Earlier this month, fashion designer Alexander Wang released a collaboration with McDonald’s in the form of picnic basket- and lunch bag-inspired handbags in his signature shade of black. In the U.S., that type of brand collaboration might be seen as overdone, but the collection, sold through Alibaba’s Tmall online platform, proved a hit with the local audience. The 300 baskets that were made sold out in seconds, according to Alibaba, and the 30,000 lunch bags sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Brand collaborations like these are incredibly popular in China, and their frequency and popularity are growing each year. A June report from Gartner L2 showed that the percentage of fashion brands promoting brand collaborations on the Chinese social network Weibo had jumped up from 62% in the first quarter of 2018 to 80% by the midpoint of 2019. 

As the Chinese market continues to slow down after several years of being the fastest-growing market in fashion, these kinds of collaborations can provide the necessary boost brands need to keep Chinese customers engaged. 

“We’ve seen a big ramp-up in brand collaborations recently,” said Christina Fontana, head of fashion and luxury for Tmall Europe. “The retail environment in China is very competitive and very fast. Brands always want to create buzz and give people a reason to talk about them. It also helps them reach new customers. I work mostly with European luxury brands, and their customer in China tends to be about 10 years younger than their customer in Europe, so it requires a different strategy.” 

Essentially, China is a unique market. Collaborating with other brands already popular in China can help newcomers figure out who their audience is and the best way to reach them.

A diverse array of fashion brands and platforms have turned to collaborations, particularly when trying to introduce themselves to the market for the first time.

“We know China is a unique market, and if we use the same strategy as in the U.S., we’ll likely fail,” said Eddy Lu, CEO of Goat. Goat launched a separate app in China a few months ago, working with WeChat to tailor the user experience for Chinese customers. “We are building [our Chinese app] with a local team in order to provide the Chinese consumer with a better, more personalized experience.”

Like many brands looking to appeal to China, Goat did so by partnering with a brand that is known and loved throughout China: the NBA. The resale platform sponsored the often-photographed walk-in area where players arrive, banking on the NBA’s massive popularity in China to boost its China launch. There are more NBA fans in China than there are people in the U.S.

Thanks to China’s unique cultural sensibilities and various platforms to advertise and sell on, many brands have found that hiring locals with first-hand knowledge of the market to be crucial. Offering guidance and advice on selling in China has been one of Alibaba’s primary attractions to Western brands.

Certain brand collaborations have succeeded in China, while others have failed. A collaboration between Uniqlo and visual artist KAWS was a sensation in China, spawning dozens of viral videos of customers swarming Uniqlo stores. An H&M and Moschino collaboration in 2018 drew similar uproar in China when it was released in 2018.

Meanwhile, a collaboration between H&M and Versace was initially popular but later saw a high number of returns, according to reports in the Chinese press. While H&M and Moschino were a cohesive fit, H&M and Versace proved to be too jarring of a combination. Many showed up for the Versace name but were disappointed to find the clothes were of H&M quality.  

“The collaborations have to fit the brand identity,” Fontana said. “In the Moschino example, it’s a fun brand with a kind of irreverent tone. Collaborations fit perfectly with its pop-art style, like the one it did recently with Budweiser. With Versace, they have a different identity that didn’t fit with the collaboration quite as well. When brands find collaborators that amplify their message, it works much better in China.”

In a statement released by Alibaba, Christine Xu, CMO of McDonald’s China, emphasized the Chinese market’s desire for novelty and newness.

“Chinese consumers have a strong appetite for innovation and new ideas,” said Christine Xu, CMO of McDonald’s China, adding that the country’s unique consumer dynamic has made it a hotbed for creative experimentation and played an important role in the collaboration’s success. “This is driving brands to deliver truly innovative ideas and experiences,” she said.