Doing Semiotics in Emerging Markets: The Future of Luxury in China
Below are some highlights of my study on Chinese affluents that just came out in Esomar Research World magazine.
The People’s Republic of China, with its newly rich consumers eager to show off their wealth, has led double-digit growth in the global luxury sector over the past ten years or so and market leaders such as Louis Vuitton and Armani are banking on even more growth in the future. However, a comparative study of affluent consumers in Shanghai and Paris exposed vulnerabilities in the marketing strategies of Western luxury firms in China. In contrast to French respondents, Chinese respondents on the whole failed to engage with the emotional dimensions of luxury brands, such as as the brand persona. Consequently, they did not differentiate one brand from another in a competitive set or express loyalty to one brand or another. Since there exists a direct correlation between the perception of value, customer loyalty, and brand differentiation (Aaker, 1991), the findings suggest that China’s enthusiasm for Western luxury brands may wane over time. There is already evidence of our findings in the declining stock performance of brands such as Prada and Louis Vuitton (Helmore, 2014; Roberts, 2012).
THE SEMIOTIC VALUE OF BRANDS
Brands are sign systems that form the identity of specific products or services and distinguish them from other brands in a product category. This, the semiotic function of brands, forms the cornerstone of the strategic management process. Semiotics-based brand research has the advantage over interpretive methodologies such as rhetoric or content analysis, because it bases findings on the recurring patterns or codes structuring the association of specific signs – such as colors, themes, or icons – with specific meanings in a consistent way throughout a large data set.
Whether the data set includes historical and competitive advertising for a brand, consumer interviews, or the semiotic organization of the supermarket shelf, the semiotic analysis begins not with the researcher’s personal interpretation of a text, but with the discovery of the underlying codes structuring meaning in a product category. These codes not only structure the shared, normative dimension of marketing meaning – the sine qua non of any marketing campaign – but also reflect the dominant cultural codes operable in a given region or consumer setting.
The China study is a case in point. While industry algorithms predicted the uninterrupted double-digit growth of luxury exports to China through 2020, it occurred to me that cultural differences were bound to have an impact on luxury brand meaning, the perception of luxury goods, and the long term value of luxury brands in an emerging market like China. In visits to Shanghai early in the millennium, I met students whose parents grew up without brands during the Cultural Revolution. Manufactured goods were distributed at community centers in drab packaging and paper bags. With this historical insight, it occurred to me that Chinese consumers may not connect with brands on the deep emotional levels that drive repeat purchase and long-term brand equity.
Luxury brand value is entirely based upon intangible emotional benefits associated with the brand name and persona. If Chinese consumers do not relate to the emotional dimensions of brands, the continued growth of the luxury market in China was not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the rapid growth in the Chinese luxury market in the early days of the market opening could be explained not in terms of consumers’ deep and lasting adaptation of luxury consumer culture, but of the more superficial need to display their modernism and success by showing off expensive fashion brands from the West.
In order to shed light the issue, I conducted parallel consumer studies with affluent consumers in Paris and Shanghai during two visits between 2007 and 2010. Questioning centered on consumers’ general views about brands, their knowledge of luxury culture, their use of western luxury brands, and their brand preferences. A focal point of the interview was an image sort exercise where consumers were asked to associate their favorite brands with stimuli such as animals, flowers, and landscapes.
The projective exercise is commonly used in the West to stimulate consumers’ emotional responses to brands, gauge their brand perceptions, and evaluate how well advertising communicates the brand’s core persona. Though some consumers perform better than others at this exercise, most consumers in the West respond by comparing the brand to the emotional and personal attributes they associate with the pictures. By and large they also make clear distinctions between brands on the basis of these attributes.
As expected, the French group associated luxury fashion brands like Chanel, Dior, and Gucci with distinct personal and emotional characteristics. They could tell you where the brand lived and worked, their overall mood state and their relationships with others. The Chinese group, on the other hand, fell short of associating luxury brands with emotional and personal attributes. They cited the practical attributes of luxury brands such as high price, status, and European royalty – a throwback to British expansionism in China before the revolution. Since the emotional attributes of brands form the basis of brand differentiation, the Chinese respondents did not differentiate one brand from the other in the competitive set we showed them. Nor did they form loyal relationships with one brand or another. They bought luxury brands to show off their success, follow fashion trends, and « do as the Joneses, » but struggled to recognize the brands’ emotional attributes. [To read the full case, go to Esomar Research World https://www.esomar.org/publications-store/research-world-magazine.php ]
The long and short of the study was that Chinese consumers face a cultural barrier in their relationship to western luxury brands that prevents them from appreciating qualitative differences between luxury brands and forming long-term loyal relationships with them. Findings clearly placed in doubt the future of western luxury brands in China and anticipated recent declines in the market performance of brands such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Gucci.
Laura Oswald, Marketing Semiotics