he said.
"But it's a country where, in the future, things might get interesting."
Despite years of sanctions and a conservative Islamic regime, Iran's cosmetics market is still the second-biggest in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, grossing some $3.5 billion in 2014 -- and that's without counting perfumes.
Now, as Iran opens up to the world economy, that figure is expected to triple by 2019, Euromonitor says.
The nuclear deal comes at a time when Iranian women, who are still required to wear at least a loose headscarf, are forcing a gradual change in the dress code.
Many women, particularly in the cities, wear stylish and colourful coats and headscarves and often trousers instead of the traditional one-piece, head-to-toe black chador.
"Facial appearance is very important for women in Iran, because that's the only part of the body that can be seen when they go out wearing the veil," said Sahar Jamali, director of Aria Chic, an Iranian distributor of foreign perfumes, make-up and cosmetics.
'Win their hearts'
"All these big, international cosmetics groups are watching the Iranian market very closely," she said at a Paris meeting Wednesday of Iranian distributors organised by the newly-founded France-Iran Business Club.
Representatives of LVMH-owned Sephora, which operates hundreds of popular cosmetics stores worldwide, "came to Iran several times, where the company is thinking of setting up shop, but nothing has yet been done," she said.
Contacted by AFP, LVMH declined to comment.
Iran may also offer interesting opportunities for French small and medium-size enterprises.
For several years, a specialised skin-care laboratory called Bailly-Creat has been selling its products in pharmacies through two local distributors.
"We make 750,000 euros in Iran, that's 30 per cent of our cosmetics sales," Stephan Bisson, Bailly-Creat's cosmetics director, told AFP.
Still, as with any makeover, time and patience are essential.
It takes cosmetic products some four to eight months to be approved by the Iranian health ministry, FABEA's d'Enfert said.
"Your choice of an exclusive local partner is key because that's who'll be taking charge of developing your brand in Iran," she said.
Learning culturally-sensitive etiquette also plays a role, says Zahra Azmoudeh-Giacomini, founder of the France-Iran Business Club and president of Cosmopolistan agency, which seeks to help French companies work in Iran.
"Iranians are very sentimental," she said.
Before talking about business, "you first need to win their hearts."