5 Ways U.S. Luxury Brands Have Won in China

By Lauren Hallanan

While there is no one-size-fits-all China market strategy, there appear to be five common approaches for U.S. brands to reach Chinese consumers. Several U.S. brands including Tiffany & Co, Estée Lauder and Michael Kors, have made a name for themselves in China’s growing luxury market. The Luxury Conversation Survey on U.S. brands revealed clear adoration for various brands and travel destinations. How have they each achieved this?

Brand Culture and Heritage

Some luxury brands become popular in China because Chinese people perceive them as being representative of a certain social status or lifestyle. One prime example is the classic Tiffany & Co, which has a similar reputation in China as it does in the U.S., seen as a legacy brand exuding class and grace. In 2015 China luxury research company Hurun found that Tiffany & Co. was Chinese HNW consumers’ favorite American luxury brand and their third favorite jewelry brand.

While Tiffany is lucky enough to have a strong reputation to build off of, they smartly realized that, in order to maintain their status in China, they needed to embrace modern marketing methods. So far, Tiffany has focused on mobile marketing with both a highly developed WeChat account and their own platforms, including their popular “Engagement Ring Finder” app.

Relying on brand culture is not exclusive to classic legacy brands. When streetwear brands became huge in China in 2017 thanks to the popular reality contest The Rap of China, demand for NYC cult-classic SUPREME skyrocketed, especially after their collaboration with LV. Now, SUPREME is seen as the epitome of hip-hop fashion and owning SUPREME has become a must for trendy Chinese millennials.

Affordable Lux

Affordable luxury brands have seen massive success among upper middle-class Chinese consumers who desire luxury products but don’t yet have the budget for them.

Michael Kors is a leader in the accessible lux category, and is a very popular brand in China. Kors has achieved their success by going all-in on China marketing and ecommerce. The savvy Kors China team goes where their target market is, constantly experimenting with new platforms and technologies.

Other U.S. brands doing well in the accessible lux category include Kate Spade, Coach, and Tori Burch.

High-end brands can also take advantage of consumers’ appetite for affordable lux by offering some lower-level prices point items in the China market. A recent example of this is Tom Ford lipsticks which had excellent sales in China last year. Luxury fashion might be too expensive for millennial consumers, but makeup, especially lipstick, is accessible and is something they can show off. Lower-priced items are essentially a gateway, a stepping stone to larger purchases in the future.

KOL and Celebrity Associations

If a product is loved by Chinese influencers and celebrities, there will be a natural trickle-down effect to Chinese consumers.

High-end cosmetics brands M.A.C. and Bobbi Brown initially became known in China because they were, and still are, very popular among professional make-up artists. Along with the rise of social media, many of these makeup artists and stylists have also become online influencers, amassing large audiences who turn to them for beauty advice. Because of this, both of these brands have become household names among Chinese females.

While those brands organically became popular among Chinese influencers, other brands have found success through formal partnerships with Chinese celebrities and influencers. One of China’s most influential female actresses, Yang Mi, is a brand ambassador for both Estee Lauder and Michael Kors.

Occasionally, trends among Western celebrities and influencers will organically catch on in China. A recent example of this was Stuart Weitzman’s over-the-knee boots which became very popular among Chinese consumers. Chinese fashion bloggers saw the popularity of Stuart Weitzman OTK boots among US fashion bloggers and started to share the product themselves.

However, brands should not expect this to happen. Don’t automatically assume that celebrities who are popular in the U.S. have the same level of popularity in China. Instagram is blocked in China and, although many young Chinese get around this using VPNs, the majority of Instagram influencers and western celebrities who only use western social platforms just don’t have the same level of impact. Brands still hoping their western campaigns can impact Chinese audiences would be smart to observe which western fashionistas appear most in Chinese fashion blogs, for example Chiara Ferragni, the Beckham family, and Alexa Chung.

All-in China Marketing Strategy

While the other aspects are important, this is probably the most crucial. It’s clear that U.S. brands experiencing the most success in China have put a lot of effort into developing a local marketing strategy especially for Chinese consumers.

One of these brands is Coach, who was an aggressive early mover and a pioneer in the affordable luxury segment in China. They were one of the first luxury brands to enter China, partnering with regional and local distributors as early as 1998. They were also one of the earliest Western luxury brands to launch a flagship store on Alibaba’s Tmall. Then in 2016, Coach closed their Tmall store and are now heavily pursuing a WeChat strategy.

Over the past couple of years Estée Lauder has revitalized their brand image in China, targeting millennials who now contribute about 35 percent to 40 percent of Estee Lauder’s sales in China. A large reason for their success is that they did not try to adapt western marketing messaging, and instead came up with new campaigns specifically for Chinese market. This seems to be quite effective – the Estée Lauder brand recorded a whopping 40 percent growth in China in the fourth quarter of the 2017 fiscal year

Estée Lauder has a comprehensive China strategy encompassing e-commerce, social media, and mobile and digital marketing, achieving excellent results from their Tmall store and WeChat official account.

As mentioned above, Michael Kors is a trend leader, willing to experiment with new social media platforms and marketing campaigns blending online and offline. Late last year the brand ran a campaign on up-and-coming video app Douyin, becoming the first international luxury brand to do so. On top of that, Kors frequently collaborates with Chinese fashion influencers.

Focus on Tourists

While it is ideal to have both an online and offline presence in China, U.S. brands who don’t have one yet shouldn’t give up hope. Focusing on Chinese tourism is an excellent way to tap into the China market.

The U.S. a very popular travel destination and was ranked as the number three preferred international luxury travel destination on Hurun’s The Chinese Luxury Traveller 2017 report.

Millennials, who make up 63% of Chinese outbound travelers, love visiting the U.S.. In fact, 29 percent of Chinese millennial travelers have visited the U.S. over the last 12 months. Hawaii, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle and San Francisco among the top destinations in the U.S. for Chinese travelers. Some of these destinations have been involved in very smart WeChat travel campaigns.

Chinese travelers visiting the U.S. love to shop, but it’s important to understand their motivation for purchasing items abroad. Most often they purchase an item because it is cheaper or because it can’t be found back in China. Chinese luxury travellers like to purchase cosmetics (45%), local produce (43%), bags and suitcases (39%), clothes and accessories (37%), and jewelry (34%). They are very familiar with famous shopping destinations such as Rodeo Drive, Bergdorfs, Bloomingdales, 5th Ave, etc. which is something that brands in those locations need to be taking advantage of. Macy’s has been doing an excellent job working with Chinese travel influencers to promote themselves as a must-do activity when visiting NYC. Luxury outlets are also very popular among Chinese travelers.

Besides providing convenient payment options such as Unionpay, WeChat Pay and Alipay, brands looking to attract Chinese tourists need to focus on growing brand awareness, and avoid relying on travel agencies to bring business.

The Luxury Conversation Takeaways:


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