China Policy Institute: Analysis


Chinese consumers

Shanghai Tang: China’s Aspiring Global Fashion Brand

Written by Jonathan Schroeder, Janet Borgerson, and Zhiyan Wu.

How do Chinese brands draw upon what we call ‘Chinese brand culture’ in order to create distinctively Chinese fashion? Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum in New York hosted its annual Costume Institute exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass, which examined 500 years of Chinese influence on European luxury goods. The exhibition featured current examples of Chinese-inspired fashion and Chinese designers’ work, as well as an historical overview of how Western designers have adapted and adopted Chinese elements through the years.

The show attempts to counter prevailing ideas about Chinese fashion. In the words of fashion journalist Carolyn Asomea, “Chinese fashion designers have spent many years fighting off the perception that Chinese fashion is cheap and tacky. The biggest obstacle in the way of designers such as Zhang has been the Western perception that ‘made in China’ means ‘cheap and badly put together’.

Shanghai Tang: Re-orient Yourself

One fashion brand that is working hard to counter such negative perceptions is Shanghai Tang, considered as the first global Chinese luxury brand. Shanghai Tang was founded in Hong Kong in 1994 by David Tang, and is now owned by the Richemont Group, owner of luxury brands such as Chloé, Montblanc, and Van Cleef & Arpels. The brand has over 40 stores worldwide, and has a roster of celebrities who wear its clothing. We became interested in Shanghai Tang as part of our research on cultural heritage brands – brands that engage a long legacy of cultural history.

In analysing Shanghai Tang, we found it important to differentiate cultural heritage brands from corporate heritage brands. Many global fashion brands, such as Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Ferragamo, use a corporate heritage approach, and tap into their own history in order to build authenticity and communicate to consumers. In contrast, Shanghai Tang specifically draws upon Chinese culture and history in its design and marketing. As it turns out, brands that consistently draw upon Chinese heritage and history are relatively rare in the global fashion scene, although fashion brands such Jean-Paul Gaultier, Chanel, and Valentino have featured Chinese elements, such as red and gold colours, dragon themes, and Chinese New Year-related collections.

Chineseness as a Fashion Brand Element

In thinking about China and fashion, ‘Chineseness’ provides a useful concept. Chineseness refers to a general look or impression of being Chinese or of Chinese origin. Iconic Chinese-related icons such as the qipao dress and the Mao suit represent Chineseness for both Chinese and Western audiences, encapsulating gender, national identity, politics, and race. Such a Chinese identity, as expressed in notions of Chineseness, may capture and include aspects of the Chinese diaspora, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and is not necessarily limited by national boundaries.

Thus, Chineseness need not be perfectly aligned with Chinese country-of-origin. This assertion also reflects how ‘national’ brand identity need not correspond with brand ownership. In other words, when Shanghai Tang is referred to as a Chinese brand, it does not necessarily imply that it is wholly Chinese-owned, or defined by political borders. The notion of Chineseness suggests an overarching impression of nationally unified traits and characteristics, that while failing to refer to the full variety and multiple identities of peoples within national boundaries, or competing versions of historical narratives, nevertheless communicates meaning in relation to Chinese identity.

Consumer research suggests that individuals construct identities as much through engagement with material objects and practices – including fashion – as they do through human relationships. Consumer insights about Shanghai Tang reveal how Chinese cultural codes can be drawn upon to develop and embody cosmopolitan consumer identity. In one informant’s words, wearing Shanghai Tang imparted fashionable, not overly ‘local’ Chineseness, which offered a distinctive look that consumers felt helped in climbing ‘the ladder of success’. For others, it embodies authentic and nostalgic emotion. For most, it expresses a hybrid aesthetic of international style and savoir-faire.

Creativity and innovation is central in any brand’s development, but Shanghai Tang’s success depends on the negotiation of Chineseness across its global product portfolio, retail design, and marketing communication. Almost all the Shanghai Tang consumers who participated in our study appreciated the brand’s introduction of isolated Chinese style elements into more Western styles to make them fashionable – for example, iconic patterns and strategically located signature colours on cuffs and collars of polo shirts and pullover sweaters. Chinese styling has been the key to Shanghai Tang’s brand, and this is particularly evident in the brand’s seasonal collections, in which designers focus on small, distinctive details, such as bamboo buttons, Chinese dragon motifs, and patterns with symbols of Chinese ingots, which were historically used as money in China, and are often considered emblems of wealth and status.

