China ranks third in global distribution for Swiss watch exports. Last year, mainland China accounted for approximately 25% of all Swiss watch shipments to the Far East, with total value surging by 19% – the biggest jump in three years. According to the World Watch Report published in March 2018 by Digital Luxury Group, for the first time more Chinese visited luxury watch brands’ websites than Americans, representing 21% of global traffic. Unsurprisingly, executives and marketers have their eye on this trend. Deloitte’s 2017 study on the Swiss watch industry reveals that 71% of executives show renewed optimism in Asia and consider their strongest prospects to be in the region, following the fall in the number of corruption-related prosecutions. Brands have taken note and are realizing that there is an untapped market to develop.
The key to success in China
After dabbling in WeChat, brands are turning to Chinese influencers, local celebrities and key opinion leaders as a way of reaching new customers. Beyond conventional approaches aimed at getting individuals to view a brand positively, new platforms have industrialized the business of influence, and influencer marketing has become a priority. One of the first collaborations between a European brand and an Asian celebrity was in 2001, when French couture house Chanel signed Hong-Kong-born singer Coco Lee as regional ambassador. The partnership was considered a mismatch by many of Chanel’s Asian customers, who felt the pop star didn’t fit the Chanel image, and the contract was terminated.
Studies show that Chinese consumers are more likely to consider buying a product if it has been discussed positively on a social media site.
A lot has changed since then. Working with Asian celebrities is now a smart strategy, particularly in China where influencer marketing has proven highly effective. Studies show that Chinese consumers are more likely to consider buying a product if it has been discussed positively on a social media site. A telling example is when Chinese blogger Tao Liang, or “Mr. Bags”, posted about his collaboration with French luxury brand Givenchy to sell an exclusive limited-edition series of bags. Thanks to Liang’s 1.2 million WeChat followers, the 80 bags, worth a total of €148,580, sold in under 12 minutes.
In the luxury watch world, activity geared towards China picked up speed at SIHH 2017, where many brands partnered with Chinese celebrities to maximize their exposure in the country, and continued at SIHH 2018. An analysis of social media content using the #SIHH2018 hashtag reveals that the third most talked-about topic at the event was Chinese actor Jing Boran, whose appearance on the Jaeger-LeCoultre booth sparked more conversation than about the brand itself.
Examples of recent collaborations
From Longines’ collaboration with Aaron Kwok, Chi-ling or Carina Lau, to Omega and Zhang Ziyi, Liu Shishi and Coco Lee, brands are beginning to harness the power of the influencer in Asia. We look at three case studies of particularly successful partnerships.
- Cartier: leading the way
Cartier was the first luxury watch brand to advertise on WeChat, enlisting Taiwanese star Zhang Zhen for its WeChat Moments campaign. When Zhang Zhen shared a video which he directed and starred in for Cartier on WeChat in 2016, it received more than 6 million views. At the same time, Cartier reached out to Chinese celebrity Luhan to present its Juste un Clou collection, inviting him to star in a series of portraits and a 45-second short film. The video accumulated more than 65 million views and 900,000 engagements on Weibo alone (it was also launched on WeChat and Baidu Tieba). In one month, the brand’s official social media channels grew by more than 70,000 fans and set a new sales record the month following the release of the campaign. Cartier’s strategy worked because it was ahead of its time and because the brand chose celebrities with a high popularity rating among millennials.
- Piaget: third favorite
Piaget performs well across its social media in China. In a bid to expand its business locally, the brand worked with Chinese actor Hu Ge to promote the Polo S watch. The campaign received particularly high engagement on Weibo, according to L2’s Digital IQ Index: Luxury China, confirming and increasing the brand’s interest in China to the extent that Piaget became the third luxury watch brand to capture the most interest on Baidu, the leading search engine in China, behind Cartier and Vacheron Constantin.
- Bulgari: an unlikely partnership
In 2017, the Italian brand partnered with the edgy young Chinese star Kris Wu. The partnership raised questions about the chemistry between the two, and whether Kris Wu’s image as a “xian xian rou” (literally “little fresh meat”, meaning a heartthrob) fit the brand. Responding to the concerns, managing director of Bulgari Greater China and Australia, Antoine Pin, told China Daily, “He’s not just ‘little fresh meat’, he’s ‘fresh meat’ with a future… He has the balance of maturity, considering the craziness around him, and the composure. It’s a way to energize the world of watches. You can be young, you can be edgy, and you can still like watches.” Since the announcement, Bulgari has enjoyed a steady rise in sales. A video that Kris Wu posted of himself on his Instagram page, wearing the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic, received more than 1.9 million views.
The future of influencer marketing
- More risky celebrities
In April 2017, Dior’s choice of Chinese model and actress Yang Ying, better known as Angelababy, as its new ambassador ignited widespread debate about her suitability for the role. Many said that Angelababy, the “Kim Kardashian of China”, would undermine the brand’s high fashion image. Even so, this proved to be a smart move, with the news exploding on Dior’s official WeChat and Weibo. The original Weibo post received more than 50,000 comments in just a few days and was reposted more than 750,000 times – a massive amount compared to Dior’s average Weibo engagement.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s decision to work with China’s back-then number one internet celebrity, Papi Jiang, on a Weibo and WeChat campaign caused a similar stir. The partnership strayed significantly from traditional luxury marketing practices in China, which tend to focus on glamorous celebrities whereas girl-next-door video blogger Papi Jiang made a name by posting comedy skits that mix sarcasm and dry humor. Marketers were divided on the ad’s effectiveness, but it did spur engagement. The original WeChat post received more than 69,000 views in less than a week, while the Weibo post received more than 114,000 likes, 12,300 shares, and 17,000 comments. Overall, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s brand awareness more than doubled on the Baidu index. These numbers suggest this bold choice was successful in driving new audiences to the brand, hence why we can expect more luxury brands to reach out to a wider range of ambassadors in the future.
- More creative control
Fashion brands have increasingly allowed celebrities and influencers to take control of the creative process, a tendency that is slowly making its way into the luxury sector. Last year, Veuve Clicquot collaborated with singer FKA Twigs on an immersive performance project celebrating the anniversary of Madame Clicquot’s death. FKA Twigs was tasked with curating the entire project, from casting the dancers to the set designers. She and her chosen artists had carte blanche to create “Rooms”, a two-day installation with 30 performers in 12 rooms. The singer said of the project, “There aren’t always opportunities like this to make your wildest creative ideas a reality.”Another example is the collaboration between Hublot and Maxime Buchi, tattoo artist, founder and director of Sang Bleu creative studio. Collaborations on products are nothing new but usually involve only a few minor tweaks, such as a new color or a new material. Hublot moved beyond that and gave the word “collaboration” its true meaning by allowing Buchi freedom to design an entirely new case and dial for the brand’s iconic Big Bang watch. Could this partnership inspire other watch brands to strive for more unique interactions?