Can China Ignite the Wearable Tech Market with Smart Eyewear?

    Wearable tech has been a failing market until a new Huawei and Gentle Monster collaboration sparked China's latest obsession: Smart eyewear.
    Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear is a good example of how local smartphones, wearables, and operation systems are connecting in today’s market. Photo: Courtesy of Gentle Monster
      Published   in Technology

    In late August, the Chinese telecom company Huawei and the fast-growing eyewear brand Gentle Monster dropped a new wearable tech collaboration called Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear, which features a series of smart sunglasses and optical frames in Gentle Monster’s most popular unisex style. Though there’s no camera in the glasses, they can take calls via a microphone and earphones that don’t connect directly to the ears. The product sold out almost instantly upon release.

    The collaboration has sparked positive conversations from netizens on Chinese social media, and the trending topic #GentleMonsterHuaweiSmartEyewear received 120 million views on Weibo on the product’s launch day (a number that’s grown to 190 million at the time of publishing). This isn’t the first attempt to launch wearable tech in China. In 2015, the Apple Watch x Hermès was expected to lead a new wearable tech market boom in China. But since then, there have been no other major advancements in the market. In China, like in Western markets, the future of wearable tech has remained murky.

    Although Apple was once booming in China thanks to its luxury marketing, the company’s market share in the country has continued to drop throughout 2019, mostly because of the China-US trade war. But Apple’s decline and Google’s absence is leaving an opportunity for Chinese tech giants to control the wearable tech market, and both Huawei and Xiaomi are attempting just that. But the upward trajectory of these local tech companies wouldn’t be possible without patriotic Chinese consumers. According to the latest “China Brand Relevance Index” announced by the consulting agency Prophet, Huawei now ranks second in relevance with Apple dropping from 11th to 24th. The report also unveils an “amplified national pride” among Chinese consumers who are willing to support local brands that show strong power and influence on the global stage.

    “When it comes to mobile phones, the Chinese players benefited from the increased attention that the China-US trade war brought to the category,” says Jay Milliken, Senior Partner and Asia Regional Lead of Prophet. “When the US government singled out Huawei for a potential ban, it led to more Chinese consumers shifting their purchases to domestic mobile phone brands.” And the competition among smartphones companies naturally extends to the wearables market.

    The series features speakers and microphones that allow users to answer phone calls, listen to music, and interact with a virtual assistant. It is also paired with built-in AI Bluetooth noise reduction technology to improve the audio quality.
    The series features speakers and microphones that allow users to answer phone calls, listen to music, and interact with a virtual assistant. It is also paired with built-in AI Bluetooth noise reduction technology to improve the audio quality.

    Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear is a good example of how local smartphones, wearables, and operation systems are connecting in today’s market. Though the eyewear can be attached to various smartphone models, not limited to Huawei, customers can gain exclusive experiences by pairing with Huawei smartphones.

    Thus far, the wearables market has failed to fully gain steam, but China’s domestic tech giants are preparing for a new wearables tech movement. The success of Gentle Monster x Huawei marks an important shift, as the market transitions from once-favored smartwatches and bands to “hearables,” which have recently been cited in a report by IDC as the next big thing in wearable tech and are projected to capture 46.9% of the overall market in 2019.

    While highly successful, Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear is not the pioneer of hearable eyewear. Bose released a similar product called the “Bose Frame” earlier this year, and while the Bose product works similarly to the Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear, Bose’s glasses failed to generate the same fanfare. Chinese customers have shown a huge preference to Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear thanks to Gentle Monster’s stylish look, even though Bose is widely known to have exceptionally high audio quality.

    The power of ‘looking cool’ has been confirmed ever since HUAWEI’s press conference in March when Hankook Kim, the founder and CEO of Gentle Monster, stated, “Eyewear comes first, smart comes later.”, Kim differentiated smart eyewear from smartphones and smartwatches by saying that consumers would only be willing to wear the tech on their faces if the product is good-looking.

    Both Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group, and Kim declared that it was this shared understanding of the wearables tech that facilitated their collaboration. It’s never easy for tech companies to find a suitable collaborator. There have been some awkward moments, including Google Glass strutting down the runway with Diane von Furstenberg in 2012. Tech companies should always keep in mind that consumers expect more than technology-plus-fashion with a wearable fashion tech product. In Huawei’s case, Gentle Monster was the perfect choice for creating their smart eyewear.

    That’s because Gentle Monster has seen rapid expansion inside China, and the key to it retaining customer loyalty is to deliver new products that are ahead of the curve. The brand’s collaborations with fashion’s biggest names — Fendi, Ambush, and Alexander Wang — happened in quick succession, and Huawei’s smart eyewear extends the brand’s personality of freshness and innovation while also letting Gentle Monster stand out in a sea of fashion partnerships.

    Now that more and more Chinese celebrities such as Li Yifeng and Kris Wu have become Gentle Monster fans, the brand has seen a swell of awareness and reputation among Chinese consumers. That appeal is attributed to the brand’s extensive marketing, including its dedication to creating unique experiences. To introduce their new smart eyewear to more potential consumers, Gentle Monster widened its marketing reach by collaborating with KOLs who are active across various arenas, from fashion and beauty to technology.

    Meanwhile, the brand also chose to engage and interact with its customers through different channels. Two weeks in advance of the official release of the smart eyewear, Gentle Monster launched a WeChat Mini Program for users to sign up product samples for free and activated the pre-book channel in the Gentle Monster Tmall flagship store.

    “In the globalizing market, we favor omnichannel marketing and blur the boundary between online and offline,” Gentle Monster said to Jing Daily. “We hope to integrate various channels organically and bring unique experiences to our customers so as to cultivate and consolidate our long-term relationship with customers.”

    Indeed, Gentle Monster has mastered branding in China, making the eyewear company a smart match for Huawei as they try to tap into high fashion. In the end, the marriage between tech companies and fashion labels is reciprocal, and both sides appear to come out on top. “Huawei benefits from this partnership by being seen as younger and more modern through its association with a hip brand,” Milliken comments on the eyewear, “while Gentle Monster’s alliance with Huawei will introduce the brand to a larger audience.” Whether the product is seen as a fashion statement or social currency, it offers an impressive buzz that’s beneficial to both parties.

    The Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear series is priced at 285 (1,999 RMB) and 357 (2,499 RMB), approximately 100 higher than the same style without the smart package. While they are positioned as high-end eyewear, it’s a fairly good deal for an eyeglasses/headphones combination. And the prices are friendlier than some upscale collaborations like Apple Watch x Hermès.

    Chinese customers always seem ready to experiment with newness and are on the lookout for the next “badge of hipness.” The Gentle Monster x Huawei Smart Eyewear collaboration reminds us that what works even better than the coolest appearance or the most cutting-edge technology is the collision between the two, and sophisticated customers are proving that they want fashionable wearable at the right price.

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