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How Western Fashion Brands Are Using Social Media in China

For fashion brands on WeChat and Weibo, it’s about having an authentic voice — or partnering with an influencer who does.
Tommy Hilfiger's 30th anniversary show in Beijing, China. Photo: Tommy Hilfiger

Tommy Hilfiger's 30th anniversary show in Beijing, China. Photo: Tommy Hilfiger

Next March, Otte, a small boutique chain in New York City, will open up a store in Shanghai — its first outside of the East Coast of the U.S. and a significant feat for a multi-line retailer that the majority of Americans haven’t even heard of.

The reason? Over 50 percent of Otte’s online customers are Chinese, residing in either the U.S. or in China. And that’s almost entirely because for the past three years, the 16-year-old retailer has been extremely active on Chinese social media platforms Sina Weibo and WeChat.

Otte’s expansion into China underlines the potential of social media for fashion brands — both small and large — who want to grow their reach in the country. Of course, it’s important for almost any type of brand to be on social media in any country. But in mainland China, one’s activity on platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat can mean the difference between having a booming Chinese business and having none at all.

In the case of Otte, it’s unlikely the retailer would have had any significant awareness among Chinese consumers were it not for its aptitude with Chinese social media. Four years ago, founder Kay Lee, who is Korean, hired Nancy Zhang as Otte’s chief operating officer. Having come from Google, Zhang spearheaded the retailer’s digital efforts, mostly out of necessity since resources were limited for the fledgling retailer. “It’s not like we were going to buy an ad in Vogue so social media was actually a free way of getting exposure,” she says. She noticed that, following an interaction with Phillip Lim’s account on a Japanese social media platform, the designer’s Pashli bag “blew up” on Otte’s site. “That’s when we really understood there’s a big untapped potential in Asia in Chinese social media," she says. As one of the first Western fashion brands to start a Weibo account, Otte’s following is now on par with much bigger e-commerce sites like Shopbop and Revolve. “People think we’re a lot bigger than we are in China because of the presence that we have.”

That fact is not surprising given the way information is consumed in China, which is predominantly through mobile devices. Last year, the number of people who accessed the Internet via a mobile device surpassed the number of people who accessed it via desktop, according to L2. Also, the percentage of consumers that have email addresses has declined dramatically — they’re using mobile messaging platforms like WeChat instead. On top of that, China’s corruption crackdown has led not only to decreased spending on luxury goods in the country, but also to restrictions on luxury brands’ ability to buy ads and billboards, making social media an even more important way for brands to spread information to consumers.

“Chinese Internet users rely heavily on information about fashion and trends from social media,” says Liz Flora, editor in chief of Jing Daily. That Otte doesn’t yet have a store in China also wouldn’t necessarily matter since so many Chinese shoppers do their shopping outside of the country. “Social allows you to have this direct conversation with consumers without having to get them in the flagship stores, which were really just like billboards for luxury brands in China,” says Danielle Bailey, a research director for L2, who also noted that 60 percent of luxury purchases among the Chinese take place off the mainland. “Even brands that don’t have a physical presence in China, social is a way for them to gain foothold in the market.”

For a larger brand like Tommy Hilfiger, which employs a team of social media managers and specialists in China, these platforms are a great way capitalize on interest around big events, like its 30th anniversary fashion show in Beijing in May. Content around that event led to a 2,000 percent increase in visits to the Tommy Hilfiger Weibo page, which raised engagement by 1,900 percent. Subsequently, sales in the brand’s Beijing stores increased by 21 percent and its Chinese e-commerce business almost doubled. The U.S. label has a separate e-commerce site and mobile app for Chinese customers, which is important. Otte, too, launched a Chinese translation of its site and recently began accepting yuan.

In addition to having the right infrastructure to support Chinese business (like a dedicated e-com site), it’s important to post the right kind of content to Weibo and WeChat; otherwise a brand’s efforts could be fruitless. According to Bailey, campaigns that encourage engagement — like games, contests and giveaways — tend to be the most effective. Weibo lends itself particularly well to posting about big campaigns or events that a brand wants to reach a broad audience.

Depending on the brand, having an authentic, personal voice (i.e. sounding like a person, rather than a business) can also be very effective. While that might not be the right strategy for a company as huge as Tommy Hilfiger or Burberry, whose brand voices don't come from a single person, it worked for Diane von Furstenberg, who has 2.5 million followers on her personal Weibo, compared to just 24,000 on the brand’s account. Tommy Hilfiger has about 225,000.

