When American fashion designer Phillip Lim hosted his 2018 Spring/Summer Fashion Show on September 11 during New York Fashion Week, there was a new noteworthy guest seated in the front row: Zhang Zetian, the unofficial face of JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce company.
JD.com was the chief partner of the runway show, according to Chinese news site LadyMax. The site also stated that Zhang attended the show as JD.com’s “fashion brand acquisition consultant,” a new title for Zhang, whose role with JD.com, a company founded by her husband Liu Qiangdong (also known as Richard Liu), has been, thus far, unofficial. It seems her attendance at fashion industry events may be becoming more than just a hobby.
While JD.com has had some difficulty shaking its early image as an online seller of cut-rate electronics, does Zhang have the ability and necessary influence to reboot the company’s image?
What’s Zhang Zetian Got to Do With JD.com?
Over the past several years, JD.com, has demonstrated its ambition to step up its role in the country’s luxury and fashion industry, as most recently evidenced by its acquisition of a nearly-$400-million stake in British luxury e-tailer Farfetch. In June, in an effort to cater to high-end shoppers, JD.com launched a “white glove” delivery service that has luxury items brought to customers by men in tuxedos. And in February this year, JD.com created JD Fashion, an online portal to sell products from big-name brands including Armani, Swarovski, and Zenith.
Rising in almost lock-step synchronicity with the company’s own luxury image is that of Zhang, who has over the past year been making the rounds at international fashion events. Zhang declined a request for an interview.
As JD.com competes for market share with the bigger player in this field, Alibaba, whose Luxury Pavilion launched in August and already features products from Burberry, Maserati, and Loewe, it seems Zhang may be the right aid to help the company overcome its one Achilles Heel, its image problem.
“JD.com is really bad at presenting high-end products on the site,” the China manager of a European luxury footwear brand told Jing Daily on condition of anonymity. “Alibaba has done much better work on this front.”
This source told us that on JD.com, the brand he works for does not have any control over how their products are marketed. The brand revoked its collaboration with JD.com after the representative realized the platform was terrible at offering the luxury shopping experience to consumers.
It’s understandable that JD.com would have some growing pains on the luxury front. Having developed an early reputation for selling high-tech products at a good price, its background and DNA aren’t exactly the perfect match for luxury.
“Liu Qiangdong has made himself famous for, every year, wearing JD.com’s iconic red uniform and delivering JD products, himself, on a scooter,” said Louis Houdart, the Founder and Global Director of the branding agency Creative Capital. “This has been a smart marketing campaign and has been very galvanizing for his troops. But, of course, it’s not delivering a luxury image of the platform.”
Jacqueline Wong, the Executive Director of Activation Group, a leading marketing firm in China, seconded Houdart’s sentiment. “It is not as if you put luxury products on the site, then people will come and buy them,” she said.
Can Zhang Zetian Fix JD.com’s Luxury Image Problem?
Making a foray into fashion and philanthropy, Zhang has used her personal appeal to lend the brand, however unofficially, a fresh public image.
“The world of luxury and fashion is a very different game,” said Houdart. “Zhang Zetian, being a young and charming lady, can surely be helpful for assisting JD in pushing forward on that front.”
Houdart observed two key drivers of Zhang’s recent activities: empathy (derived from her support of charities), and fashion (as evidenced by her attendance at different fashion shows and events). “These are a nice combination,” he said.
When JD.com launched its own fashion line in 2016, Zhang was featured in its promotional campaign wearing a bomber jacket. She also posted images from the campaign on her personal social media channels such as Weibo and Instagram blurring the lines between her personal life with that of the company and revealing the quiet diplomacy she has been staging on its behalf.
In May, Zhang posted a photo of herself attending a party in Cannes, France by Chopard. In August, the Swiss watch and jewelry brand announced it would set up a flagship store on the e-commerce site. Also this past summer, Zhang was seen in Paris attending the couture fashion shows of Dior and Chanel. Though it was rumored in Chinese media that she had paid for her ticket to attend the shows and had not been invited, that’s beside the point. As a strategic show of support, and an effort to curry favor with these brands, it was smart. After all, her image is high-end (she’s been listed as China’s youngest female billionaire—even if that’s through marriage) and squeaky clean (she rose to fame after a picture of her during her schoolgirl days drinking bubble tea went viral).
She’s been making an effort of her own to beef up her personal image, outside of the brand, on social media as well. In July, a series of elegant images “surfaced” of Zhang during dance practice. Though it was speculated she leaked the images herself, the online community was thrilled and provoked. Then innocent pictures of herself at the beach with her husband were “leaked.” Again, the online community had a lot of, mostly positive, things to say.
While wielding the power of social media to convey messages to the public has its own risks (“Social media can be a powerful tool, but also a dangerous weapon if badly used,” said Houdart), it seems Zhang, with her tasteful and modest posts is in no risk of doing the brand any harm. But changing a brand’s image for the better isn’t necessarily an easy task. And how much good she can do on that front remains an open question. In the meantime, we, along with the rest of her 1.4 million followers on Weibo (222,000 on Instagram), will be watching her efforts.