While looking into the Chinese retail landscape, KOLs and influencers seem to emerge as the sales drivers, and brands are keen to enter the brand-influencer matchmaking game. However, this game can become tricky if the brand and the brand ambassador’s identity are not aligned.
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Understanding the current scenario is quite difficult for outsiders, and a deep knowledge of Chinese culture is needed to interact with the emerging middle-class who represents the segment of the market with a growing purchasing power, but also a more sophisticated taste and knowledge of products.
Brands willing to enter the market and to engage with the notorious millennials (those who were born after 1985) often underestimate the immeasurable amount of information those individuals have at their disposal and how good they are at evaluating this information to make their own choices.
To understand better the challenging Chinese market, Retail in Asia has met John Steere, President of MyMM, a joint venture between the Lane Crawford Group, Wharf Holdings Company and eCargo.
MyMM is a leading global fashion mobile social and commerce platform offering a variety of beauty, fashion and lifestyle selections together with a community of brands, KOLs, influencers, and consumers.
John was born in Saigon to a Chinese mother and an American diplomat father. He grew up as a true international person, living and working in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Pakistan, Thailand, Germany and the US. With a BA in East Asian Studies and Graduate Studies in Modern Chinese Politics from the University of Washington, he began his career teaching at Sichuan Institute of Foreign Languages in Chongqing, ran a number of 4A Ad Agencies and digital in China as well.
His international background and deep understanding of Asian, and Chinese culture specifically, enable him to oversee MyMM development from a 360-degree approach aimed to consider the cultural implications of the phenomena that have been shaping the retail landscape in China.
John shared with us his views on KOLs, influencers, their evolution, and the derived ‘influencer economy’, the same that MyMM utilizes. The concept of KOLs and influencers in China is changing and the somewhat negative connotation associated with those two figures who able to persuade people to buy products through their rhetoric is fading out as consumers are looking for a new value – “authenticity”.
John explained that authenticity is at the core of MyMM. At MyMM, KOLs and influencers promoting the brands are usually fans of the brands, and at the same time are micro-influencers in their own branded world.
For example, if an Australian athleisure merchant focusing on yoga apparel is to join the MyMM platform, there will be a corresponding yoga instructor/influencer from Australia as a brand ambassador because of her/his authentic personification of the brand. Why, because only an Australian yoga instructor would be able to comment on the product features such as moisture wicking, fast drying, and flexibility of an Australian brand. This is authenticity to us. And we believe this will resonate with the Chinese consumers.
The ultimate takeaway is that an endorsement works properly only if the brand resonates with its ambassador and vis versa.
For influencers, the parameter of the number of followers is no longer relevant. There are lots of padding going on. That’s why micro-level influencers who may not have a lot of followers are gaining popularity.
They propose a fresh and more authentic point of view on brands. As customers have become more sophisticated, they can easily spot tricks. KOLs are losing their appeal to younger generations as they are more willing to rely on their peers, who can be considered as micro-influencers.
“In the digital era, everybody is able to create content, for example, a girl who has just graduated from a design school has definitely a really cool point of view about fashion and design, maybe she spent some time overseas, she has a good perspective, and she can influence her peers more than any other celebrities. It may sound slightly utopian, but we are being overwhelmed by information, so to stay relevant is to go back to authenticity and reality,” John explained.
John is also aware of the fact that the generation gap today is actually shorter than in the past, that’s why at MyMM most employees are millennials. The strategy has been developed to be able to understand the target market from a more cultural insider perspective. Being part of the same demographics and sharing the same cultural background enables employees to better understand their target market, the evolution and change in trends, and look into data from a more conscious and relatable perspective.
The staff is mostly Chinese, and a few from Taiwan, because they represent the main market for the platform. The research team inside the company focuses on understanding the Chinese consumers’ needs, or even more importantly the ever changing trends in the fashion and e-commerce industry. What’s fascinating is that for the first time, it is China and this side of the world that is leading change and innovation.
However, most sectors in China are still at the exploratory and experimental stage, and brands are looking for ways to establish their identity focusing on the fact that Chinese consumers have a higher purchasing power and sophistication than in the past.