Regardless of whether it deploys ancient ingots or images of social upheaval in old Shanghai, Shanghai Tang’s strategy involves first isolating and then re-introducing familiar features into novel arrangements that juxtapose the past and the present. Once-precious ingots become more commonly available and wearable in the form of a Shanghai Tang dress. A Shanghai Tang bag invokes the traumatic Cultural Revolution, with shadowy, Maoist imagery. Their close-fitting black leather qipao affords a cool, trendy look to a traditional Chinese dress. This fashion strategy engages the cultural interest of consumers by re-engaging the old within the new.

Consumer interviews about Shanghai Tang products underscored an emphasis on what was viewed as subtle Chinese aesthetics. For the most part, these interviewees felt that Shanghai Tang was aligned with notions of harmony. The fashion designs, colours, fabric quality, and cuts are uniformly subtle: when details do stand out, they do so without disturbing the peace of the whole. They are meant to capture the eye but ultimately enhance the effect of the harmonious whole. This aesthetic contributes to the meaning of the brand, and frequent consumers would be able to read the various aesthetic codes that make up the lexicon of Shanghai Tang designs. Perhaps surprising in the wake of such subtlety, Shanghai Tang has become responsible for developing a Chinese blueprint for “contemporary luxury lifestyle products.” This strategy positions Shanghai Tang as a lifestyle brand, one conceived to sell products – and lifestyles – designed for an overall way of life, a harmonious communication of status and taste, including clothing, furniture, music, and accessories.

Brand Culture

Elements of Shanghai Tang’s brand culture – consumers, managers, retail stores, and of course, design – demonstrate that diverse contributions are essential for the co-creation and development of brand meanings and brand growth, and as a rationale for potential myth markets. Shanghai Tang served to connect ethnic Chinese to their Chinese identities. Furthermore, many consumer comments, both Chinese and other, discussed how Shanghai Tang clothing helped communicate cosmopolitan identity. Shanghai Tang provides a model of conceptualising a culturally conceived branding system by marrying global fashion systems with Chinese imagery.

Shanghai Tang offers a lens through which to observe aspects of Chinese fashion development, and offers insights into the ways in which brand culture connects companies and consumers; fashion provides fertile ground for the development of Chinese brand culture into a strategic brand resource.

Jonathan Schroeder is the William A. Kern Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Janet Borgerson is a Fellow at the Institute for Brands & Brand Relationships, and a Visiting Scholar at City University London. Zhiyan Wu is an Assistant Professor at the School of Management, Shanghai International Business and Economics University. Image Credit: CC by thinkretail/Flickr.

Reducing Food Waste to Boost China’s Long-term Food Security

Written by Zhang-Yue Zhou.

What is food waste? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, food waste at the consumption stage is the food discarded which is still suitable for human consumption.

Food waste at the consumption stage in China is enormous. According to China’s Bureau of State Grains, food wasted each year at dining tables is worth about 200 billion Chinese yuan, equivalent to the amount of food enough to feed over 200 million people. The estimate by another source is even higher: food wasted in China at the consumption stage would be sufficient to feed 250 to 300 million people each year. It is difficult to trace the origins on how these estimates were derived. It is highly probable that they are overstated. Nonetheless, the enormity of food waste can be easily witnessed across China in dining halls, restaurants and other food-eating outlets.

The reasons for such a large amount of food waste in China are diverse and complex. The reasons also tend to be somewhat different from those in other societies. Some of them are historical and cultural.

China used to be a land of famine. The last large-scale famine during which over 36 million people starved to death occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Due to frequent severe food shortages and famines, people often went without regular meals. As such, people often used to greet each other (a practise that continues today) by asking, “Have you eaten?” Offering food to visitors was and continues to be an important custom.

Nowadays, when entertaining others, offering a lot of food has become a way to show hospitality as well as to earn “face” because one could be seen as wealthy. Often, in commercial eating outlets, left-overs are not taken away for later consumption. Taking away left-overs may be seen as not “wealthy”, thus face-losing. Recent effort in public media to convince residents that taking away leftover food is the right thing to do has encouraged many people to take away left-overs for later consumption. However, still on too many occasions, left-overs are not taken away. Food waste at functions such as receptions, weddings, funerals, and birthday parties could be further reduced.

As an agrarian society for thousands of years, ordinary Chinese people have been poor. Too many Chinese people are so scared to be seen as poor. Reflected in dining, one may order well in excess of the needs (even without guests) in order to satisfy their psyche for being seen not poor or stingy. In commercial dining facilities the pressure often also comes from waiters and waitresses who make use of people’s psyche and subtly coerce the diner to order more so that they can earn more.

