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How global fashion brands get it wrong in China

2020/07/29


Low-cost clothing is huge business in China, but international mass-market brands haven’t been able to gain a foothold in this vast market because they’ve read it wrong.

 

What they are missing is that mass-market fashion in China has not followed the traditional Western-consumer model, according to Clothing Fair.

 

Instead of cheap clothes being sourced by shoppers from big-box stores like Walmart and Target, or specialist low-cost outlets, such as Primark, nearly all the value-end of the market in China is now found online.

 

Plus, young Chinese consumers are far less brand conscious than generally assumed. They are accustomed to choosing on looks alone, traditionally from small sellers selling nameless, brand-less clothes at wholesale clothing markets – surplus product from huge textile manufacturing hubs in Zhejiang, Fujian and around Guangdong in the Pearl River Delta.

 

These wholesale markets simply migrated online around a decade ago with the rise of Taobao, Alibaba’s huge C2C e-commerce platform. Now they form “Taobao villages” – groups of sellers that site themselves around manufacturing areas and deal direct with consumers.

 

International mass-market brands have lost out partly due to the first-mover advantage of their domestic rivals, some believe. Local brands not only produce cut-price fashion at ultra-fast speeds, but equally importantly, China’s post-90s generation wants affordable clothes they like, not necessarily fashionable brands.

 

Quite different, then, from the luxury end of the market, where there is a huge premium on a “Made in Europe” label.

 

Zak Dychtwald, founder of Young China Group and author of “Young China”, says many international companies coming into the Chinese market have mistakenly regarded big eastern-seaboard cities like Shanghai as being representative of the rest of the country – which is very far from being the case.

 

Shanghai represents a snapshot of a China that is rich and sees Westernisation as the norm. But China as a whole does not, he said. In addition, younger people are more confident in their purchasing and style decision-making.

 

“I don’t think this young generation [of Chinese] likes foreign stuff for foreign stuff’s sake, and I think the older generation undoubtedly did,” Dychtwald explained.

 

“With the older generation, the semiotics of a purchase [and] what it would mean to people around you and your social standing [were] more important than the actual functionality of a product. You don’t see that nearly as much with Chinese millennials.”

 

Asia is a key market for luxury fashion, and the luxury industry has responded by expanding its activities geared towards the Asian consumer. Sometimes those efforts have been laughably gauche, and they’ve rightly been pilloried in local media.

 

Chinese consumers have reacted against attempts to localise luxury products to their culture. Often the products being offered to them are careless, cynical and culturally tone-deaf. Burberry faced a backlash when it tried to add a Chinese character for ‘fortune’ on one of its trademark pattern scarves; a careless way to localise.

 

Photoshoots have been criticised for depicting clichéd scenes of “Ye Olde China” rather than the modern China consumers recognise. Localising products for China’s luxury consumers needs to be about more than just working dragons into your existing product lines or changing an existing product red.

 

There’s some evidence that Chinese consumers are tiring of traditional red and gold themed products. Some brands are having greater success with more obscure symbols that are more authentic and have the added cachet of being less common.

 

Chinese consumers are also highly wary of counterfeiting and will avoid products that give any hint of looking cheap or fake whether they’re real or not.

 

Nike made the mistake of creating a shoe for China’s market that was criticised for its crude design and considered by local consumers to look like a fake. Burberry’s scarves with Chinese characters on them were also felt to look like counterfeit products by discerning shoppers.

Chinese consumers are proud of their culture and are annoyed at cynical attempts to sell their own culture back to them.

 

They live in cities that are modern and don’t recognise the ‘rice-fields and bicycles’ portrayal of it that Western brands often convey to the Chinese market. And they’re willing to express themselves vocally on social media if they feel brands are patronising them.

 

The fact is, it’s incredibly hard for Western brands to really understand China’s consumers. Fast growth and rapid social change mean tastes are changing quickly. It’s hard to keep up. China is, to some extent, a closed ecosystem – it has its own social media, writing system and language. It’s a hard place for outsiders to penetrate and truly understand.

 

Perhaps that’s why fashion brands have such varied fortunes – fashion is one of the industries that is most sensitive to sudden mood swings and changing tastes. In this industry, more than any other, it’s vital to have your finger on the pulse to truly understand what’s making consumers tick right this very moment.

 

Source:  The Business of Fashion; additional content by WARC staff & Translate Media

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