Commentary

Horse Sense For The Year Of The Horse

Jan. 31 marks the start of the Year of the Horse. The Chinese New Year is akin to Thanksgiving and Christmas combined, and then tripled in pomp and ceremony. New year, new clothes. New feng shui home goods. “Face” gifts for family and colleagues. 

If you are wondering why your brand in the U.S. or Europe should care: 

1. 92% of Chinese luxury consumers are dissatisfied with the luxury shopping experience domestically (2014 China Luxury Report, Ruder Finn), and are jetting abroad in double-digit growth to spend that money. From 2011 to 2012, Chinese tourists to the U.S. increased 35% to 1.47 million visitors (US OTTI); 24% to France to 1.39 million visitors. (France Tourism Board) Chinese New Year is peak travel time due to the “Golden Week”vacations.

2. Chinese consumers prefer to code their identity with premium western brands. French, Italian or English brands come with centuries of heritage that endow the appropriate gravitas to the consumer. But not just any old purse the next taitai has on her arm will do. They’re eschewing flashy monogrammed status symbols to understated styles that shout “sophisticated taste”(Luxury Without Borders: Chinese New Class of Shoppers Take on the World, McKinsey).

The Implications

1. Western brands should extend their home holiday marketing efforts after Black Friday and Christmas, well into the Chinese New Year to catch Chinese tourists.

2. Token, clichéd products and communications will increasingly ring hollow with an audience that is looking to build its identity with culturally resonant yet individualistic Western products.

I would also add a personal #3: 2014 the Year of the Horse is probably the best time in the next eight years (until the Year of the Dragon) to launch a brand big time to the Chinese tourist market. The horse is arguably the second-most beloved zodiac creature in the Chinese culture, only after the dragon. This predicates a boost in Chinese consumers' confidence and, thus, propensity to spend.

Early brands that have caught on have fallen mostly into a “traditional” approach, especially “entry level” luxury brands. Tiffany and Swarovski for example, have released all 12 of the zodiac animals as straightforward miniature figurines. For DKNY’s 2014 Horse collection, red satin jackets come emblazoned with a huge, gold embroidered traditional “running horse” motif.

Brands that keep their brand identity more prominent in the celebration mix, rather than falling into Chinese kitsch will arguably be more inspirational and successful in attracting new sophisticated audiences. Ultra-luxury brands are scoring highly in that respect. In 2013, Year of the Snake, Bulgari encircled their Fifth Avenue store with a huge sparkling serpent installation. It was a happy marriage of the brand’s authentic Serpenti legacy with the Chinese New Year. The snake is probably the least popular animal in the Chinese zodiac due to its sinister appearance. However, the Italian jeweler turned a stone into a diamond by emphasizing the western, sensuous aspects of the creature and interpreted it in a way that was true to the brand. 

If such a “lemon” of a year could turn gold with Bulgari’s Midas touch, 2014 Year of the Horse should be a golden shoo-in considering the strong equestrian heritage of many Western brands. The question, then is, how far should brands go in incorporating “Chineseness”into their offerings? Should Dior release a red-and-gold embroidered saddle bag? Remy Martin a gold bottle with a 24K gold inlaid centaur? 

Rolls Royce has just unveiled its commemorative Ghost Majestic Horse edition car. (It had previously released a Dragon car in 2012 but shunned the Year of the Snake) While the interior is more inline with Chinese traditional tastes, the exterior is a bold, stark, skeletal white.

Normally, a white car would be seen as extremely inauspicious during the festive new year, as white symbolizes death. Will this go down in history as a modern and Apple-like interpretation of the Chinese New Year? Or as a cultural faux pas?

Perhaps distilling a Western brand’s equestrian heritage to its essential “horseness” is the most Western, yet Eastern way of getting onto the Year of the Horse.

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