Star Power LUXURY ON THE RISE-Lab brand

In the last couple of years, the market for luxury brands in China has changed dramatically. Gone are the times when luxury flagship stores barely made any profits and stayed in the country just to ensure presence. Today, Chinese consumers count for 10% of the world’s luxury purchasers either in or out of mainland China, and it is quite likely that this percentage will continue to rise along with the rise of income and retail spending levels. 1 However, if it is true that a growing number of people can afford luxury goods in the PRC, it is also true that the fight for a share of the consumers is becoming increasingly fierce in this field. Many luxury brands have their eyes on China and the relatively “young and inexpert” local consumers are put before a variety of brand messages, both from early entrants and late arrivals. To make matters worse, the local advertising market is a highly competitive one, as is access to high quality retail space and optimum advertising. Recent studies have discovered that the predominant factor spurring luxury good purchases can be found in the Chinese consumer’s desire to affirm one’s social status. Along with that, emerging motivators come from the need to assert self-identity, the desire of granting personal rewards and, in small part, for filling in connoisseur longings.2In a dominantly status seeking culture, where the old ways of defining people’s place in society have been dismantled, and luxury goods are used to redefine the class system3, it is well understandable how important it can be for luxury brands to seek and establish meaningful endorsement agreements. Indeed, celebrities have the power to extend the qualities the general public looks for and admires – in short, their social status – to the brand. However, the growing Chinese market puts brands in front of a dilemma: adopt a local perspective or retain the global focus? In China’s media, we can see Drew Barrymore speaking for Gucci, Scarlett Johansson for LV, but also Liu Xiang endorsing Cadillac and Gong Li appearing in Chopard’s advertisement. So what are the criteria driving a luxury brand’s choice towards locally- or internationally-recognized celebrities? This is what we aim to discover below. We have approached the topic by analyzing mainstream fashion magazines published in China between 2007 and early 2008, fashion brands’ official websites, and online fashion media reports and blogs. CELEBRITY ENDORSEMENT The table below illustrates luxury brands’ endorsement choices on industry and global/local advertisement bases4:We spotted a recurring pattern based on industry categorization: – Apparel, accessories and perfume brands maintain worldwide consistency. The same advertisement – featuring the same endorser – is applied globally. The endorser is usually of Western background. Even the language used in advertisements remains English. – Watch brands seem to be adopting a dual stance: western and Chinese endorsers both appear on national ads. TAG Heuer, for instance, has been endorsed in China by the legendary golfer Tiger Woods but also by the famous Taiwan actor Peter Ho (He Rundong) – High-end cosmetic brands tend to prefer models over celebrities. Even if stating the Asian tailored properties of the product, they tend to stick to models of Western backgrounds. On the contrary, middle range cosmetics show a stronger tendency to localization in terms of endorsers’ choice. – Automobile brands use relatively less personal endorsements but show a stronger tendency to be endorsed by Chinese celebrities. “GLOCALIZED” ENDORSEMENT The concept of “glocalization – think globally, act locally”5 – serve us well to explain the different approaches observed in China’s applied endorsement strategies. By thinking globally, locally active luxury brands want, and quite rightly so, to capitalize on their international fame. As stated by Gu Ming6 – publisher of Elle China Division – Chinese audiences markedly admire Western styles and brands and see Western endorsers as guarantees and marks of brands origins – which is why the famous magazine tends to use more foreign models than local ones. However, this situation is gradually changing. Chinese consumers have a growing understanding of brand origins and expectations about quality and offers. That is to say, having a foreign brand name – and a foreign face – does not work anymore as the sole prerequisite to win the hearts of Chinese consumers7. Locally, brand building in the Chinese arena is proving quite difficult: on the one hand, raising brand awareness is no easy task, as local market opportunities have attracted a growing number of names to compete for consumers’ attention, and the abundance we can see in this sense tends to dilute each brand message. On the other hand, studies have shown that Chinese consumers are developing growing national pride and feelings of self-awareness. In this context, it seems likely to assume that brands showing local sensibility will be also better perceived by this group of consumers. In this context, brands need to balance global-local based endorsements in order to touch consumers’ hearts with meaningful messages. Indeed, as general knowledge of brand heritage, qualities and personality increases, a trend is apparently forming: international luxury brands are seeking localization while keeping a consistent high-end position to own style and legacy. On these bases, how do luxury brands glocalize by endorsement? Labbrand found that the Chinese consumers’ attitudes towards brands are influenced by how these stress each of the following glocalization dimensions: 1. Internationalism: capitalizing on the brand stature, endorsement choice consistently stresses the brand’s international reputation and high-end position all over the globe. 