There was a time when a big brand name would mean everything for Chinese luxury consumers. But now, they will have to witness, experience, and relate to it before being committed to buying. This was the message from the luxury brands present at British Polo Day in Beijing on Sept 3.
The annual event, which tours across Europe, America, and Asia, held its sixth year in China this weekend. More than 200 well-heeled guests were invited to Tang Polo Club in Beijing, where two matches were held between Chinese and British teams.
The guests were greeted by a green doorman from Harrods and received with Taittinger Champagne before being ushered into the invitation-only club.
While it is called British Polo Day, the event is more of an extravaganza of British luxury with polo as a quintessentially British backdrop.
Initiated in 2009, the event was intended to provide a global networking platform for British luxury brands through the “international language of the horse.”
As Chinese luxury consumers switch from conspicuous to discerning consumption, Ed Olver, co-founder and director of British Polo Day, says the market is in fact turning to the same values that British Polo Day has been pushing: scarcity, privacy, and subtlety. Olver used to work for Deutsche Bank and served in the British Army.
“When every Chinese can go on Alibaba to buy anything, very few can get invited to the British Polo Day,” he says.
“Now, luxury in China is not about the price, showing off, or disgusting consumption. It’s about the appreciation of quality. It’s about how you feel about and understand the brand.”
The event is funded by sponsors who in return benefit from engaging with British Polo Day’s high-net-worth individual community in 16 countries.
Bentley, one of the team sponsors, is looking to organize sideline driving events with the British Polo Day for their mutual clients in China.
“What it offers is a global platform with events around the world, leveraging Britain and all good things from Britain. They also have an interesting audience that Bentley wants to talk to,” says Graeme Russell, Bentley’s head of brand communications.
The private nature of the event also helped foster personal relationships that can usually grow into business opportunities.
Peter Hugh Prentice, global VIP relations director for Royal Salute, has been traveling with the event for two years. The brand offered tastings of its 21-year-old blended Scotch whisky in custom-made blue porcelain at the British Polo Day.
Prentice set up various WhatsApp groups for clients he met in different countries, organizing special events like a private tour to its distillery in Scotland.
“It’s all about building a network of influential and convivial people. It’s a very top-down strategy. You can see the love of Royal Salute passing through their own networks,” he says.
On the eve of event, Chinese-American fashion designer Grace Chen, who is also a British Polo Day community partner, organized a private dinner with London wine merchants Justerini & Brooks, introducing some of the most exclusive bottles, along with the business community of British Polo Day, to her couture clients.
Chen, who just held a fashion show in London in June, says that Chinese luxury consumers these days are seeking specialness and spiritual connection rather than just a brand name.
“When luxury gets popular, the appeal gets lost. Why don't people buy Chanel or Armani suits anymore? Because they already have so many of them,” she says.
“Luxury is about connection and comprehension. But most luxury brands don’t do that when they come to China. They don’t change anything for this country. They didn’t do the color analysis or study the physiological needs of Chinese consumers. They just try to sell without understanding them,” she says.
Her view is shared by Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods.
With China being Harrods’ number one overseas market, the department store has been sponsoring the British Polo Day in an attempt to maintain a long-term relationship with the local clients.
Ward says that the biggest problem for British brands at the moment is that it is not personalized enough.
“A simple thing is that the average Chinese foot is entirely different from the European foot. And they continue to design for the European foot. There are certain things that the British brands are not learning on how to make the Chinese women perfect. That’s the next generation of developing and growing in this market,” he says.
Talking about Brexit, the crowd gathered at British Polo Day seem to be more on the optimistic side.
Ward says he sees it as an opportunity for British luxury brands in the long term as the depreciation of sterling has made them more accessible.
The spending of Chinese consumers in Harrods has surged significantly since the pound dropped after UK voted to leave the European Union, as the store monitored through China UnionPay and other payment channels.
Olver, the British Polo Day co-founder, says there are now more positivities coming out from the government and companies in the face of challenges.
“There might be short-term problems with the market and the currency. In the long term, we feel greater energy. There will be more interest in Britain because it’s now more unique and dynamic,” he says.