SHANGHAI — According to Tom Doctoroff, luxury apparel brands are approaching the China market all wrong.
“Every luxury good festoons Huaihai Boulevard with white ice goddesses on their billboards,” observed Doctoroff, JWT Worldwide’s Greater China chief executive officer and the author of “Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer.” “This is a very inaccessible beauty; this is beauty on a pedestal. Chinese women in general have a different idea of beauty.”
Doctoroff asserted that “all these white shiny things” are just one indicator of how luxury marketers “haven’t really done the right thing to understand how Chinese view the world, and how their products fit into the world.” Instead, they “just import photos from Paris and stick them up on the billboards, [which] is a big problem for a lot of reasons, but mostly for relevance. Luxury goods do not play the same role in China as they do in the West.”
“Billions,” released earlier this year by Palgrave, explores the secrets, successes and shortcomings of advertising to the Chinese, with many examples and illustrations of what works and what decidedly does not. The examples are derived primarily from the electronics and fast-moving consumer goods sectors, in part because, claimed Doctoroff, no fashion brands have truly succeeded in marketing to China, with the exceptions of Nike and Adidas, which are known more as sports rather than fashion brands. Doctoroff asserted that luxury apparel has particularly failed to distinguish itself by neglecting to “twist [the brand image] to have a local relevance in a Chinese context.” As a result, luxury brands in China are “a great big gob of glitter” and a “shiny clump of tangled jewelry” — appealing, desired, but undifferentiated, he claimed.
In the book, Doctoroff mixes practical advice with a more abstract analysis of the character of the Chinese consumer and how it got that way. He asserted, controversially, that the Chinese remain innately Confucian in their sensibilities. Conformist, conventional and cautious, they want to climb the socioeconomic ladder, but not stick out; to convey success, but subtly and in a socially acceptable manner, and to display wealth without flaunting it. Hence, for example, the popularity of the Buick as the status symbol car of choice, over more typical luxury cars such as Mercedes-Benz or BMW.
“A Chinese person is Confucian to the core … the blueprint of Chinese culture is the conflict between the need to protect oneself by conforming, and on the other hand projecting status, to avoid alienation and to advance up a very narrow ladder,” Doctoroff wrote.
The impact of Western-style individualism, even among young urban elites, has, according to Doctoroff, been grossly exaggerated.
Written with the busy skimmer in mind, “Billions” offers several checklists of suggestions for marketing in China. To leverage the aspirational nature of Chinese consumers, Doctoroff advised first off to charge more for public consumption: things like mobile phones, cars, jewelry and fashion, rather than products like home electronics. Second, Chinese use status as a tool, as a means to advance further. Then, make aspiration accessible, keep a low profile, position the home as a fortress, and appeal to women through their social role of protecting and projecting through the child.
Doctoroff’s 10 “easy tips for good China ads” are: Don’t anger Beijing; keep it simple in smaller cities and rural areas; teach the old, amuse the young with China cool; show the promise, not the process; tell mom they need her; don’t show real lives; be confident but never, ever brag; big is beautiful, and, when all else fails, use a baby.
Doctoroff admitted that “none of these hit the sweet spot” for marketing apparel. He suggested the sections of his book most relevant to fashion are the chapters exploring the motivations of the middle class — which has had a historically precarious position in China, torn between instincts of survival and transcendence — and on the motivations of women.
“Chinese women are extremely focused on the family; their role has always been to protect the family,” he argued. “They have no valid social role unless they are marrying and having a child. So the ultimate destination of Chinese women, historically, has been to have sons and protect the family from evil invaders, everything from germs to political incorrectness to gossip in the street. And still, today, marriage and child are the ultimate destination of most women, they will not consider themselves complete individuals if they don’t have that.
“On the other hand, Confucianism is very socially mobile, and then Mao stoked that instinct toward social mobility by saying that women should hold up half the sky … He was saying that women, like men, have an obligation to contribute to the construction of a social utopia.”
Thus, Chinese women are torn between “two very different archetypes: the protective, kind, loving angel mother, and on the other hand, the worker warrior, which accounts for a lot of the behavior you see in women,” Doctoroff continued. “A woman, no matter who she is, really wants to advance, but as they advance they can never sacrifice their femininity — be masculine, or harsh, or abrupt. They need to be … strong on the inside, but outside as gentle as a little kitty. So this need to balance femininity with advancement is a basic need of Chinese women.”
One area in which this plays out, Doctoroff said, is in the Chinese concept of beauty. “Beauty in the West is much more transformational — a woman wants to recreate herself … You have these goddesses on a pedestal. These are completely inaccessible. Chinese women don’t want that; they want accessible beauty, they want inclusive beauty. They want to perfect themselves, they want to sculpt themselves, they want to make their skin smoother.”
For example, “The dominant need of hairstyling is alignment, keeping your hair in place. It’s not fashion creation, or coif creation, it’s really about alignment. You can have an expressive element to your beauty, but still, explicit showing off, or striking expression, does not make people feel comfortable.”
The fashion industry’s propensity for using edgy-looking models with outlandish hairstyles “is a mistake in China,” claimed Doctoroff. “Features that stick out are horrifying; high cheekbones are OK, but the best thing is a nice round, smooth face, practically circular. Anything that sticks out — figuratively, literally, metaphorically — is bad.” It contradicts the Chinese desire “to show off without giving the impression that you’re showing off … [There’s] this balance, conflict between being recognized and trying to fit it. It’s very coy, or understated.”
In advertising, “Chinese prefer to see Chinese faces,” he argued. Generally, local is better, but if you have a truly iconic foreign celebrity, it will work … Theoretically, celebrities should be very useful, because Chinese admire expertise, they admire power and status, so you can easily borrow interest with celebrity. The problem is that there is a very narrow bandwidth; they’re all in the same Cantopop cotton candy ball.” Of the handful of Chinese celebrities, “very few of these actually stand for something, but even when they do it’s not used.”
In terms of branding, luxury faces an uphill battle in China due to its very niche target audience. “Shanghai is still not a wealthy market, and there are very few people on an absolute level who can afford luxury goods, despite the fact that they make an impression.”
Also, the newness of China’s upper and middle classes means that luxury is a very raw market, making it hard for brands to find their footing. “Brand vision … seamlessly integrates a unique consumer motivation and a product point of difference into one idea. Not one fashion brand has accomplished that here. Luxury cars and mobile phones are getting better at it, but fashion isn’t.” Doctoroff suggested that luxury fashion should study examples like Nokia and do more to extend their brands downward with more affordable subbrands, creating a “stairway to paradise” for the aspirational consumer.