Successful “Heritage” Marketing Resonates with Consumers in China

Heritage brands need legacy to communicate and sustain their premium value. But businesses build legacy over a period of time, letting it grow organically with the brand. The challenge is that in our fast-paced society, when most aspects of our lives are dictated by a self-destructive speed, patience becomes a virtue that many startups can’t support.

In China, a country where connected consumers rewrite the rules of engagement, a paradox is shattering various Western heritage brands. According to research from the 2019 McKinsey China Luxury Report, young Chinese luxury consumers “have a less nuanced understanding of the heritage upon which the market traditionally trades.” Basically, these digitally engaged cohort doesn’t fully comprehend that the philosophy of heritage has at its core patience and a complete slowdown in communication. Furthermore, younger Chinese consumers demand exposure in the digital realm, but this ubiquity hurts the exclusiveness of the brand.

Given the complexity of the market, many international brands have failed in China. Some fizzled because they became too experiential, while others because they maintained their high class appeal without opening to the general public. But there are also heritage brands like Hermès and Dior that have balanced exclusivity and ubiquity by employing heritage marketing strategies. In fact, former Hermès CEO, Patrick Thomasput things into perspective by saying: “The luxury industry is built on a paradox: the more desirable the brand becomes, the more it sells, but the more it sells, the less desirable it becomes.” Indeed, this paradox dictates the rules of engagement; thus, communicating a brand’s legacy without overexposing the brand in the digital sphere has become a continuous struggle.

For younger Chinese consumers the dive in luxury comes through digital technologies. And luxury conglomerates like Kering and LVMH use high-tech options to communicate their heritage, aesthetics, craftsmanship, and history. Incorporating augmented reality, virtual reality, and data-backed strategies doesn’t indicate that we will overlook the heritage feature. On the contrary, these modern communication technologies are used to convey the winning qualities of a brand.

As mentioned above, luxury brands need to communicate their legacy if they want to build a long lasting relationship with their consumer base. Clearly, the digital world provides the tools for building engagement. Brands like Hermès, Dior, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton are doing an excellent job in China. Not only that, they use digital storytelling to communicate their craftsmanship and value, but they also develop engaging experiences that link online and offline channels. In other words, a successful heritage marketing strategy requires the strengthening of the brand equity and this is done by fully leveraging the power of social media platforms. Moreover, successful luxury brands use digital technology to create connections that are culturally relevant to the audience. Basically, rather than reinventing new marketing strategies, these companies build on their cultural patrimony, readapting the message to the local audience.

As an example, LVMH-backed Cha Ling has done a great job at merging the heritage and know-how of the French luxury conglomerate with Chinese values and expertise. Consequently, Chinese consumers saw Cha Ling as a brand that uplifts its own qualities (including the heritage component) by acknowledging Eastern cultural values. Furthermore, at no point in time, does Cha Ling or LVMH ridicule Chinese values by employing a subordinate-superior relationship in which European heritage and craftsmanship become principal assets, but rather it venerates the rich Chinese history, transforming it into the company’s greatest equity. In contrast, Dolce & Gabbana’s tone-deaf Eating with Chopsticks campaign proves how an European brand that is too focused on its own history (think the “Italianità” promoted by Dolce & Gabbana) becomes unusually rigid in its marketing strategy and incapable to embrace and understand foreign cultural elements.

Dropping an ill-advised marketing campaign on the luxury audience can have devastating outcomes. This applies in particular to China, a country with a uniquely rich culture, history, and philosophy. Moreover, the one-size-fits-all marketing approach trivializes the host culture while slaughtering any form of dialogue and engagement with local consumers. Brands that understand the importance of traditions and heritage in China perpetuate engagement. For example, in January 2019, a mall in Guangzhou “hosted a candy and snack fair themed on the Qing Dynasty.” Hsu Fu Chi International Limited organized the fair to kick off the marketing campaign for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Hsu Fu Chi International Limited is a Chinese candy producer that became world famous in 2011 when Nestlé Group paid $1.7 billion for a 60 percent stake in the company. Since entering in a partnership agreement with the world’s largest food company, Hsu Fu Chi International Limited maintained its prime position on the Chinese market through clever marketing campaigns that leveraged the power of heritage marketing. China Daily says that: “With television serials about the Qing Dynasty period, such as The Story of Yanxi Palace and Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace proving popular among the younger generation last year, Hsu Fu Chi has developed a series of royalty-and palace-themed entertainment content and gift packs.”

Evidently,“emphasizing popular traditional elements” is a successful marketing strategy. In this case, the brand crafts an engaging story around an exclusive world giving its consumer base the premise to start a conversation. And then again, by engaging buyers, the brand builds a long-lasting emotional connection.

And yet despite Cha Ling and Hsu Fu Chi’s success and the long history of heritage and craft traditions in China, few domestic brands replicated the Western heritage model. Given the fact that heritage commodification implies a certain pride in one’s national, historic, and cultural values, and China has just recently revived nationalism and patriotic education, we should expect more national brands to follow suit in the upcoming year. Ultimately, heritage marketing will aid domestic brands in their efforts to outperform international players in China.

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