Tom Ford, Ego, and DNA: A Conversation With Two of China’s Best Luxury Strategists

Regina Lam and Lisa Chang Discuss What Brands Are Doing Right In China, And How Far They Have To Go  

Speakers Lisa Chang (L) and Regina Lam (R) at the Bespoke Summit on May 16, 2013 at the Sydney Opera House. (Bespoke)

Speakers Lisa Chang (L) and Regina Lam (R) at the Bespoke Summit on May 16, 2013 at the Sydney Opera House. (Bespoke)

China was a headlining topic at the Bespoke Luxury Summit, held recently at the Sydney Opera House. Regina Lam, luxury brand strategist and founder of Couronne Management in Hong Kong; and Lisa Chang, creative director and founder of Angle Communications in Shanghai, were both flown in especially for the event. They sat down with our reporter Shuk-Wah Chung to discuss Tom Ford, egos, and getting your brand DNA right.

If you ask Regina Lam what her first impressions of China were, she’ll give you a dead straight answer: primitive.

“I first went to China in 1992 with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. The first city I went to was Wuhan. You can imagine how primitive it was!” Lam laughs.

Lisa Chang feels the same way.

“Shanghai, 1996 was my first experience. There weren’t many cars—it was all bicycles and people spitting at you!” says Chang.

Though they are both ethnically Chinese, they spent their formative years overseas—Lam grew up in the UK and Toronto and Chang grew up in New York. But these days, China is their bread and butter, with Chang based in Shanghai and Lam based in Hong Kong.

They’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the industry and have developed successful campaigns that resonate with Chinese consumers. Lam is a highly sought after luxury brand strategist who has held senior roles at brands including Tom Ford, Emilio Pucci, Jean Paul Gaultier, Givenchy, and Kenzo; and Chang helped launch H&M and Porsche into China.

For both, building a career in and around China was almost by accident, with Chang confessing she “refused to move to China until they had proper toilets.”

However, putting up with China’s harsh and “primitive” beginnings has paid off and they’ve literally seen the country move from “communism to consumerism.” For Lam, her realization of China’s increasing interest in luxury goods came in 1995 whilst she was helping bring Versace into Shanghai.

“Suddenly you’d just notice all these malls,” remembers Lam. “They were quite modern, with a Hong Kong landmark style. And I thought, ‘Wow, China’s picking up’. It was really fast in Shanghai at that time, and then I realized that brands like Vuitton and Gucci were really pouring in.”

Knowing your brand DNA

There’s no doubt that businesses are rushing to cash in on China’s growing wealth and demand for high-quality goods. It’s currently the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods, and Chinese consumers are a core market for the industry, making up about 25% of the global luxury expenditure, according to Bain & Company, the leading advisor to the global luxury goods industry.

Whilst this may all sound quite alluring to any business wishing to chase the “China dream,” many businesses have failed, a reality Chang and Lam attribute to lack of brand self-awareness and DNA.

Attendees at the Bespoke Summit held on May 16, 2013 at the Sydney Opera House. (Bespoke)

Attendees at the Bespoke Summit held on May 16, 2013 at the Sydney Opera House. (Bespoke)

Chang analyses the history, heritage, product lines, and target audience for each new client. She asks clients to describe their brand in five words, about their competitors, and core products. Yet, it is often these basic questions businesses struggle with most.

“Every brand owner should have the basic foundation of their DNA and what they think they want to be,” says Chang. ” We can’t answer that question. We can only enhance that or change your strategies accordingly to the market. We cannot take the seed that belongs to you and grow a tree. Without your seed we cannot grow with you.”

Leave your ego at the door

Many businesses wish to break and expand into China after experiencing success in their own country. However, Lam stresses that what works back home, won’t necessarily work in China.

“To survive and grow in China you have to lower your ego,” says Lam, adding that eventually you have to “bow down” to the Chinese consumer.

She cites Tom Ford’s foray into China as an example. Whilst working with his management, she recalls that they felt it unnecessary to explain Ford and his brand, assuming the Chinese would already know. However, her research showed that people only realized who the designer was when they mentioned his work with Gucci.

“I love Tom Ford!” says Lam, pointing out that she’s wearing head to toe Tom Ford. “But he’s known as a person, not as a brand. You have to make [the Chinese] know you more—that was the challenge I was having with the brand.”

Lowering your ego also means designing products you may not necessarily like, with Chang saying brands need to have an “entrance product.” Whilst most consumers won’t be able to purchase a $10,000 handbag, a $2000 lipstick case, keychain, or cell phone cover is attainable.

“It’s so that they can feel like, ‘wow I can own a piece of that lifestyle,’” says Chang.

Even Ford concedes to this strategy. When asked what sacrifices he’ll have to make in order to become the world’s leading luxury brand in an interview with Vogue in April 2013, he said:

“…you have to start to make a ton of stuff you don’t like, and you sort of have to be making ugly $300 (£196), bags that are selling in China. The top three companies, let’s say, in terms of volume —they are. You’d be really surprised at some of the frightening products that you have to generate if you want to go to that scale.”

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