China's luxury market

November 14, 2023 •

7 min reading

Strategies for success in China's changing luxury market

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  • China’s luxury market is one of the hottest on the planet, with the strongest growth happening in digital and domestic luxury sales.
  • Success in this market requires appealing to cultural motivations and changing consumer tastes through three key marketing angles.
  • Luxury brands will get the best results from unique experiences and lifestyle offers, digital channels for younger generations, and culturally or socially resonant themes.

Following the government's declaration of relaxed anti-pandemic measures in late 2022, experts predicted that China's luxury market would revive in 2023. Despite a slow start, the market is showing optimistic signs of revival. LVMH's Asia sales, for instance, increased by 14% in the first quarter of 2023, with China accounting for almost 80% of the company's regional revenues.

Post-covid luxury market growth in China

In the wake of COVID-19, luxury markets worldwide faced a period of unsettling uncertainty. However, as the dust settles, China's luxury market emerges not just intact, but burgeoning, exemplifying luxury market growth. Sales figures paint a vivid portrait: luxury sales in China, driven significantly by Chinese luxury consumers, have experienced an impressive resurgence, outpacing even the most optimistic forecasts. Experts attribute this resurgence to a combination of factors, from pent-up luxury buying to the resilience of the Chinese economy and cultural insights.

Specifically, the GDP of China, despite the global downturn caused by the pandemic, has been steadily rising. This economic resilience has contributed to buoying the luxury sector. High-net-worth individuals, who found fewer opportunities for overseas shopping sprees during the pandemic, have turned inward, fueling domestic luxury sales.

Digital transformation also played a role. In a landscape where brick-and-mortar stores faced shutdowns, luxury brands that had developed a robust online presence enjoyed a significant edge. China, a global leader in e-commerce, offered a fertile ground for such digital transitions, with platforms like WeChat and Alibaba providing seamless shopping experiences for high-end clients.

The allure of luxury: Cultural insights

To truly capture the essence of the Chinese luxury market, one must delve into the rich tapestry of its culture, where the concept of luxury is intricately linked to social dynamics. "Face" or "mianzi" is a social currency in China, and luxury brands serve as a potent symbol of social stature and prestige. This cultural concept extends beyond mere ownership to a matter of lineage and heritage, where possessing a limited-edition artifact or a vintage collection can significantly elevate one's social standing.

Acknowledging this, global luxury brands have begun to craft bespoke strategies for the Chinese consumer. Whether it's incorporating local elements like the Chinese zodiac into watch designs or collaborating with Chinese artists for limited-edition releases, these brands are finding nuanced ways to appeal to local tastes without losing their global essence.

Luxe preferences: Changing consumer tastes

The Chinese luxury fashion industry is undergoing a significant transformation, moving away from a singular preference for well-established global brands to embracing a more varied and eclectic taste. This transformative shift signals a matured, discerning consumer base of high-end clients that seek more than just a recognizable logo. The focus is shifting towards individuality, craftsmanship, and ethical considerations as key factors influencing purchases.

The rise of local brands and independent designers stands as proof of this change. These new players in the luxury scene offer unique designs, embrace sustainable practices, and bring a fresh perspective, aligning closely with the evolving consumer preference for authenticity and individuality.

Strategies for thriving in the Chinese luxury market

Success in the Chinese market is about delivering more than just a high-quality product; it necessitates providing a holistic experience. Brands that have found success in this market focus on three key aspects:

  • storytelling,
  • heritage,
  • personalization.

Storytelling provides an emotional connection, a narrative that transcends the material to touch the immaterial realms of identity and aspiration. Heritage offers a sense of timelessness, a link to a glorified past and a promising future. Lastly, personalization ensures that the luxury experience is tailored to the individual, making it not just a purchase but an identity statement.

Brands such as Hermès and Gucci have exemplified this trifecta, offering not just handbags and apparel, but a story, a history, and a personalized luxury experience that speaks to the aspirations of their clientele. As China's luxury market continues to grow, understanding and applying these principles will be key to finding a foothold in this increasingly competitive, yet rewarding landscape.

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Insights for future: Projections for the Chinese luxury market

As we delve deeper into this decade, the Chinese luxury market is not just an emerging phenomenon; it is crystallizing into an essential segment for the global luxury sector. Experts, including Chen BAO, Director & Head of China, EHL Growth Office Team, emphasize that underestimating this market is akin to ignoring the future of luxury itself. Here are key insights and trends to which both established and burgeoning luxury brands should pay close attention.

Beyond goods: The experience economy

In the past, luxury was predominantly tied to material goods, but the narrative has dramatically evolved. Today's Chinese luxury consumer seeks an enriched 'experience.' From private yacht journeys on the Yangtze River to intimate culinary experiences with world-renowned chefs and members-only art exhibitions, the focus has pivoted from mere ownership to rich, personalized experiences.

The concept of luxury has transcended its traditional hallmarks of high-quality products and exquisite craftsmanship. The shift is towards a ‘luxury lifestyle,’ where products and services should seamlessly integrate and elevate one's lifestyle. Gen Z, in particular, has been a driving force behind this shift, creating trends that rapidly transform into lifestyle imperatives, as seen in the recent street BBQ craze in Zibo.

Rising luxury awareness amongst Chinese millennials and genz

Both Millennials and Gen Z are disrupting the traditional contours of the Chinese luxury market. Tencent's recent research, in collaboration with BCG, reveals that post-Covid influences have led Chinese consumers to prefer buying luxury goods domestically rather than abroad. This demographic seeks a deeper sense of "self-satisfaction" through shopping experiences influenced by timeless designs and fine craftsmanship, contrary to being solely trend-driven. Brands that succeed in weaving their narrative into a compelling story are becoming increasingly attractive to these sophisticated shoppers.

According to Estée Lauder, Gen Z is ranked No.1 in heavy spenders and is highly influenced by fast-growing online channels. Weixin, for instance, is the primary influencer in their luxury shopping decisions. The change is so pivotal that brands have to be more "customer-centric" as opposed to "product-centered," adapting to the voice and expectations of the new generation.

Exclusive insights: Luxury industry experts

When experts talk, it’s wise for the market to listen. EHL Graduate School faculty members and other industry stalwarts point out that understanding the behavior of Chinese luxury consumers is the foundation of successful luxury brand management. "Adaptability is key," says Chen BAO, particularly concerning shifts towards online retail and incorporating culturally resonant motifs

Furthermore, there’s a burgeoning trend of “Made in China” luxury products that are beginning to rival the traditional cachet of "Made in France” or “Made in Switzerland”. A remarkable example is the beauty startup Ellure, founded by Ms. Selah LI, that addresses the issue of waste in the industry by allowing customers to personalize beauty products through 3D technology.

Digital adaptation in China, particularly among early adopters, is also critical. Payments through "hand wave" technology are already in trial runs. AI Chatbots like Baidu's "Ernie Bot" have been officially approved and are gaining popularity. Being digitally savvy isn't a bonus; it's a necessity.

The Chinese luxury market is evolving at an unprecedented speed, fueled by a young, tech-savvy, and increasingly discerning consumer base. Brands that listen, adapt, and offer deeply personalized and meaningful experiences are those that will thrive in this dynamic landscape.

For brands looking to make a splash in the Chinese luxury market, the rulebook is evolving. Understanding cultural specifics, adapting to changing consumer tastes, and embracing the experience economy are just some of the strategies for success. But understanding these dynamics isn't a mere luxury—it's a necessity.

If you're intrigued by the world of luxury and considering a career in this vibrant sector, exploring specialized educational opportunities can equip you with the tools to navigate this ever-changing landscape.