Why you should care
How well products and campaigns do in China could soon determine whether the world’s top luxury brands bring them to stores around the world.
Gildo Zegna, CEO of luxury Italian brand Ermenegildo Zegna, recently declared that his firm was moving its test market to China. While Chinese consumers were already a key demographic for the famed menswear brand, early responses from Chinese customers will now dictate what new product lines Zegna launches around the world.
This shift east, which is shaking up the global fashion industry, is driven by a combination of factors: the evolution of China’s own market, manufacturing strategies, technologies and spending power. With Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Burberry shopping bags in tow, top fashion brands are now turning to China as a litmus test for their global plans.
The country’s emergence as a major consumer market for luxury fashion brands makes it a strong choice. But China also offers a younger population than the West — and has more disposable income than in other young developing nations — and is armed with tech innovations that in some cases are ahead of the developed world. That makes the country ideal for these brands to test how to sell themselves to a younger, tech-obsessed and highly demanding audience globally.
Gucci and Calvin Klein have both launched tailored ad campaigns on Chinese platforms over the past six months, before later adapting them for an international audience. In 2018, Nicolas Versloot, the regional managing director for Levi Strauss, made it clear China would be at the forefront of the denim brand’s innovation going forward.
WeChat’s built-in functions allow an integrated one-stop purchasing experience, and this is very helpful to luxury brands.
Rachel Lou, social media analyst
The seamless integration of e-commerce functionalities into social media platforms, exemplified by China’s giant multipurpose app WeChat, doesn’t yet exist outside China, but is the direction in which global social media and e-commerce sites are moving, experts say. So using China as a test market means these fashion brands are ready for the shift. In June 2018, luxury Italian accessories label Tod’s tested the sale of a restricted number of limited edition bags through a mini-program within the WeChat app. It sold bags worth 3.2 million yuan ($480,000) in six minutes. Burberry is now focusing its marketing strategy around optimizing integrated platforms like WeChat.
“With shortened attention spans, Chinese consumers would want to speed up their luxury purchasing journey,” says Rachel Lou, social media analyst at marketing firm Dragon Social. “WeChat’s built-in functions allow an integrated one-stop purchasing experience, and this is very helpful to luxury brands as the growth in physical stores is stagnating.”
Fashion has often served as an early pointer to broader social and economic shifts. From Gandhi in India to a series of African leaders, anti-colonial icons used local textiles to propel a larger revival of their countries’ domestic manufacturing sector. The fashion industry was an early adopter of the rental model — companies like Rent the Runway in New York and a slew of Swedish firms in Stockholm led the charge — that has now expanded even to toy sharing. It embraced technologies such as 3D printing, virtual reality and augmented reality — in part for marketing campaigns to target millennials — before most other retail sectors. This reputation as an industry that’s both a weather vane and ahead of the curve suggests that luxury fashion brands might be only the first to shift test markets to China and that others might follow.
After all, many of the advantages China offers to luxury brands would also help other international industries. One such benefit to testing marketing and sales strategies and technologies in China is the mountain of user data available, particularly through WeChat, used by more than 1 billion people daily. That means both huge potential exposure and feedback for brands, says Thomas Klein, chief operating officer of Beijing-based digital branding firm Creative Union. Brands can learn about the effectiveness of strategies and campaigns from an enormous audience almost in real time.
That’s why digital marketing is increasingly where global fashion firms are investing in China. According to consulting firm Zenith Media, foreign luxury brands are expected to focus 68 percent of their advertising budgets in China on e-commerce channels in 2019, up from 53 percent in 2017. Most brands spend between 30 and 60 percent of that expenditure on WeChat.
The maturing of Chinese consumers is also making them more typical of the international market — while still carrying the aspirational traits that make them representative of developing markets. “Chinese luxury consumers are not only cashed up, but they are also savvy and adventurous,” says William Chen, managing director at Luxion Media, a social media consulting agency. “They are always on the hunt for new brands with a story, with something unique that sets it apart.”
Of course, it isn’t as easy as simply transplanting successful strategies from China to other markets. The country’s unique digital environment and consumer market provide great opportunities for brands to stay ahead of the curve by testing there. But until some of those tech-based sales tools also become common in the West, strategies shaped in China will still need tweaks to suit advertising and sales platforms in North America and Europe.
That’s worth the wait for luxury brands that see the integration of advertising, personalization and e-commerce as the future, and so view China as the best test market for shaping their digital strategies. There are benefits in the immediate too — with WeChat spreading rapidly across other Asian countries, some of the strategies tested in China could find quicker application in other emerging economies.
China’s own appetite for luxury fashion remains insatiable — never mind a slowing economy and the trade conflict with the U.S. — so any market research in the country is useful for these brands. So much so that China’s fashion market is expected to eclipse America’s for the first time this year, according to global consulting group McKinsey. What works and fails there is what might well determine the fashion lines you see at high-end stores next season in Milan and Madrid.