China is a leading luxury market: it accounted for over half the global growth of luxury spending between 2012-18 (McKinsey & Co.). It’s a major player in the fashion industry, yet even the most esteemed houses equipped with highly educated teams are continuing to misrepresent Chinese culture.
Recently, Givenchy, Versace and Coach came under fire for each releasing t-shirts detailing that Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were independent of China. Among others, recent offences also include Dolce and Gabbana’s 2018 commercial picturing a Chinese model eating spaghetti with chopsticks and then there was Bvlgari relating the 2019 Chinese new year of the pig to the word ‘Jew’ which subsequently offended the religion.
Among the increasing list of labels seriously damaging their brand image by disrespecting China, on the contrary there are some succeeding well. Mark Tanner, managing director of the China Skinny, one of the world’s leading China marketing experts specifically highlights Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton as leading luxury names getting it right.
European heritage labels are most popular in China, but why then are some of them failing miserably when marketing to its culture? Tanner suggests that these vast misjudgements are a result of teams not having senior Chinese experts who are able to ensure initiatives inside and outside of China are sensitive to local nuances.
“China’s size and potential is what the world has never seen before, so we are seeing many consumer goods companies opening Global R&D or innovation centres in China. ”
In the grand scheme of global fashion markets, China is new to the game. Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reports that less than 50 percent of post-1970s Chinese consumers bought their first ever designer piece less than three years ago, which could explain why brands are finding it difficult to identify with Chinese consumers.
Vincent Djen, co-founder of Fashionex, a start-up helping emerging Chinese labels enter the local market, explains to ORDRE that in addition to its newness, China’s spending power is unlike any other market: “China’s size and potential is what the world has never seen before, so we are seeing many consumer goods companies opening Global R&D or innovation centres in China. This involvement is key to avoid misrepresentation and build a foundation for future success there.”
Integrating with China is crucial, especially in our hyper-connected society as the world sees every slip up made and if not, someone shares it with them. Brands get boycotted by ‘netizens’ on Chinese social media sites like Weibo and Wechat for misrepresentation, and as Chinese Gen Z are a rising consumer, these platforms have become a central source of sales for luxury brands in the country.
Whether a product of China’s now defunct one-child-policy, or the country’s huge economic growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, Chinese Gen Z are reported to be spending over $7000 a year on luxury fashion before they reach their 21st birthday. As Tanner states, “luxury house’s success in China is due to a “focus on digital and digital integration for the high portion of luxury sales made up by millennials and Generation Z.”
Flash sales are proving a successful way in which brands are targeting China’s Gen Z on social media, combining the generation’s digital savviness and yearning for exclusivity. An exemplary instance of this was in September 2018, when Burberry - on global research and advisory firm Gartner’s top 10 luxury brands in China list - held a flash sale on WeChat illustrating its new streetwear shift under Riccardo Tisci. The sale was really successful among Chinese hypebeast consumers with almost half of the items sold out by the end of the 24 hour event.
Aside from directly targeting the drastically growing young consumer market in China, celebrating Chinese national holidays is another money move that international brands are tapping into, but cultural sensitivity is vital. Gucci’s pig-themed Chinese new year campaign, “The Gucci Pig Family” released on the 10th January 2019, was described by Vogue Business as ‘seamlessly executed,’ with articles on WeChat, stickers, wallpapers and a selfie filter, even expanding to TikTok, and featuring Chinese idols like Lu Han, actress Nin and Wang Junkai. Whereas, Burberry’s campaign for the Year of the Pig failed dramatically and was labelled creepy and haunting across Weibo and Wechat.
As a culture that has often been misappropriated in fashion, representing China today must be a thorough and educated pursuit. Tanner explains that the successful brands “have invested understanding in Chinese consumers and their fast evolving profiles, and don’t underestimate or insult their sophistication”. Rather than offering a westernised or generalised version, successful marketing reflects China so it naturally relates to Chinese consumers with sincere authenticity.