The Social Luxury Boom in China

Why have luxury brands LV and Gucci continued to have strong growth in China while other competitors like Prada have fallen behind? Understanding and engaging with relevant luxury trends and fresh branding strategies are essential for China success. 

As brand builders, we are often asked by clients, “How can I build a luxury brand with strong market share growth?” To which, we always first ask them to define what “luxury” means for them. Responses to this question range from heritage, product quality to exclusivity and top-pricing as being key factors. Though individually none of these factors are incorrect, it can be difficult to outline the precise mix of qualities needed to create a luxury brand for the Chinese market.

Through our discussions and research, we came up with our own definition of a luxury brand:

A luxury brand is characterized by the high level of physical and emotional relationships that the brand and its products establish with consumers. A luxury brand tells compelling and desirable stories that provide consumers with user journeys that enable superior pricing.

Based in Beijing, our research and experiences have shown how Chinese consumers are focused and social throughout their purchase journeys. They spend on average 3-5 hours per week researching luxury trends and topics. In Europe and the States, there is an average of four consumer touchpoints before a purchase is made, while in China, there are eight, which further highlights the considered and thoughtful nature of Chinese consumers.

WARNING: RELEVANCE IS KEY
It’s better for luxury brands to target key channels than being omnipresent on every digital channel. China has an evergrowing number of digital platforms and a smart brand needs to understand how each can directly benefit its marketing and sales performance. Brands that create social content that stirs feelings of individuality, freshness and fosters a sense of community are more successful in driving consumers to their channels and keeping them there.

Off-White Drives Streetwear Growth | SOURCE: JINGDAILY

Luxury fashion knows the impact of engaging social content. They recognize how creating an illusion of freshness through the introduction (or recycling) of “new” products can appeal to post 80s and post 90s generations’ sense of individuality and desire for self-expression. They also have tapped successfully into the imagination of consumers and understood how an association with luxury brands acts as a form of social capital that helps consumers feel part of a distinct and exclusive community.

Fashion powerhouses such as LV and Gucci posted record 2018 results in China. Gucci sales increased by over 30% while LV increased by almost 20%. In both cases, their successful, localized marketing campaigns and the continued growth of the China luxury market were critical factors. Prada meanwhile, has seen its earnings tumble for the last four years and its operating profit declined 10% to 328 million euros in 2018. A major factor has been their poor marketing campaigns (especially their recent Chinese New Year Campaign which was viewed as too funereal) which have failed to engage with Chinese consumers and has led to a weakening of their brand image. This has resulted in lower engagement rates on WeChat in comparison to LV and Gucci.

Gucci 2019 CNY Campaign Success | SOURCE: GUCCI

Building from these case studies and observations, if one were to start a luxury brand in China today, what are the key factors that can demonstrate brand excellence and create differentiation from competitors.

1) Freshness Reigns Supreme
Consumers born during or after the 80s make up more than 70% of the total number of luxury Chinese consumers and their total spending. To attract them, your brand has to feel relevant, fresh and in tune with their needs. Many brands may take this to mean they have to offer a steady stream of new products and designs but this doesn’t have to be the case.

Burberry, for instance, has been more active in the past year in releasing products and promoting a more street style aesthetic to match Chinese consumers’ burgeoning appetite for streetwear. Chanel, in contrast, keeps its designs chic and doesn’t feel the need to constantly overproduce new products. They are now worth over 10$ billion for the first time in their history and saw significant sales revenue growth coming from China.

To quickly summarize, it seems that staying fresh means ensuring your brand resonates more closely with the lifestyle choices of its consumers than with just creating another brand collaboration or an endless number of new product lines.

CHANEL CHIC | SOURCE: JINGDAILY

2) Be Part of My Community
Your brand should be a desirable club that people want to be part of. Exclusivity can be one way to appeal to consumers. More effective though, is providing a holistic brand experience that inspires engaging user-generated content. This will help your brand build a strong community of brand heroes who will champion your products. It will also help you create differentiation from competitors.

3) Confident Design
Confident design attracts your target market and makes them feel comfortable in choosing your brand. Great design sparks a conversation that helps strengthen emotional relationships with customers. As a creative agency that has created hundreds of logos and key visuals for clients, our number one piece of advice is to make sure that you develop a visual identity that is firmly rooted in your products, philosophy and overall brand identity. The renowned art director Paul Rand put it that “Design is the silent ambassador of your brand” but in today’s fast-consuming digital age, perhaps design should take a more prominent role.

4) Entice with a Promise
Consumers want to be taken on a journey. They want to believe that your brand is the best. They want to feel inspired. A key factor in engaging with prospective consumers is the promise your brand makes. A strong brand promise touches every aspect of your business and communicates your brand’s values and vision to your target market. If it’s based on their lifestyles and aspirations then it can be even more effective in creating a long-lasting bond that will drive brand profitability and market share.

