My wife and I just held our wedding banquet in Shanghai, a few months after a ceremony in the United States.
While both weddings symbolize the joining of families, in China, the word “family” connotes a heavy weight of obligation: filial piety, unity, and alignment of group and individual needs.
This sense of obligation drives the wedding experience: rather than being a day for the bride and groom, Chinese weddings are celebration of family, and an opportunity for the family to show off in front of all its most important relationships. The entire ceremony, from receiving line photos to after-dinner toasting, is a stage-managed production designed to put on a show for the guests and give face to the hosts.
Participating in a Chinese wedding is hard work.
Luckily, Chinese brides- and grooms-to-be have help: China’s wedding industry is an $80 billion behemoth, fueled by an emphasis on outward display and the concentration of family resources on the one-child generation. As weddings increasingly incorporate both Western and Chinese elements, those brands that can tap into the mentalities of decision makers have a tremendous opportunity to define their place in China’s wedding market.
With these facts in mind, here are several things brands should take into account when trying to cash in on China’s marriage boom:
Brands need to understand the basic drivers of consumer choice
When my father-in-law learned we were getting married, his first words were “we need to book a five-star hotel.”
That he did not know any five-star hotels was not important. With exactly one child to marry off, my parents-in-law were going to make the most of the opportunity to gain face in front of everyone that matters to them. Five-star hotels are at the top of the pecking order for Shanghai wedding venues, and that was where there daughter would get married.
After visiting a number of international five-star hotels, we had found a winner: a perfect banquet hall, a beautiful view, and working with some of top wedding planning companies in the city. It was only when we sat down to discuss contract details that we encountered a problem: the hotel’s inflexible wedding menu options, with no substitutions allowed. According to my mother-in-law, the set options “neither look delicious, nor do they give us face.”
In a culture that emphasizes face and food, it was a deal breaker.
Nearly every luxury hotel in Shanghai has a beautiful ballroom, great location, and works with professional wedding planning companies. Once you’ve seen a half dozen, all of the venues start to blend together.
The hotel where we had our wedding was chosen solely on the merits of its menu.
Brands have opportunities to define the wedding experience
The wedding dress was a foregone conclusion: like so many Chinese girls, my wife wanted to be married in Vera Wang. She didn’t try on other designers. Despite the debacle of Vera’s Shanghai store opening this year, her brand is standing strong and remains synonymous with “beautiful wedding” in the eyes of Chinese brides-to-be.
My own outfit was more of a challenge. The wedding planner had been overly helpful on the wedding dress decision, recommending couture dress after couture dress well outside our price range (like any Chinese consumers who have the option, we bought the dress abroad). It was with no small amount of apprehension that we asked about my own options.
The problem was, they had no idea. One of the top wedding planners in Shanghai, known for their work with Taiwanese celebrities and highly experienced in partnering with top international hotels, seriously suggested that matching T-shirts would probably be ok if I didn’t want to pay a visit to a local fabric market. Apparently, it doesn’t matter what the groom wears as long as he shows up.
There is no “Vera Wang” for menswear, but there should be—and the luxury brand that fills that gap will reap the rewards.
Defining weddings today does not equate to defining weddings tomorrow
Wedding candy in China is extremely important, and is given not only to guests but also to acquaintances, friends, and colleagues who don’t attend the banquet.
Over the past twenty years, premium wedding candy in China has come to be dominated by one product, Ferrero Rocher. They have lucky gold packaging. A pair fits perfectly into small boxes. They are delicious. And most importantly, they were the first premium chocolate to enter the market. Everyone knows they are expensive, and they provide the gift-giver with a lot of face.
My parents-in-law didn’t think about what wedding candy to buy. They simply bought Ferrero.
Despite her love of Ferrero Rocher, my wife vetoed using it for our wedding: she thinks they are overexposed. She wanted to do something different, unique, and meaningful: personalized candies that had our initials in them. Never mind that the brand would not be recognized by anyone, and that traditionally, it’s extremely unlucky to give “pieces” of anything as Chinese wedding candies.
We ended up with a compromise, giving Ferrero to my parents-in-law’s guests, and the personalized candies for our coworkers and friends. The guests were impressed and happy on both sides of the room.
Chinese consumers are dynamic and their values are changing. Those brands that define China’s wedding market today can’t take their position for granted. Although they may continue to expand into China’s lower-tier cities, there is a rising class of consumers in Tier 1 and 2 cities looking for new definitions.
All the world’s a stage
Chinese weddings are theatre. The players share the stage with many brands: the costumes, props, and supporting characters that convey the meaning of the experience and allow the hosting families to gain face with the audience.
Only those brands that understand this mentality, and walk in step with consumers’ evolving values, will be able play a role in defining China’s “beautiful weddings.”
James Button is a Senior Manager at SmithStreetSolutions, a growth consultancy based in Shanghai, where he works with a number of premium and luxury brands on their China entry, growth, and e-commerce strategies. Follow James and SmithStreetSolutions on Twitter.