What are the new challenges for luxury brands in China?

By September 24, 2018 blog, in the media No Comments

Interview of Laurence Lim Dally, Managing Director of Cherry Blossoms Market Research & Consulting, on September 20th 2018 by CPP- The Business of Luxury. Laurence talked about the new challenges of luxury brands in China: the representation of gender, the use of KOL and brand ambassadors, the “voice” of luxury brands on social media and the resonance of their communication with Millennials’ values.

How do you think luxury is perceived at a global level as opposed to how it is perceived in China?

Luxury is undergoing a tremendous revolution at a global level. Traditional, statutory, ostentatious, luxury used to reflect an inaccessible world and relied on distant communication drivers. This concept of luxury is less relevant to the new generation of consumers. Especially in China, where, the “casual” trend, led by the popularity of street style continues to grow.

The modern luxury that appeals to Chinese Millennials has now to be connected to and inspired by the real world, and aim to resonate emotionally with individuals’ existential and moral values.

What do you think is the ideal way for luxury brands to express their identity and how to differentiate themselves in China?

Luxury brands can find it challenging to identify emotional drivers likely to also express their identity and difference. They often express a “global” identity which can be too abstract and remote for individuals to relate to. Or they localize too much, which dilutes their identity and lowers their exclusive status.

The choice of Chinese celebrity actress Angelababy, the “Kim Kardashian” of China as brand ambassador for Dior last year is a good example of excessive localization. Chinese netizens themselves strongly criticized this choice, depiste Angelababy’s high popularity, as they found her, lack education, sophistication and questionable acting skills, dissonant with the glamour and elegance associated to the Maison. Dior had gone too far in the “casualization” process.

How should luxury brands devise their strategies when it comes to targeting genders?

Gender representation is a major challenge for luxury brands, and has evolved tremendously in recent years.

Aspirational women in China are now multifaceted women – embodying personal and professional success, and fulfilled with their lives. In Chinese culture, beauty still matters, and standards of perfection – notably regarding skin – remain of more importance than in the West. But in advertisement, more representations of women are about empowerment, women who are: in control, driven, independent, with no man in the picture. Their physical appearance expresses self fulfilment more than seduction.

What about the ”androgynous” look that some luxury brands already integrate in their campaigns that target China?

Androgynous looks are indeed another growing trend in luxury communication. Chris Lee, the Chinese tomboy singer and fashion icon, who has been advertising for Gucci, Tiffany & Co, Givenchy or L’Oréal, may be the best example of it. Her short hair, light make-up and sporty style, inspired from hip hop culture, encourage Millennials to be themselves and not being dictated their (life)style. Androgyny in China is more than a fashion trend.

But androgynous-looking brand ambassadors remain the exception in the country: they are strongly rejected by Chinese men and don’t correspond to Chinese beauty criteria, still related to a classic idea of elegance. China still lags behind the United States in using gender neutral models for their branding. Popular agencies in the U.S. now only hire transgender models. And more American celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, Tilda Swinton, Lena Waithe, Miley Cyrus and Janelle Monàe are identifying and publicly presenting themselves as gender nonconforming.

Is there such thing as reversing gender roles? For instance how are men regarded especially when it comes to celebrities?

An increase of beauty brands are targeting Chinese women while featuring men. For instance, the brands Guerlain and Maybelline provide a “virtual boyfriend experience” in which the camera adopts the woman viewer’s perspective and places the man in the frontstage, as an object of desire and virtual companion. The men represented would usually be “Little fresh meat”: young male celebrities (often ex boy-band members), showing sweet faces, with perfect makeup skin and muscular bodies.

Additionally, Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, recently launched a video campaign with Z. Tao, dancer and actor, who seems literally to invite the (female) viewer in his reality – under the bedsheets, walking in the streets of Paris, or holding the viewer’s hand.

So, I think the current challenge for luxury brands is to break stereotypes, and to show more versatility in gender representations.

What is the secret in executing a successful campaign with Chinese celebrities?

Celebrities remain important to raise brand awareness and engage with Chinese consumers, but their profile and function seem to have change. It’s striking to see that celebrities are showing a more authentic aspect of their personality, share confidences on social media and even in advertisements. They are trying to “be themselves”, share their lifestyle and philosophy of life.

A growing number of luxury brands now use local Chinese celebrities, so that the audience would be more familiar with their history, lifestyle and personality.

The Chinese audience craves for a new category of “accessible celebrities”, who share their personal life and “real self” on social media, to whom they can relate to better.

How are influencers perceived versus celebrities? Is there a fine line between the two?

Influencers play a similar role, bridging the gap between brands and consumers while “transposing” Western brands and lifestyles into a Chinese context.

I think Becki Li, a Chinese major influencer and fashion icon, embodies this role perfectly. Her personal story, starting as an obscure journalist from Guangzhou and succeeding as a top fashion influencer, is both aspirational and relatable. She stands for a “modern Cinderella”. Her blog “Becki’s fantasy”, provides lifestyle, fashion and beauty recommendations, and aims to empower women, in a friendly, personal and authentic tone. She makes them believe “This can happen to me too.” …

So here again, I believe the main challenge for luxury brands is to achieve this subtle balance between aspirational and identification communication drivers.

How local should brands ‘sound’? What are the expectations of the Chinese consumers?

This is another key challenge, which is often underestimated by brands: working on their “voice”, when addressing a Chinese audience in Chinese. Their tone and rhetoric often remain commercial and indulge in superlatives. Another issue is that brands’ “voice” can also be distant and cold, instead of using more poetic, sophisticated and creative language, which the Chinese would expect from luxury brands.

I find that Gucci is doing a very good job, notably on WeChat. They managed to elaborate a simple yet sophisticated style. They provide educational content, reveal inspirations for their designs, find resonances between Western and Chinese, popular and elite culture… all this through a language mixing casual, referenced and original expressions.

I guess on that area, many brands have room for improvement. Their challenge might be to improve the communication between their headquarters and local teams, so that the latter can better “metabolize” brands’ personality and translate it in an appropriate way for Chinese.

Can we speak about values when it comes to millennials? Is their profile so well defined?

Resonating with millennials’ values is the ultimate challenge of luxury brands. It seems that sustainability may still not be a hot topic in brands’ communication in China, but societal topics definitely appear like a new – still untapped – emotional territory.

Is there a recipe for success when it comes to appealing to the expectations of the Chinese consumers? Can you give us an example?

The advertisement that really disrupted communication codes of premium brands is the SKII Marriage market takeover video, part of their #Change Destiny campaign. This realistic video revealed the left-over women phenomenon in a very personal and emotional way. It depicted the family pressure on Chinese women over 30 who remain unmarried and pointed out the reality of “real” women torn out between their individual aspirations and social and family constraints.  Since this campaign was out, in 2016, a few brands, notably Chinese tried to “elevate the debate”, and resonate at a deeper level with women’s concerns, sometimes using humor.

It seems that sustainability may still not be a hot topic in brands’ communication in China, but societal topics definitely appear like a new – still untapped – emotional territory to be explored further.


Laurence Lim Dally, Cherry Blossoms Market Research & Consulting