5) Service Excellence
A seamless user experience from offline to online that matches but ideally exceeds consumers’ purchase experiences, is vital for success in China. Brands may be moving more and more of their marketing budget towards digital but offline is still the predominant discovery touchpoint and point of sale for wealthy consumers.

In China, new retail is taking off and the line between offline and online continues to blur. It would be wise for brands to jump on board and reimagine their in-store experience to include more digital capabilities that can offer customers a sense of personalisation. If customers feel they are being paid individual attention through relevant digital and offline channels, then your brand can occupy a more prominent position in their hearts and minds.

The co-founder of Jimmy Choo, Tamara Mellon, once said that it takes up to 30 years to build a luxury brand. In China’s fast-growing market though, consumers are increasingly drawn towards confident new brands that offer them a strong sense of individuality. Brands like Yeezy and Off-White, with the help of Chinese luxury consumers, have created luxury brands in less than 10 years, proving Ms. Mellon’s theory to be out of date. Brand values and heritage will always be important factors but if brands fail to transpose and localize their brand philosophy within the context of modern Chinese consumers, then there is every chance that a bold new brand can sweep in and be a success. This makes it as exciting a time as ever for the development of luxury in China and we at PBB can’t wait to work with more newcomers and established luxury brands in China.

SHANGHAI FASHION WEEK STREET STYLE 2018 | SOURCE: ADAM KATZ SINDING

SOURCES:

GUCCI WECHAT

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/FlMYvwCqhXX_bOR9TLr0hA

LOUIS VUITTON WECHAT

https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/SyLz1riDTzewf9mCFrhgzQ

KERING GROUP PROFITS

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/strength-china-higher-gucci-sales-065818641.html

LVMH FINANCIAL REPORT 2018

https://www.lvmh.com/news-documents/press-releases/record-results-for-lvmh-in-2018/

McKINSEY CHINA LUXURY REPORT 2019

https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/china/how%20young%20chinese%20consumers%20are%20reshaping%20global%20luxury/mckinsey-china-luxury-report-2019-how-young-chinese-consumers-are-reshaping-global-luxury.ashx

BURBERRY NEW PRODUCT LAUNCHES

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-burberry-products/burberry-joins-luxury-sectors-race-to-refresh-products-monthly-idUSKCN1MP24E

CHANEL FINANCIAL INFORMATION 2018

Chanel reveals that it’s a US$10 billion company for the first time in history

PRADA REPORT

Prada Becomes the Latest Victim of Declining Chinese Tourist Shopping

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Red Pill or Blue Pill

Fantasy or Reality: Are brands telling the truth?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a digital charter to fight extremism and misinformation on social media. He believes that social media and tech companies have “failed their users”. If politicians, government officials, journalists, social media influencers and even our close family and friends benefit from extremism and misinformation who is responsible for defining what is truth and punishing others for abusing our trust?

As journalists and newspapers publish more and more information over social media and apps they tend to be rewarded for more sensational and less factual reporting. The definition of misinformation and related penalties are often left in a grey zone. How can we expect content creators, whether they are individuals, organizations, brands or agencies, to adhere to new framework that hope to eliminate fake news and distortions to reality?

Fake News – Source: Unsplash

PBB is a Beijing based cross-border branding and design agency serving both international and Chinese clients. We work with different versions of the truth on a daily basis. Each of our clients has unique methods for determining and presenting truth and our staff comes from several different countries and across China reflecting divergent local ways of listening to and accepting the truth. Without trust and a group desire to do and understand the right thing, we would have little chance for success.

“Truth as a cultural concept knows many different interpretations such as ‘truth is a lie repeated long enough’, ‘truth is just an illusion’ or the downright cynical ‘truth doesn’t exist’.” – Dr. Martina Olbertova

2018 marked a turning point in the public’s mistrust for foreign social media. In China, this mistrust of traditional news source, combined to the spreading of fake products and brands has already been influencing the way branding and communications is done. As this trend grows, brand managers are facing difficult choices.

“Consumers are experiencing a crisis of faith. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, today only 52 percent of global respondents trust businesses.”

Internet Transparency – Source: Unsplash

At PBB, our brand strategy always aims to start with the product and services and find existing elements and features which can be used as brand assets to connect both emotionally and logically with the target audience, while creating differentiation from the competition.

Before developing an effective brand strategy, slogan or campaigns, we try to sit with our clients to really understand the truth of their products and service values. As we are not technical experts in some of the categories we work in, we are often faced with the dilemma of knowing what is actually true or not. Is there a real science behind the fact that this product makes your skin better? Does this product really help your digestion? Is this really better quality?

