If one was to look back and find a year that China changed the global luxury market - would it be 2017 when luxury spending reached an all-time high - or 2008, when the lavishly opening of the Beijing Olympics also signalled a richer China - or 2020, when China’s quick recovery from the coronavirus means the global luxury market will shift further east?
In 2008, China accounted for only 12% of global luxury spending. Fast forward 12 years and that number has shot up to 33%. For luxury marketers, there is (still) no better place to be.
It’s a sentiment felt by Jean-Laurent Vilon (JLV), who first arrived in China 10 years ago from his native France. Armed with over a decade of experience in advertising and communications in France and in the United States, his first job in China was Managing Director China for a Luxury agency in 2011 before joining Mazarine Group as Managing Director Asia Pacific in 2015, an integrated agency known for its work with luxury clients in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. His number one task? Develop the agency’s digital 360 strategy in China.
“In 2008, there was no WeChat, no mobile apps in China. E-commerce was just starting. Nobody was talking about digital. For many brands, branding very much followed an offline model,” JLV recalls. It was around 2012 that JLV first saw a glimpse of the E-commerce explosion that was to come in China. A number of mass brands started to incorporate more and more digital elements into their events.“
“The agency had all the separate pieces - event experience, social media, content creation, KOL connections and digital backbone - but they weren’t integrated.”
The first thing JLV did was to break down silos between digital and events with other departments within the agency. “If you have an event, where there is tech embedded, there is a social (media) element, there is the delivering of experiences, how can all these departments be working separately?”
Providing that seamless customer experience
One event manifesting this idea is Pernod Ricard’s ‘connected’ store, a concept recently launched across several cities in China. The customer’s journey begins pre-visit, where they log onto Pernod Ricard’s digital store app to book an in-store experience and browse the brand’s offerings, to the actual store, where they not only get to taste different whiskies, but take a quiz to test their nose, palette and eye. At the end of all that, the app will generate a few product suggestions based on how they’ve interacted in the store.
“We created it in such a way that the store becomes part of the customer experience touchpoint, not just a purchasing point. This is perhaps only possible in China, where consumers are more inclined to interact online, and are less iffy about sharing their data if they feel they’re getting something out of it,” JLV notes.
After all, unlike fast-moving goods, luxury has always been less about the price point than the prestige it offers. In an era of choice overload, it’s becoming increasingly important to provide a unique customer experience - from the moment customers log onto their app or walk into the store to the moment of purchase - and often, beyond that.
Last year, Mazarine launched a campaign across Shanghai, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo for Bottega Veneta’s Together collection. Prior to the event launch, VIP guests received a WeChat invitation, and upon arrival at the event, were given a personalised wooden bracelet inked with a QR code. At the event, guests were encouraged to put away their phones. Instead, three prestige fashion photographers went around snapping photos of the guests.
Every two minutes, guests received professionally fashion touched-up photos of themselves via WeChat, allowing them to share on social media,
Not only did this allow Bottega Veneta to provide high-quality content, guests were also keen to share the images on their social images, helping to amply the campaign. KOL and more recently, KOC are powerful marketing tools in China.
“We were thinking, how should we bring a format that was digital, yet didn’t feel digital, to consumers,” says JLV. “The best technology is when it is invisible. A lot of effort was put to set up the CRM system, yet if you were a guest, you didn’t feel it.”
Owning your data
When it comes to digital in China, one inevitably thinks of WeChat. But is that a necessity for luxury brands?
“Yes and no. A lot of luxury brands are on WeChat, they have accounts on various other e-platforms, they are selling on T-mall, which grants them access to a lot of Chinese consumers, especially in non-tier one cities,” he says. “But the issue is, the whole point of luxury is about the customer experience. If you sell on these platforms, you won’t have a holistic view of consumer data.”
For Mazarine, a long-term fix is for luxury brands to set up their own eco-systems. The agency has been developing and investing heavily in Smart Player, a digitally-oriented platform allowing brands to live-stream shows and product launches. It allows for interactivity, immersive experience but most importantly, brands to have full control over customer data and thus, experience.