Chinese actress Angelababy at a Burberry event in Shanghai. Photo: Getty Images for Burberry

Chinese actress Angelababy at a Burberry event in Shanghai. Photo: Getty Images for Burberry

“If I ever really talked about my business [on Weibo], people wouldn’t respond,” says Tina Craig, founder of blog network Snob Essentials and a former VJ on MTV Asia. "But if I was talking about cooking or taking my son somewhere, they would respond to that, so they want to see a peek of your personal life. They don’t want anything to seem sponsored.” She started a SnobEssentials account after her personal one, and still keeps the two very separate, noting that the Chinese audience in particular gets “turned off very easily” if posts aren’t personal.

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For brands that don't lend themselves as naturally to those kinds of conversations, what's extremely common is partnering with local influencers — called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in China — which include bloggers, “It” girls, models, musicians and other tastemakers with substantial followings.

“We’ve found that authenticity is also key to our strategy – consumers appreciate genuine, real life content of models and celebrities,” says Avery Baker, Tommy Hilfiger’s chief brand and marketing officer. On the day of its 30th anniversary show in Bejing, the brand hired Chinese model Qin Shu Pei to take over its Weibo account and post behind-the-scenes content. “About 60 percent of our achieved engagement was generated by posts that showed her interacting with her friends or spending down time between rehearsals.” On top of that, the brand partnered with 20 local bloggers to report on the event.

That said, “brands need to be very careful about who they choose [to partner with],” warns Jing Daily's Flora. “There are many self-proclaimed KOLs out there who buy fake followers because they want to take advantage of the perks from the brands such as free gifts, party invites and cash. The brands need to look at who actually has an engaged and dedicated follower base, which actually isn’t that hard if you look at the number of comments and retweets they have.”

“Retweets” are important on Weibo, where the goal is to make content go viral; but WeChat, which is becoming an increasingly important platform for fashion brands, works very differently. “I think on Weibo you start building the brand awareness and then you get into WeChat to build more depth and to connect,” says Craig.

Michael Kors' Jet Set app. Photo: Michael Kors

Michael Kors' Jet Set app. Photo: Michael Kors

WeChat is a one-on-one mobile-only messaging platform similar to WhatsApp. While brands are on it, you have to subscribe to that brand in order to see its posts, which end up in your feed of messages so that, unlike Weibo, there’s no chance of you missing the post. “WeChat is especially important given the fact that pretty much everyone in China with a mobile phone has it,” explains Flora. “If a brand can get a user to follow it on WeChat, it has a direct line to reach them through an app they’re checking constantly throughout the day.”

It also has a lot of different features that brands can utilize. Capabilities include payment, customized apps within the app, GPS locators, live chats and more. “It’s a one stop device for everything Chinese consumers need so that’s why you’re seeing a lot of activity move there,” adds Bailey. While Western brands may not be using those capabilities, such as payment, to the extent that they could be — “that’s where we see some of the local brands being more innovative,” she notes — many of them are using WeChat as a customer service tool.

For example, say you text a question about dry skin to a skincare brand: it would have the capability to recognize key words and automatically respond with a product recommendation. Or if you ping a brand your location, it can send you nearby store locations.

Otte employs a social media manager for Asia under the WeChat handle “Otte Girl,” who personally responds to every single private message she gets. The retailer will also pose questions to its subscribers. “We do a lot of things that are polls, so, ‘Which color do you like better: navy or brown? Which color should the buyers buy?’” says Zhang. “Not only does that help us get an understanding of what the market is like, but it’s also an opportunity for our customers to voice their opinions and they love that.”

Burberry partnered with WeChat last February to create its own WeChat apps around its fall 2014 runway show. One feature included the ability to experience the show live from the perspective of a front rower, including Chinese actress Angelababy, who provided audio commentary. Similarly, Michael Kors used WeChat to give live updates from a huge runway show it held to promote its Beijing store opening. You could even pan around the show through your phone á la Google Street View, except live. In tandem with its football-themed New York Fashion Week show, Tommy Hilfiger launched an app called H5, which allowed subscribers to create, customize and share their own American football-inspired playing cards.

A few brands have gone so far as to create actual games. Yoox has a game where users can generate recommendations by shaking their phones. Coach launched one around Chinese New Year inspired by an existing WeChat game called “Red Envelope,” through which users can send each other money gifts. In Coach’s version, users sent each other virtual gift vouchers for Coach items. 

There's no doubt that Western fashion brands are still trying to figure out WeChat and its many, many features. But there's also no doubt that with over 1.12 billion registered users and 500 million active users (and counting), it can be an extremely powerful tool when used well. A recent study deemed WeChat the most influential platform for Chinese luxury consumers. Once a brand has a large fanbase that is also loyal enough to subscribe it on WeChat, the possibilities are seemingly endless.