In the travel industry, for example, the shift is quite visible. In the past Chinese travelers were choosing top destinations, nowadays they are looking for unique experiences that match their lifestyle instead of following trends, John points out.
Japan, for instance, was more about cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, now it is more of a skiing destination or an unique Onsen which enables travelers to discover a richer experience. Same for France, instead of Paris, Chinese travelers have started exploring the South of France, Aix-en-Provence, looking for food and wine experience more than shopping and city sightseeing. It is more about a shareable experience than a selfie in front of the Eifel Tower.
Same applies to food and fashion, Chinese desire to explore new things, not trends but very personal choices which enrich their overall experience in life.
John highlights how being part of a group with a very strong focus on fashion and retail has its benefits. He is familiar with categories such as beauty, fashion, and lifestyle and he experiences how people working with those categories have to adjust their way of thinking to the new ecosystem. Now it is much more about understanding the genesis of a trend, where is it going, what could be its impact on a business, more than following the trend.
This requires a more holistic approach that enables people to rely on data, learn and extract relevant information useful to improve the business. However, John promotes a human approach to data – AI is a great invention but there are things machines cannot assess which would require a more social perspective.
We also asked John to share with us some of the data his research team is analyzing and give us a better picture of what’s going on in China in terms of trends. Observable trends are more cross-sectors rather than sector-based. Take the proliferation of health clubs, for example, which has led to the whole athleisure trend. More and more women and men in China are wearing those clothes to show they are establishing a healthier lifestyle – it is more of a statement. Not sure, whether this is a trend destined to stay or be gone in a few years, but it is there. And brands are riding this wave.
“Beauty is a sector which is growing and information we got reflects the great influence of Korean and Japanese brands that resonate very well with the Chinese consumers,” John said.
Besides trends which are there, John shared with us his desire to see more sustainable and ethical fashion brands. “I think it is happening globally, but there is still room to grow. What we can do is provide more brands within this category and better educate the consumers on the benefits of organic and sustainable brands both for themselves and the overall environment,” John stated. “Sustainability is not something that is really ingrained in the Chinese society yet.
There are a lot of Chinese designers working on sustainable solutions, but it takes time to embrace the practice,” he acknowledged.
Other visible trends are more related to the way Chinese consumers consume content, instead of merely focusing on goods consumption. In this regard, there is a shift from static images to short videos, and a convergence between fashion ads and entertainment, technology and social.
This has led to MyMM adopting a content strategy that is more focused on education and knowledge sharing whether it be of a product or a trend. These ‘life improvements’ topics can range all the way from how to apply a foundation from a particular brand to how does one dress up for an interview.
Understanding what it takes to make life easier, without giving up on the glamour for instance is key in the Chinese market. MyMM will help brands joining the platform create content that works for the Chinese consumers, with the support of our editorial and marketing teams. “And, content is watched more often than it is read, so make sure you have a very well thought out Video content strategy,” concluded John.
Another interesting topic discussed with John was the myth that women are more concerned with fashion than men. On MyMM, women buy for men, but not because men are less style-conscious, but because most of the products offered by brands are still very much catered to women.
Research has shown that both women and men are actually interested in skincare and the men’s skincare market is one of the fastest growing in the beauty category in the US and EU. “Hopefully, we will soon be able to provide men with a wider range of products so that we will be able to gather enough data to tell us where the trend is going,” John concluded.
Our conversation with John was a full immersion into the Chinese e-commerce and social landscape, and we realized there is a need for a more cultural and human-centric approach when it comes to ‘interpreting the numbers’, taking also into consideration the genesis of trends. China is still a fascinating and promising market to explore and its continuous growth and dynamic nature makes it ever more challenging.
But understanding this market comes with its rewards – as this largest eCommerce market in the world also mirrors the trends that will pervade the rest of the world later on.
We are definitely looking forward to seeing the development of MyMM to understand what Chinese millennials want, and how brands can satisfy the more and more sophisticated customers.
Additionally, MyMM is implementing its omnichannel strategy, that’s why we are glad to announce that John is joining our panel discussion. REGISTER NOW!