“This H5 Livestream platform is wholly owned by the brand, from beginning to end. Brands could understand exactly what the client wants, how they interact with the show,” says JLV. This platform is currently being rolled out across China, Europe and the United States.
“We definitely recommend that our luxury clients build an ecosystem free of other E-Commerce platforms. They should retain control of the customer experience and most importantly, the data. After all, the future is about data. Luxury consumers don’t want to be the same, they want to be unique, and they want their experiences to be valuable and memorable. For them, luxury isn’t simply about making a purchase, it’s also the feeling of exclusivity, which creates trust between the consumer and brand, which then encourages consumption”.
Integrating on- and off-line experiences
While Covid has accelerated digital transformation, it is unlikely the world will be rid of physical stores and face-to-face interaction altogether.
Even prior to Covid, different luxury categories have had to leverage online and digital in different ways.
Beauty brands will always find it easier to go online without losing any of the essence of their brands, compared to say, fashion and luxury brands, according to JLV.
“We’ve created a lot of online and digital content for beauty brands, and sales always pick up quite quickly. For spirits brands, clients, especially new ones, are still asking for that physical contact. It’s the same for fashion and jewellery brands. The future of luxury lies in the integration of online and offline experiences.”
Alongside the acceleration of digital in the last few years have been that of gaming, with a rising number of e-commerce platforms aspiring to achieve that perfect melding of selling and entertainment.
Mazarine isn’t new to gaming. For Dior's most recent Valentine's Day campaign, Mazarine developed an AR app where fans of the brand can interact with a loved one.
Yet, JLV also warns of developing a game for the sake of doing so. “If done well, the KPIs could go through the roof, as with Dior. I think the key challenge is to develop a game that is engaging, yet at the same time, still retains the identity of the brand,” says JLV. “We always go back to the question: does it fit with the brand, the messaging?”
Understanding what makes consumers tick
Perhaps this cautiousness has to do with JLV’s understanding of luxury but also how much Chinese consumption tastes have changed in the last decade. They want cultural experiences. They have the confidence to support brands whose values align with their own-and to boycott those who take the opposing view. A rising number of consumers are also becoming more aware of sustainability.
“Today’s [Chinese] consumers are sophisticated, they’re very picky. They’re also hyper-aware of what’s going on - what brands are doing in China and what they’re doing in other markets. The norm here is a free gift, same day delivery, dealing direct with brands, receiving everything they want with top notch customer service all the way through checkout and delivery. Consumers can be very fast at buying but they also take their time during the consideration phase.”
We’ve all cringed at the many faux pas luxury brands have run into in China - from pandering to what they perceived as ‘Chinese taste’ to not understanding the sensitivities of Chinese consumers.
For JLV, problems arise when marketers don’t make an effort to respect consumers and the brand’s heritage.
“This is the biggest risk I see for luxury brands in China, some of them jump too quickly on new trends, thus creating brand confusion. It’s fine if you want to push short-term sales, after all, the Chinese market is very reactive, so it’d work. But the campaign needs to be right. You always have to ask: will this lead to short-term gain but pain in the long term?
Aside from identifying new trends and new tech for luxury clients, one of Mazarine’s primary missions is to teach them to say no and stay true to themselves
“This is the most important lesson in China’s luxury industry - you need to learn to say no even to great short terms opportunities”.
It’s likely that luxury brands will be asking more and more of these questions - especially when Chinese consumers are set to increasingly dominate the global luxury market.
Earlier this year, Mazarine partnered with Chinese universities to create a report on how Chinese consumers viewed the current crisis.
“In February, the sentiment was very much “how do we, as a community, survive this”. Now that the country isn’t in crisis mode anymore, that question has shifted to ‘what have we missed”, and so we see huge interaction between Chinese consumers and brands. But what happens after this period is over, and people aren’t ‘revenge spending’ anymore? That is when true marketing comes in.”