Tapping into China’s Powerful Luxury Consumer: Hong Kong’s ‘Tai Tai’

The ‘trophy wife” is a cliché that doesn’t apply to Hong Kong’s high-caste women. These ladies, who end up marrying the city’s high-status men, are almost always either highly-educated, super-sophisticated socialites or high-powered career women.

The South China Morning Post points out that the number of Hong Kong career women marrying Chinese men has skyrocketed over the past few decades because “educated Hong Kong women are attracted to the ‘three highs’ in successful Chinese men: high education, high position at work, and high income.” But because of traditional family structures and cultural imprints, many of these women give up their careers after marriage to become caretakers and high-profile wives.

Interestingly enough, a global survey by HSBC shows that compared to other Asians, Hong Kong women are more likely to sacrifice their career and embrace a homemaker role. Just to put things into perspective, the only five percent of working mothers in China would leave their careers after having a child, but 26 percent of Hong-Kong women in the workforce would be willing to do so.

According to Ruchika Tulshyan from Forbes, “in developed economies like Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s considered a gift if a woman can choose to leave her career if her husband earns enough to cover the family.” Ruchika also says that “Asian women will openly admit, even proudly, if their husbands are out-earning them,” and they don’t experience any social stigma for being housewives.

Naturally, once a woman becomes a tai tai (太太) she has a higher disposable income level and more time for leisure pursuits. Therefore, activities such as spa treatments, charitable projects, exclusive shopping sprees, and luxury vacations are included in daily tasks. Accordingly, the tai tai with her high-consumption lifestyle can be considered the quintessential luxury consumer.

Interestingly enough, despite being brand-conscious and having significant purchasing power and luxury know-how, the tai tai consumer group is still largely neglected in luxury marketing campaigns in China. Although ernai (mistresses) and sheng nu (“leftover women”) have both been clearly targeted by luxury brands in the past, that’s not the case with this group of affluent wives who remain less understood.

So what’s the profile of today’s tai tai and what makes them tick? Chairman Mao once famously said, “Women hold up half of the sky,” and that’s as obvious in Hong Kong as in mainland China, where women hold immense purchasing power. But society can no longer push women into an all-encompassing, homogenous consumer group. Through market segmentation, we’ve learned that there are several important subgroups with totally different spending patterns, and the ultra-wealthy wife is just one more luxury growth engine.

The tai tai is a globalized consumer who has a deep-rooted love for luxury and her own perception of value. As stated in They Fear the Sell-by Date by Monica Gwee (1999) published in The Straits Times, “there is no such thing as a Hong Kong tai-tai who doesn’t know how much things cost.” Essentially, these women have a value-centric perception of brands.

Gwee also points out that in Hong Kong’s high society, a tai tai “is judged by the cleverness of her designer ensemble,” therefore, it’s not surprising that she will venerate heritage brands such as Chanel, Hermès, and Christian Dior. But her admiration does not mean blind devotion, and luxury brands who provide custom pieces, personalized services, and loyalty programs can develop a long-lasting relationship with her.

Given that the tai tai knows her privileged place in society, she might appear imperious and demanding, but that’s a shallow perception. She’s an authoritative consumer who appreciates personalized care, great customer service, and an impeccable sales experience.

According to a survey by the Swiss bank, Julius Baer, 71 percent of Hong Kong women “are financial decision-makers in their households.” With control of immense wealth comes responsibility, and the tai tai understands that frivolous luxury purchases and status symbols are not as important as investment assets such as jewelry, real estate, and watches. This stable behavior stands in sharp contrast to the luxury consumption patterns of younger, less experienced female buyers (Gen-Z and Millennial women) who respond to emotional stimulants and impulses.

In fact, because of her immense fortune, we often see the tai tai as an extravagant, self-indulgent consumer — but don’t expect her to flaunt her wealth. She will value luxury brands that communicate a subtle, understated elegance (Chloé, Chanel), and she’ll expect a certain level of discretion in transactions. Lastly, the tai tai will sympathize with brands that offer female-centric services (think special events for International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day) and that clearly understand a customer’s needs, perceptions, and expectations.

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Consumer