The Chinese way of dining (sharing foods from the same dishes with one’s own chopsticks) also contributes to food waste. While using one’s own chopsticks to pick up foods from the same common dishes is a great way for infectious diseases to pass on, it also discourages one to keep or take away left-over foods for later consumption, due to hygiene concerns. The waste due to this kind of food sharing is greater when not all diners are close family members.

Using public money for dining and widespread corruption leads to huge food waste, too. When using public money for dining, excessive amounts of food could be ordered. When entertaining others in an attempt to curry favour, food presented on the dining table of course has to be plentiful and expensive, and generally no one would care to take away any left-overs. The recent anti-corruption campaign has curtailed food consumption using public money and the acceptance of invitations by officials to attend luxurious dinners for illegitimate purposes.

Increased disposable income as a result of China’s fast economic growth has led some residents to no longer cherish food. Generally, food waste is higher in families with higher disposable income. Some individuals eat (and often, just order) excessive amounts of food simply as a way to show off that they are rich and they can afford it, feeling little guilt about wasting food.

Worth particular mention is a group of people who waste a lot of food: university students. Food waste in the dining halls of many universities across China is heart-breaking. These students, living in times of plenty, have little sense of cherishing food. When they buy, they care little about the price; if they do not like the food, they just throw it away. The majority of them are only children and they have an “unlimited” supply of money (except those from extreme low-income families) because the whole family supports (read: spoils) the only child.

Reducing food waste is of crucial importance to China for improving its long-term food security. In the past few decades, there have been rapid changes in food consumption patterns. Chinese people nowadays eat less food grains but more foods of high protein such as meats, dairy and aquatic produce. Much more resources are needed to produce such protein food than food grains. China’s food production resources are very scarce. Avoiding food waste is equivalent to having increased food production resources and food supply, thus enhancing the country’s future food security.

To significantly reduce food waste, education is the key. Recent efforts by public media in China to educate residents to avoid wasting food is very welcome. Many younger people, especially those who were born after the 1980’s, have little understanding about the misery of food shortages. Many of them do not know that in the not too distant past, there was a Great Famine in China. They have little sense about the importance of saving food. These young people should be routinely educated that wasting food is a disgrace. While each and every person is entitled to having food, no one has the right to waste food.

Education will be less effective in curtailing food waste resulting from public money consumption and bribery consumption. While the recent anti-corruption campaign has greatly deterred these kinds of consumption, reforms are still needed to establish necessary institutional arrangements so that public money will be used accountably and corruption will be effectively prevented in the first instance. This way, food waste on such occasions can be continuously reduced or avoided in the future when the current anti-corruption campaign ends.

Zhang-Yue Zhou is Professor in Business Studies at the School of Business at James Cook University, Australia. Recently he published “Food Consumption in China: The Revolution Continues”. Image Credit: CC by elias glenn/Flickr


May Day or Mayday? China’s Golden Holidays Signal Development or Distress?

By Mike Bastin.

Once again China is witnessing another ‘Golden’ holiday or half-week with the annual May 1st Labour Day holiday upon us. But is this a further indicator of China’s economic development or a signal of distress?

Certainly, tens of millions of excited Chinese consumers are doing their best to enjoy the break from work and either travel to scenic parts of China or beyond or simply stay at home and mix shopping expeditions with relaxing strolls through the local park.

Despite these apparent benefits, however these ‘Golden’ holidays are receiving increasingly fierce criticism, mainly for the congestion and disruption to the transport and service sector generally.

Such havoc on the roads and railways is, alas, a similar tale in most countries where May Day (or International Labour Day to use the official title) is a national holiday. The first Monday in May is designated as the national holiday in the U.K.and motorists are always warned of probable delays and dangers of travelling any great distance at this time.

In the case of China, however, such pressure on the service sector, where brand building has never been more important, can only be a good thing for the long term development of an internationally competitive economy.  

Over the last 10 to 15 years manufacturing and exports have driven China’s incredibly impressive economic emergence. But over the next 10 years or so it is domestic consumption and China’s service sector which needs to step up to the plate. The leisure sector in particular needs to play a key contributory role in the next wave of development.

However, the service sector and leisure most definitely, and the building of competitive brands in this area is not the same as manufacturing. Service brands are far more people-oriented which includes consumer involvement often at all times during the service experience and customer-contact staff ever present too.