Fake Medication – Source: Adweek

While critical thinking is an important feature of any competent agency, our ultimate role is to help brands improve their images and to sell more. In a dynamic of mistrust, the challenge is not really about delivering the truth, but rather about delivering authenticity and telling compelling stories. As Branding is often a fusion of fantasy and reality, brand authenticity is vulnerable to criticism. Just like brands, most of the truths humans live for are a fusion of reality in compelling narratives. Beauty, Health, Success, Relationships are all good examples of concepts in which we may build our own truth based on the imagined world we hope to live in.

Brand Fantasy: If nothing is true, everything is true. (If nothing is real, everything is real.)

Red Bull Campaign – Source: Deviant Art

Many brands are able to achieve success by focusing exclusively on aspirations, dreams and emotional benefits. Research shows that consumers don’t trust advertising and brands, governments and politicians, friends an family. If you distrust most people most of the time how to you choose brands? People tend to pick the most confident and focused brands. Ignoring reality and focusing on fun and adventure has proven to be rather successful for some brands including Red Bull, Mini, Fila and Absolut.

The sales of brands like Nike, which have built a fantasy around values like courage and performance instead of talking about shoes and materials, prove that humans are still very emotional when it comes to purchasing products they wear and sports they follow. Other new brands like Kylie Cosmetics and Tarte have been widely successful by inventing and promoting new fantasy driven standards of fast beauty rather than focusing on product benefits. In China, watch brands like Rolex and Panerai continue to be successful using unrealistic and extravagant images of success and aspirational lifestyles.

Brand Reality: You want the truth? Let us create one for you.

Calsberg Ad | Source: Calsberg Pilsner

Inventing super real benefits that are not based on actual consumers needs has enabled big successes for premium and luxury brands. Carlsberg recently launched a new digital campaign claiming that it was “Probably not the best beer in the world”, using a light and apologetic tone to acknowledge that the company could do better and would do better. In crowded categories with fantasy such as beer, the ad has received a wide coverage and mostly positive feedback from consumers in Europe. In China, Niu has grown very successfully by releasing quality electric bicycles and products while keeping their branding and communication very entertaining and adding humour to consumer needs. Another more traditional Baijiu brand like HongXin 红星 have maintained their successful in a declining industry by romanticizing and celebrating the conservative and traditional lifestyles of their aging customers.

As new regulations and market controls are being implemented, it will be interesting to see how brands will position themselves against the demand for regulated and policed truth. While there are already existing laws that force advertising to stay close to facts, should we expect regulators and consumers to become even more critical towards brands who play with the truth and embrace fantasy? Will consumers become more critical or will they prefer to focus on entertainment value?

Headline: Consistency is key to authenticity

As an agency, our role is to understand and analyze the aspirations, dreams, fears and pushbacks from both regulators and consumers and help our client position their product. It does appear to us that in the eyes of consumers, truth has more to do with consistency than with reality. “Consistency is key to authenticity. In today’s fragmented media environment, brand messaging often varies from source to source.” – Peter Minnium, President Ipsos

Whether a brand message is more geared towards fantasy or reality seems like have little impact on its authenticity. But if a brand is unclear about what it is and what it stands for, it risks creating a trust issue, especially in this era of skepticism. Ironically, this happened to Trudeau himself a few months ago, when his values of integration and diversity were compromised as he and his family dressed up using stereotypical Indian costumes.

Hence, it appears true to say that a “Truth is a lie repeated long enough’ and/or “Truth is a salty snack we prefer to eat than a healthy meal of Truth.”

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The Power of “Fast Beauty”   

Beauty and Beauty Standards have become more important for brands and marketing programs due to the increased use of smartphones and social media. Smartphones screens and social media apps allow users to quickly and easily identify, like and share photos and videos of “beautiful people”. Giving and receiving beauty likes and positive comments has proven to be highly desirable and addictive for users especially self image obsessed 12 – 24 year olds. There are over 310 million photos with the hashtag #beauty on Instagram.

Social media algorithms and photo editing apps allow Beauty Standards to be instantly focused so that consumers can quickly react positively to beauty influencers and familiar photo formats. Beautiful faces and attractive bodies have gained in popularity compared to more complicated artistic and cultural images.  Brands that learn how to integrate “Fast Beauty” Creative Directions and “Swipe Friendly” User Interfaces across their consumer touch points will significantly increase engagement and revenues.

Kylie Cosmetic – Fast Beauty Product Leader

Who is leading Fast Beauty and the creation of Fast Beauty Standards? In a word KYLIE.  Kylie Jenner built the superlative Fast Beauty Brand “Kylie Cosmetics”, now worth over US$1 billion, between the ages of 19 and 21. Kylie Cosmetics generated US$ 420 million in digital direct to consumer sales within 18 months. To put that into perspective, it took Tom Ford Beauty a decade to hit the $500 million revenue mark. In addition Kylie has been providing her Fast Beauty Genius to numerous other brands via partnerships including OPI, Puma, Balmain, Beats, Top Shop, Sinful Colors, E! and Quay.