2. Identity: capitalizing on the brand differentiation, endorsement choice stresses the brand’s unique heritage and values by using descriptive or symbolic elements to create an irreplaceable brand experience. 3. Localization: capitalizing on the brand awareness, endorsement choice stresses the brand’s own compatibility and closeness to local culture and values. Celebrities’ contributions to the success of a campaign should be therefore measured on their: 1. International recognition: in terms of global attractiveness and fame. 2. Personal image: in terms of how the celebrity’s own style and personality matches with the brand identity. 3. Local popularity: in terms of recognition and status-making in the eyes of Chinese consumers. The balance among these three dimensions is not easy to achieve. In fact, internationally famous brands have often failed to recognize whether global-local endorsers were helping or impeding the successful delivery of the brand message. For instance, Tod’s advertisements featuring Sienna Miller seem to be exploiting very little of her fame, as the beautiful English actress is hardly recognized by Chinese consumers due to her scant exposure in the local media. Furthermore, Chinese stars might be very popular at home but paradoxically their local fame could risk overshadowing the international brand stature or even contradicting the brand identity. In this case, the brand will see a dilution of its branding effort on the long term and, in certain cases, even off-hand, negative change of consumers’ attitudes on the short term. For instance, the endorsement of Gucci’s limited edition 08-08-08 by TV actor Huang Xiaoming is quite controversial. The collection has been specially designed for the Beijing Olympics, and sold only in China except for the I-Gucci watch. A brief analysis of Huang Xiaoming’s relevance on the three dimensional glocalization grid can explain why: On the contrary Zhang Ziyi’s endorsement of Mercedes-Benz SLK Class Passion 2008 can be indicated as a successful case of glocalization: Mercedes-Benz SLK Class Passion 2008 has been custom designed for the China market. The campaign is a good example of glocalization, as it balances the international brand positioning with
a localized message. The car has reportedly seen a steady sales growth. LOOKING AHEAD Even though many luxury brands maintain their global endorsers in China, we can see that the common trend is to close the gap between the brand’s country/culture of origin and the local culture. For example, Ermenegildo Zegna shot its 2008 Spring and Summer Collection in China while Louis Vuitton created the first three episodes of its innovative, recently released audio guide “Soundwalk” in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, starring Gong Li, Chen Ching and Shi Qi. Watch and jewelry brands such as Tissot and Audemars Piguet are respectively endorsed by local stars Barbie Shou and Michelle Yeoh. International luxury brands maintaining their international stand might be right in doing so in order to not compromise their image internationally. However the local factor should not be underestimated. Whereas the endorser should be internationally applied for strategic reasons, the advertisement could show more effort to localize in the language8. Remember, by showing localized attentiveness, luxury brands can capitalize on national pride while appealing to that growing segment of consumers that show better knowledge about brand heritage and expect more than just a foreign image from luxury. Both factors can constitute an important difference to win the brand-building race in this land. The balancing key remains in the role a celebrity plays in terms of glocalization. Simply hiring a local or otherwise a foreign star will not help the brand building effort in China on the long run. More than on the nationality of the endorser, successful endorsements in China must be based on the overall performance celebrities show on glocalization with respect to the brand strategy. 1. 2007, China National Bureau of Statistics. 2. 2008, Debnam N., Svinos G., “China luxury Consumers: Moving up the Curve” KPMG 3. 2006, Chadha R., Husband P “The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury” 4. Industries emphasized in bold are the ones showing a relatively higher percentage of endorsement in the indicated category. 5. The concept has originated in the 80ies within the Japanese industry and has subsequently been developed by the British sociologist Roland Robertson in the 1990s and the Canadian sociologists Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman in the late 1990s. 6. 2006, Chadha R., Husband P “The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair with Luxury” 7. 2004 Fall , Zhou N., and Belk R. W.,. “Chinese Consumer Readings of Global and Local Advertising Appeals” Journal of Advertising Research. 33(3), 63-77. 8. For example, by offering concise introduction to the foreign celebrity in Chinese, as Mont Blanc did in its print advertisement staring Katherine Jenkins