The rise of social media has made the life of luxury brands much harder these days. The effort to shape and sway online consumer sentiment via well-planned digital marketing campaigns can be extensive; and the results— highly unpredictable. Parisian fashion powerhouse Christian Dior is the latest example in the Chinese luxury market where a brand’s marketing efforts went awry on the internet.
What’s more, Dior’s recent (good and bad) digital strategy, particularly its KOL strategy, indicates an even broader issue that is faced by many luxury brands in China: the pressure to play catch-up and maintain profit from this deeply competitive market through innovative product offerings, marketing strategy, and the struggle to execute against that need.
Another Controversial Brand Ambassador
On September 25, one day before Dior’s Spring/Summer 2018 Ready-To-Wear Fashion Show in Paris, the brand’s official Weibo account welcomed 29-year-old Chinese actress Zhao Liying as its new brand ambassador.
The announcement came less than five months after Dior’s previous appointment of 28-year-old Angelababy, another young actress with high online influence, as its first-ever Chinese brand ambassador. Dior’s selection of Angelababy has met tough review from Chinese consumers; many of them concerned with her image alignment with the brand.
When Jing Daily reached out to Dior on the rationale of Zhao’s appointment, especially to find out if she would be replacing Angelababy’s role with the brand due to the negative buzz, Dior China’s spokesperson denied this and said,
“Actually, we have two China brand ambassadors [who] are Angelababy and Huang Xuan before Zhao Liying. We are happy to welcome Zhao Liying to join Dior China Family.”
Angelababy and Zhao, both young, pretty, and hard-working, pose an overlapping public image. Zhao, like her predecessor, sparks harsh criticism.
“What is Dior thinking about? Does it only look at the number of celebrities’ zombie fans?” wrote a Weibo user named ‘Mr.F’ under Dior’s post. “I am not against Zhao or Angelababy, but their profiles really do not fit the brand!”
All About Creating Buzz Among Millennials
Brian Buchwald, Co-founder of the New York-based KOL marketing agency Bomoda, interpreted Zhao’s appointment as a further aggressive push made by Dior to appeal to a Chinese millennial audience, regardless of her ability to drive sales.
“A majority of Zhao’s fans are Millennials and Generation Z, who are inspired by her successful rise from a rural girl to an influential actress, and can easily relate to Zhao,” said Buchwald.
However, most third-party observers and industry specialists, according to Buchwald, viewed Zhao as unfashionable. Her history of brand endorsement includes mostly mass consumer brands such as Dove. Bomoda’s study also shows that while she is able to drive a massive amount of social buzz, she has limited power to encourage her followers to purchase products.
“A majority of her fans were young girls, who tended to be more active in supporting their idol vocally, especially on social media platforms, than actually expressing interest in buying,” he added.
Bold Attempt, Risky Choice
In contrast to the previous controversy caused by Angelababy when Chinese consumers questioned the appointment itself, the announcement of Zhao has resulted in criticism beyond the move—another area taking a hit is the design of Dior’s latest collection by the brand’s first female Creative Designer Maria Grazia Chiuri this time around.
Gogoboi, arguably China’s top fashion blogger who has a strong relationship with luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Givenchy, published a WeChat article on September 27 that made a joke of Dior’s S/S 2018 styles. In the post, he compared Dior’s newly millennial-inspired design to that of local Chinese womenswear brand Ayilian (阿依莲), a label that is known for its tacky and unfashionable styles among Chinese consumers.
Ayilian’s brand image is in total opposition of a high-end fashion brand, not to mention a brand with which Dior would want to be associated. By the time of this publication, Gogoboi’s post was read more than 100,000 times and liked by almost 1,000 users. Many readers cheered for his bravery of calling it out.
“Brands are facing consumers who have bought luxury products over the past years. Hence, you need new product ideas to convince them to part with their money,” said Luca Solca, Head of Luxury Goods Department of the French investment company Exane BNP Paribas, who disagreed with the criticism from China.
“I think Dior is in a better position than it implies here. Maria Grazia Chiuri seems to be starting on the right foot.”
An Identity Crisis?
It is an industry consensus that luxury brands must innovate with new products and marketing strategies to engage with the emerging Chinese millennial generation whose purchasing power is growing with each day.
Louis Houdart, Founder and Global Director of the branding agency Creative Capital, believes Dior’s desperate millennial push comes from the brand’s pressure to keep up its high growth in China.
“Everyone has been praising Gucci these past two to three collections, but we need to remember where it is coming from. Gucci has just gone through a turnaround, while for Dior, it is more about getting the music beating.”
“Growth is a must for a [luxury] brand like Dior. They are owned by a listed company, and shareholders and financial analysts need [to see] the growth – which is sometimes opposite to the value of a luxury brand that is supposed to be exclusive.”
“These same financial analysts want to see that the brand will continue to be relevant to younger consumers, and I guess this is where Zhao Liying’s lots of fans aged between 15 to 24 are relevant.”
However, the millennial push is fundamentally contrary to Dior’s long-established image that is familiar to the brand’s traditional wealthy Chinese consumers. This is likely to be one main reason why young brand ambassadors like Angelababy and Zhao cannot resonate with their existing fans.
“I always think Dior is a luxury brand designed for people who are in a transition from girls to women,” wrote a WeChat user named ‘Stella Rice’ under Gogoboi’s post. “The whole millennial push just distorted its DNA.”
Furthermore, Dior represents a common problem that most luxury brands have in China, which is trying too hard to cater to the taste of Chinese youth, which leads to a loss in its true identity and compromised authenticity and essence, to some degree. During the process of executing the millennial strategy, Dior diluted its value as an elite luxury brand, making it a label littered with social media backlash that generated from dramatic marketing and branding campaigns.