Brand building in the service sector is, therefore, first and foremost about investment in the staff that design and deliver the end ‘product’, particularly investment in education and training and the establishment of a contented, motivated service delivery team. This, above all, should lead to great efficiency in service delivery and customer satisfaction which will result in fewer congestion and related problems over these ‘golden’ holiday periods.

Of course service infrastructure, especially where the transport sector is concerned, also requires much-needed investment and enhancement.

May Day activities commonly include visits to well known tourist attractions across China.  This also places great pressure on these particular service providers. However, such pressure should be seen positively as it ensures attention to every aspect of brand improvement and customer satisfaction. Tourism branding building, or destination branding as it is also known, involves a few sector-specific challenges not faced by other service sectors and tangible product branding. Pivotal to any success in tourism branding is overcoming the intangible nature of the tourism destination experience. Intangible due to the fact that no preview or trial experience is possible and no tangible product ownership results from the experience. Overcoming this or somehow ‘tangibilising the intangible’ can be achieved through the personification of the service brand, i.e. firm and lasting association of the brand with a suitable, real life or imaginary, person. Such an association forms a tangible image and emotional impression in the mind of the consumer. Tourist attractions which target children should of course consider new and innovative cartoon characters in order to personify and therefore tangibles the service brand. In general, effective personification will take place according to the ‘fit’ between the target market’s desired brand experience and their image of the object (person) used to establish brand personification. For example, a relaxing holiday resort for middle aged couples requires not just an association (and promotion) with a famous, attractive person of a similar age but also someone who carries a relaxing, charming image too.

China’s Golden holidays are a definite force for good; an essential catalyst towards conversion of the service sector and service brand building. Necessity is the Mother of invention.

Mike Bastin is PhD student at School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Mercedes Brand Wins in China…but not in Chinese!

By Mike Bastin.

Not only will Mercedes victory in this year’s China Grand Prix take the motor racing world by surprise, it will also boost even further the brand value across China and should do more for the popularity of Formula 1 and motor sport in general than any other team victory.

Mercedes remains one of the most symbolic, prestigious brands on mainland China where consumers relish the opportunity to be seen driving this status symbol. China is Mercedes third largest market and will in the not too distant future become the number one market, such is emotional value attached to this brand by the vast majority of Chinese consumers.

With a Grand Prix victory now in China, millions more Chinese consumers will be even more eager to take possession of a Mercedes car.

Mercedes Formula 1 success will also prove an invaluable association, in a country where motor racing is still relatively unknown.

The China Grand Prix remains little more than a statement of China’s economic intent. Attendance is an issue as is interest in the event. Mercedes, however, along with Ferrari is one of the few brands that could galvanize both the event and motor sport in China generally.

For even more impact in China and with the Chinese public, however, Mercedes need to respect the fact that the majority of Chinese people actually use a rough transliteration of the ‘Benz’ part of the full ‘Mercedes-Benz’ corporate brand name. So, the Chinese actually use Ben(1) Chi (2) when talking about this most respected global brand but even at the China Grand Prix (where you would expect a larger Chinese race-side and TV audience) Mercedes continue to use the English version of their corporate brand name only.

Somewhere on the car and drivers’ fire-proof kit (and all other track-side merchandizing), there could surely be space found for the Pinyin, Ben(1) Chi(2) and the Chinese characters, ‘奔驰’. Not only would this resonate with Chinese people, it would also demonstrate respect for different cultures and enable Mercedes-Benz to promote itself as a truly global brand, responsive to local cultures.

The characters ‘奔驰’ [Ben(1)Chi(2)] also translate to ‘running fast’, excellent for brand association and consequently, brand meaning. Even more reason to promote the name in Chinese and English and not just perhaps at the China Grand Prix.

Basketball remains the preferred sport for younger generations across China but this a lot to do with the success of Yao Ming in the American professional basketball league. Of course, a Chinese Formula 1 driver is exactly what the sport needs if it is to grow in China but a Mercedes win will also create an awareness and enthusiasm that the sport has lacked in China. Perhaps the next step in Mercedes brand building is to recruit and develop a young Chinese driver with the potential to become a Formula 1 title contender in the not too distant future.

Such an association will do wonders for Mercedes already powerfully and emotionally positioned brand among Chinese consumers and there is nothing the competition can do about it. Those automotive brands who have pulled out of Formula 1, such as Ford, will now be regretting their decision.

Mike Bastin is PhD student at School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.




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