Cultural secrets breathing new fire into Chinese luxury brands

Posted: February 18, 2015

As China develops, luxury brands will need to ‘go beyond the bling’ and connect with consumers at a more meaningful level. Panos Dimitropoulos, Cultural Insight Director, Added Value China, took a cultural view on new luxury in China, and what it means for local and global brands.

Just two years ago, China was seen as a seemingly inexhaustible source of growth for global luxury brands. But recently major names such as Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Mulberry, Gucci and Prada have all posted slower sales in China, citing falling local demand and tougher competition.

We looked at the culture of luxury in China today to discover how brands can successfully innovate and connect with a market which is still producing more private-sector millionaires than anywhere else in the world.

It immediately became obvious that luxury in China is far from stalling, but that a crop of buoyant homegrown Chinese brands are in fact behind the woes of the global luxury giants. Amongst the 600 luxury consumers surveyed, 84% agreed that, in the future, Chinese luxury brands will be ‘just as good’ as the global staples. Whilst today global brands dominate the luxury sector, 22% of our audience were already buying Chinese luxury brands alongside international labels, and 51% at least taking local options into account; both figures look set to increase in the years to come.

Beyond the numbers, the power of Chinese luxury brands seems to stem from their authentic association with the country’s long history. With Chinese consumers viewing global luxury brands as ‘expensive, exclusive and representing the latest trends,’ the heritage-rooted local offer arguably creates a more solid value proposition. Chinese brands are also adept at leveraging codes of Chinese culture to create subtle but powerful connection points with consumers. All in all, we identified 6 notable ‘cultural secrets’ that Chinese luxury brands are successfully deploying.

Many of the expressions of these ‘cultural secrets’ are currently specific to Chinese brands, but there is a clearly a lesson here for global luxury players. Whilst they may not be able to lay a claim to exactly the same aspects of Chinese culture, global brands can nonetheless leverage the principles we have outlined here to create powerful and enduring connections with their audience.

Chinese brands often make use of traditional symbols rich with cultural meaning, and are increasingly finding innovative ways to give these a contemporary spin. Qeelin uses the ‘qilin’, a mythical animal, as its icon, but shares this with consumers through cutting edge digital platforms.

Chinese consumers are hungry for new experiences. Travel is highly aspirational, but rich experiences closer to home are also sought after. Retail environments provide the perfect playground for new sensory journeys. Mixmind’s stores stimulate sight, smell and touch to create an almost spiritual experience that goes far beyond the regular walk-in shop.

Given the growing threat posed to the natural environment by China’s breakneck pace of development, the use of natural materials is increasingly valued. Brands such as Shang Xia are playing up the rawness and purity of their materials to deliver a natural aesthetic highly prized by Chinese consumers.

Chinese consumers are famously pragmatic, but in a challenging and competitive society, the promise of an idealised, perfect world can be very alluring. Shanghai Vive taps into this with highly stylised female icons, designed to be perfectly and eternally beautiful.

Just a few years ago, luxury in China was all about the label – the larger, and the more visible, the better. But as the market evolves from ‘show’ to ‘know’, brands such as Mixmind are providing a more subtle expression of exclusivity. Their simple products and minimal branding represent a new vision of luxury – a discreet nod to those in the know.

A relative liberalisation of social mores has resulted in a new flowering of creativity in China, and a renewed respect for the arts. K11 mall brings art to retail spaces, enhancing not only shoppers’ experience in the mall, but providing a halo of aesthetic sophistication to their purchases.