Pitu – A super fun Chinese picture editing app from Tencent

What are the key visual elements of Kylie Beauty?

  • Big eyes looking directly at the camera with a calm confidence.
  • Long thick black eye lashes curled dramatically upwards.
  • Long thick arched eyebrows creating a slight questioning effect.
  • Heavy layers of makeup with a tan, brown and cream pallet that highlight cheekbones and elongated facial features.
  • Long glossy black hair.
  • Highlighted or exposed décolleté with consistent skin tones.

 

Kylie Jenner – Consistent and clear fast beauty standards

Kylie’s glowing cosmetic looks are now worn by tens of millions of women every day from Singapore to Los Angeles including most top social media influencers regardless of race, religion or sexual preference. Kylie products create a polished and unifying mask that can be applied to augment or cover up facial features helping women to feel more confident and protected.

Refined and sophisticated Beauty Standards and exclusive beauty products with delicately constructed brands have been replaced by simple, bold and inclusive messaging. Building on the success of “Fast Fashion” and the rise of Social Media Commerce, “Fast Beauty” has become a global obsession. “Fast Beauty” is a critical element of social media traffic generation and countless highly profitable digital beauty business models including MAC, Fenty Beauty, Colour Pop and Glossier. “Fast Beauty” brands are now partners with and being acquired by large classic beauty players and their methodologies integrated across product ranges and brands including Tarte, NYX, Urban Decay and Birchbox.

Kylie and sister Kim Kardashian – Social media queens

“If you can’t see anything beautiful in yourself, find a better Mirror.” Kylie Jenner

Social Media is defining global Beauty Standards. Like most things Social Media defines it is doing it faster, simpler and with more consistency than ever before. With the help of increasingly powerful influencers, “Fast Beauty” brands create “on-trend products” that are produced and launched quickly, with the help of agile supply chains, constant digital marketing feedback and user generated content. Selfies, short videos, bold text, likes, follows, shares, comments and KOLs now establish what is Beauty and enable Fast Beauty Products to drive cosmetic industry sales. Traditional Beauty Media and Beauty Institutions including fashion magazines, beauty pageants, beauty products and beauty counters have been forced to adapt to social media and fast beauty trends.

The disruptive, constantly interactive and always on nature of smartphones is perfect for promoting and selling “Fast Beauty” content and products. New Fast Beauty Standards have been made easy to identify, wear, share and celebrate by leading cosmetic, fashion and media brands including e.l.f., FashionNova, Gucci, TikTok, WeChat and Instagram.

RuPaul

“Fast beauty brands are accelerating production cycles and thereby challenging the bigger and more established brands through this agility and speed,” Research Expert Alexandra Rastall, Kantar Millward Brown.

The Fast Beauty trend in cosmetics and media has become big business in Asia, driven first by the rise of Korean KPOP Beauty and then a craze for all things Japanese. The trend has been for young Chinese to skip reserved and classic beauty products and go straight to extreme eye shadow palettes and heavy foundations allowing for a Fast Beauty Transformation. “People are comparing their appearance to people in Instagram images, or whatever platform they’re on, and they often judge themselves to be worse off,” says Jasmine Fardouly, a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The insecurities and self image doubts created by social media are quickly and effectively addressed by Fast Beauty products and videos. Fast Beauty models and products are much more down to earth, practical and easy to understand than classic beauty super models and products and solidifies their success.

Smartphones and Apps have become essential for Fast Beauty helping consumers quickly receive, give and share emotional rewards and how to videos. One of the most popular and effective digital rewards is the recognition and affirmation of “Beauty”.  Over 580 million people have used the hashtag #beautiful and 507 million #cute on Instagram and liking a portrait of a person immediately establishes their beauty. Simple positive comments and emojis signifying a persons beauty are commonly used across social media demographics, psychographics and geographies.

Orbis Research estimates that the Global beauty industry will reach over US$ 800 Billion by 2023. The lipstick index seems to be at work here. This is the phenomenon where, when times look tough, women turn to make-up as an affordable treat while they cut back on other purchases. When the digital world becomes too confusing people turn to fast confirmations of their external and internal beauty.

Fast Beauty requires that marketing managers use Slow Brand Strategy Methods. Due to the rapid changes in beauty and fashion products, messaging, pricing and distribution channels consumer brands need to be more focused and carefully designed. If brands want to be recognised and build value in this emotional and fast moving environment they need to establish consistent and clear brand identities based on emotionally relevant big ideas and engaging key visuals. Fragmented social media experiences and distracted consumers prefer simple and clear brands. Consistent Brand Strategy is essential in today’s Fast Beauty World.

Elf Cosmetics – Direct to consumer cosmetic hero brand.

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