For luxury brands, all eyes are on China — especially for those who have been stung by stalled growth in Europe and America.
During Ralph Lauren’s second-quarter earnings report on Thursday, CEO and president Patrice Louvet discussed how the brand’s newly developed strategy in China would poise the company to gain market share in the Asia-Pacific region, boosting overall sales. That strategy includes the recent launches on the Chinese e-commerce marketplaces Tmall and JD.com and social platform WeChat, a slew of both flagship and small-format store openings and an increased effort to market directly to Chinese customers through partnerships with powerful KOLs (influencers) in the region.
This is the brand’s third attempt to establish a winning relationship with Chinese customers, as the area is ripe for growth. Ralph Lauren’s revenue in Asia in the second quarter was $217 million, an increase of 4 percent over the same period last year, and while it’s the smallest region (revenues in North America and Europe were $877 million and $463 million, respectively), it’s the only one posting increases in sales across all channels. In North America, revenue decreased 18 percent overall, while European revenue was flat.
“I can’t say how important it is that we rebuild our customer base in China for the future,” said Jane Nielsen, Ralph Lauren CFO, during a call with investors. “Three years ago, we were not profitable in the Asian region, specifically in China. [Now], we’re on solid footing, and the brand is in great shape after we cleaned up distribution and opened new sales doors and channels in a way that makes sense.”
Similar to the way Ralph Lauren is cleaning up its image and distribution in North America — as part of the brand’s Way Forward Plan — the brand had to do damage control in Asia, particularly in China. Louvet said Ralph Lauren’s first entry to China involved a massive amount of licensee agreements that diluted the brand and landed product in “undesirable doors.” In 2010, the brand shut down those agreements and pulled all product out of the region except for high-end goods in order to re-establish its positioning as a luxury brand. However, Louvet said an exclusively luxury positioning didn’t fare well among competition. (The affluent Chinese consumer tends to spend their money on European luxury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton.)
Today, Ralph Lauren’s Chinese strategy is to strike a balance. While its brand messaging and partnerships with Chinese celebrities position it as a high-end luxury brand, with such apparel and accessories available on the local marketplaces and in Ralph Lauren flagships, the bottom line is padded out by the more affordable Polo Ralph Lauren business, which can effectively drive sales. Though the strategy is mainly concentrated on the digital platforms that are now partners with Ralph Lauren, a fleet of small-format Polo stores have been opened in China to support sales growth.
“We will drive our luxury business there as our overall image, but the heart of business will be Polo,” said Louvet. “With a digital-first mindset, new store concepts and a marketing strategy that’s tailored to the local consumer, we’re feeling good about demand.”
Louvet also said the age of the average Chinese customer — 34 years old — is encouraging and aligns with where the company strives to drive growth.
Overall, Ralph Lauren’s Chinese strategy is directly in line with how local marketplaces Tmall and JD.com position themselves as valuable partners to Western brands. To lure brands onto their sites, both platforms have established specialized luxury platforms to make them feel more at home. (Tmall has an invite-only Luxury Pavilion, while JD.com recently built a high-end customer service experience and inked a partnership deal with luxury marketplace Farfetch.) Brand consultants also help high-end brands find the right KOLs to partner with and help brands figure out how to target the right customer in China, thanks to their vast amounts of customer data. When selling on marketplaces rather than through wholesale partners, brands like Ralph Lauren have more control over their pricing and positioning.
That’s especially important for a company coming back from the brink of brand damage and dilution. Ralph Lauren has decreased its presence in American department stores, thanks to rampant discounting, and plans to critically rethink its partnership with all retailers until the company is rightsized.
And that goes for Amazon, too. Louvet said there are no current plans to sell on Amazon, despite it being considered the American equivalent to Alibaba (the Chinese company that owns Tmall).
“E-commerce is critical for future growth,” he said. “We like the Tmall model, where we can manage our own shop on the marketplace and design a digital storefront. We want to make sure we win in this channel, but we’re keen to do it in a way that builds the brand in the way we want and shows the brand the way we want to show it. So, there’s nothing to report on Amazon.”