China is one of the largest fashion markets in the world – and it’s on course to leapfrog those above it in the coming years.
The country is home to the largest internet population anywhere on the planet, while the social media boom – which is still gathering pace as we speak – has really struck a chord with the younger generation.
Zhongshan suits, also known as Mao suits, are no longer the norm for men and women. Instead rapid diversification has fuelled a passion for fashion that is far-reaching and widespread throughout Chinese society.
Digital marketing has helped bring designer clothes and luxury brands to the masses.
Western fashion brands – predominantly those in the UK and the US – are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the country in driving revenue growth and profit. But how can they ensure success over there?
Here comes the boom…
Fashion gurus and business experts alike expect China to become the largest fashion market sooner rather than later.
Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicts the country’s luxury market will soar to US$27 billion by the time 2015 rolls around, representing one fifth of the world’s total and up from US$10 billion back in 2009.
China Fashion Week – established back in 1997 – has played a pivotal role in the rise of fashion in China.
The event, which attracts hundreds of big-name designers and brands, not to mention a massive worldwide media presence, puts on close to a thousand individual shows during the course of the week.
It has proved that China is not only ready to embrace the fashion industry, but that it’s quickly becoming vitally important in the innovation of fresh new trends that are adopted in all four corners of the globe.
Magazines, websites and commercials are still important when it comes to promoting the latest fashion trends but social media has picked up the baton and taken fashion advertising to a new level – and this should be the focus of advertising campaigns by western fashion brands.
Socialise and connect
We all know that social media is an extremely effective way to market products and services, not to mention brands in general.
But, unlike their western counterparts, Chinese consumers have been trusting social media more than traditional methods for a considerable period of time. Reviews and opinions that are published online are valued highly. So it pays to have a social media presence, especially one that is customer-focused, to build trust and rapport with Chinese consumers.
There are more than 600 million social media users in China, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, actively joining in forums and conversations, as well as shopping online.
Fashion brands have woken up to this and are now jumping on the bandwagon at an accelerated rate.
Louis Vuitton was one of the first international fashion brands to join the social media craze in China. It decided to take the plunge back in 2010 and hasn’t look back since, leading the way for many more to follow.
Forget Facebook and Twitter
A word of warning, however, before you start setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts in Chinese: Facebook and Twitter are banned in most of China.
Facebook was blocked in July 2009 after the Urumqi riots. The country’s government perceived that Xinjiang activists were using the site to communicate, plot and plan, so banned its citizens from using it.
The ban was ‘lifted’ in September 2013, but just within a 17-square-mile free-trade zone in Shanghai and only to make foreign investors feel more at home. Twitter, in comparison, hasn’t seen the light of day.
Instead there are a number of different platforms exclusive to the region. Weibo and Wechat, for instance, are two of the major platforms at present, boasting around 500 million users between them.
The former is often referred to as the ‘Twitter of the East’ – and for good reason – the network has taken over the Chinese social media scene. It’s certainly a brave new world, completely different from western social media sites, but one that offers plenty of reward for those bold enough to conquer it.
Sina Weibo resembles both Twitter and Facebook, with users limited to 140 characters for their posts, while Tencent Weibo is a microblog that features instant messaging services and a full-service social platform.
WeChat, on the other hand, is a messaging-focused app that is very similar to Facebook.
Qzone, RenRen and Youku Tudou are three other social media sites in China that you should be aware of – each of which has millions of users.
Leave no stone unturned
You need to consider the users of the various social media sites before launching an advertising campaign.
Sina Weibo and WeChat users, for instance, are mostly located in mainland China, including the more affluent areas, making them attractive to western fashion brands looking to infiltrate the market.
Tencent Weibo users, on the other hand, are more focused around the poorer cities in the country, making them less appealing to international businesses, so make sure you take your time and choose wisely.
A wrong move here could condemn your campaign to failure before it’s even off the ground.
Accurate translation and precise localisation will also be key to your chances of tasting success in China. You cannot simply copy what you do in other countries as the Chinese market and its consumers are unique, with their own preferences and behaviours.
You therefore need a thorough understanding of the social media space, the culture and people in China. Without this – and a competent digital strategy to go with it – you’ll be heading upstream without a paddle.
US retailer American Apparel, for example, found that its overtly sexy marketing was not to local tastes and ultimately had to close down some stores in China, while Gap’s 1969 jeans campaign – which aimed to portray the fun and freedom of the flower-power era in the US – needed a rethink in China as the year is associated with the violence of the Cultural Revolution.
The rewards for success in China are undoubtedly huge but businesses need to tread carefully to avoid disaster. As always, we recommend eyes and ears on the ground in the form of native in-country experts to help your business navigate these treacherous waters.