If you type ‘Chinese luxury’ in your search engine, you are very likely to get a plethora of information on China being a hot spot for Western-produced luxury goods, as the demand for luxury is strong and continues to grow. What you are unlikely to find amongst your top searches, is information about recognized and valued China-originated luxury brands. Is this likely to change any time soon?
Over the next 5-7 years, China is expected to move up to become the second largest luxury market in the world, after Japan. Luxury market growth in China is forecast at a healthy 10-15% during 2013, driven by aspirational consumers whose financial position is rapidly improving and who originate from a cultural background where image, social stand, and respect from others are important values. The concept of luxury falls well within Asian cultural context, as luxury goods are a great tool to wordlessly manifest one’s high stand in the society.
Budding Chinese Brands
For several years now, China has been an attractive market for European luxury products, but it is yet to build its own set of valued, recognized luxury brands that can figure alongside the likes of Hermes or Louis Vuitton. While there seems to be some activity on this front, with some truly Chinese brands struggling to up their game and attempting to compete in the luxury market, the question is whether they are capable of succeeding.
Undoubtedly, there are some established high-end labels that have originated from Hong Kong and China, including Shanghai Tang, Ne-Tiger, Longio, Ascot Chang, Qeelin, Shang Xia, or Mary Ching. But for now they are known and appreciated mostly locally, and even in their domestic market, they lag behind the Western luxury brands. Chinese consumers are instinctively patriotic, so those Chinese luxury brands that are able to build associations with status statement are likely to win domestic consumers over period of time. But will these brands become as relevant and influential internationally as the brands in the LVMH portfolio?
Two Great Challenges
The first challenge for aspiring Chinese luxury houses is to develop great quality brands that will represent superior materials, flawless craftsmanship, unique and relevant designs, consistent quality management, and luxury-level service. This might be relatively easy to do, with proliferation of young creative Asian designers, who often gain their experience abroad. With several high-end and luxury European brands having some parts of production located in China, the know-how and skill set is already being transferred. In some regions, e.g. Southern China, manufacturing is shedding its image of low-cost, mass-produced, low-quality manufacturing center.
The second challenge is to change consumer attitudes, both domestically as well as internationally. Fighting the ‘made in China’ image requires revamping consumer perceptions, which oftentimes, once built, are very difficult to alter. For years, China has been associated almost exclusively as the source of cheap, substandard, unoriginal, and mass products. Even in China itself, while the attitudes towards Chinese-made apparel in mid range segment have improved, domestic high-end brands have not gained good recognition and acceptance, and many domestic luxury customers still prefer well known European brands. Local brands simply cannot provide the status that Chinese luxury shoppers look for. At least not yet.
The negative connotations are particularly strong in Western markets, where it will take a very long time before consumers are ready to accept a ‘made in China’ luxury brand. A European aficionado of luxury couture brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, or Prada is unlikely to be open to trying luxury products originating from China, a land known for counterfeit goods, bad quality and cheap equivalents available for the masses.
Regardless of the geography, majority of purchases of luxury brands are driven by the desire to conspicuously communicate the belonging to the high, rich, and exclusive sphere in the society, and LV or Hermes logo communicates it in a matter of seconds. Purchasing a piece with a logo that is not instantly recognized by others appears pointless and contrary to the very essence of luxury logo display. This is also true (though to somewhat lower extent) for far more sophisticated, mature, and less conspicuous consumption-oriented European luxury consumer, who also value great quality in luxury products (and Chinese-made products are known for lack of it).
Fighting the Stigma
There are some industry voices cheerfully claiming that today ‘made in China’ is perceived differently than 10 years ago, but it appears more of a wishful thinking. As of now, many Chinese brands still need to exhibit some European connection to get through to the luxury customer both in domestic and foreign markets. This might be a finishing touch added to the product in Europe or internationally-recognized celebrity endorsement (e.g. Angelina Jolie ‘being a fan’ of Shanghai Tang luxury brand). But this is far too little to break the stigma of the Chinese label.
Interestingly, some brands opted for a different approach to nurturing their brand culture. Instead of piggybacking the European luxury heritage, they are trying to highlight Chinese roots, rich tradition of great quality going way back to pre ‘made in China’ era as we know it. This might be a good way for brands to start building on, and execute very careful moves when creating brand based on the Chinese ancient heritage when expanding in foreign markets.
It still remains a long term perspective to see Chinese luxury brands becoming as influential as Prada, Gucci, LV, and other big names in the luxury arena. For the time being, most brands are likely to opt for associating their products with European luxury as a less risky way to win customer base. Only a handful of visionary Chinese brands will be able to put long term brand building ahead of short term gains.
It is worth keeping an eye on Chinese luxury brands, striving hard to win market presence internationally, but their path to success will be long and rocky.