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UK Brands' Sophisticated Luxury Appeals to Chinese Consumers,

By: Christine Birkner, Marketing News

David Beckham, Downton Abbey and the royal family reign supreme in China, a new study shows.

“British-ness” is a major reason that Chinese consumers choose to buy British brands such as Johnnie Walker, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Burberry and Gieves & Hawkes, according to a survey by Qing Wang, professor of marketing and associate dean of Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England.

“‘British-ness’ attracts emerging market customers—Chinese customers, in particular. There’s something very special about the large history and heritage, and almost unbroken presence of the British royalty, which represents prestige and class,” Wang says. “Chinese consumers latch on to shows like Downton Abbey, where they show an aristocratic lifestyle in a positive light, and they really love footballers and David Beckham is representative of that.”

From April 2013 to April 2014, Jaguar Land Rover, the U.K.’s leading manufacturer of premium luxury vehicles, saw sales in China go up 70% for Jaguar vehicles, and 71.9% for Land Rover vehicles, according to the company’s earnings release​. Luxury retailer Burberry’s sales in China jumped 20% from 2012 to 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported.

British brands employ a “soft sell” approach that resonates with Chinese upper-middle-class consumers, says Wang, who surveyed consumers in Shanghai and Beijing for the study and presented her results at a University of Warwick conference in May. “French and Italian labels like Louis Vuitton and Gucci were some of the first that went into China and caught the attention of the thriving Chinese middle class, and they shouted at the top of their voice to attract consumers. They introduced Chinese consumers to European luxury. There’s a trend in China in terms of jumping on a bandwagon, and immediately everyone started carrying LV and Gucci bags. Gradually, as Chinese consumers became more discerning and sophisticated, the upper-middle class wanted to differentiate themselves a bit more, so they looked for something that was a little more sophisticated and subtle. That’s when they started to look into British brands,” she says.

“Luxury is about exclusivity and it’s about experience,” she adds. “It’s more than buying into the big price. It’s about buying into this experience of royalty, the experience of the upper-class lifestyle of having afternoon tea at the Ritz. It almost feels like they’re buying into a club. That appeals to middle- to upper-class people in China. It’s not like they’re just carrying a bag. They have a story to tell. You have to have narratives, and British brands, with their history and culture, have that.”

U.S. luxury brands can succeed in China by being a bit more European, Wang says. “Chinese consumers still look to all Western brands for luxury, but ‘country as brand’ influences the perception of luxury. The general consensus in China is that the Europeans know how to live life, have long holidays, sit on the beach and sip wine, and enjoy life in general. More effort will need to be made by U.S. brands to appear as luxurious as European brands in China purely because the U.S. isn’t known as having a luxurious lifestyle because [Americans] work so hard.”

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