The What and Why of Brands in China

China’s luxury consumption is in the news. A lot. In all the celebration of chances for sales growth (with maybe a bit of puzzlement over a still-developing country’s citizens having to have goods that middle-class “Westerners” would find too, well, luxurious), consideration of what (luxury) brands mean to Chinese is rather lacking.

Even as I’ve argued that it’s the younger generation who would be the ones to have grown up with the idea of brands, and who would be the ones who most want to shop, and show their status by it, there are complications… (as if the idea of “the wealthy who buy luxury” hadn’t already gotten more complicated in my last posts on it).

Getting rich sure would be seen as glorious, but the desire for brands seems based not so much on riches (at least, for the majority). Rather, the perception is that those products are of particularly high quality – which I’ve oftentimes had pointed out to me –, and (maybe) show their owner to be equally as distinguished.

The connection appears to be much less emotional rather than rooted in the example of others, though: What everyone knows to be good and recognizes, along with what is shown in the fashion magazines, is rather more important/interesting than how – other than happy – it makes you feel to own such a product. It just comes with the territory of being well-off and/or fashion-conscious.


And thus, because having brand goods is a matter of having what’s recognized as good…

“…the Chinese have an even greater passion for brands than, say, Russian or Japanese consumers. A recent study reveals that the average Chinese consumer feels the need to wear at least three branded items to feel comfortable at work. Yet, when probed further, they were at a loss, unable to define the features of a brand. However, they had no difficulty describing the product. It seems that for them, the product is the brand. The emotional connection is simply absent.”
[ How the Chinese Became Global Branding Geniuses]

With my students here in Xiangtan, that starts with their thinking that Adidas and Nike are desirable brands because their products are better-made – and simply foreign. I have not managed to elicit a single statement that it makes you yourself feel more like a sportsperson, someone who is health-conscious, or anything like those associations – the stories – that are supposedly giving brands their modern value.

In fact, there are problems on the horizon. One peculiar change I’ve started seeing is that some brands are coming to be of dubious value.


Louis Vuitton has been a favorite example of mine, because of the brand’s high visibility – which goes to the point where plastic shopping bags and other everyday and throw-away items show their distinct logo design. Thus, when a female student who managed to go on a shopping tour to Hong Kong with her rich boyfriend came back, she found it necessary to emphasize that the LV bag she had purchased was definitely bought in Hong Kong, for a high amount of money. – Fakes are just too easy to find, and while some of the copying of “brands” is just ridiculous, fake goods of high-class brands can be very difficult to tell apart from the original…

The plastic over the clasp logo is rather too typically Chinese. Otherwise, you’d be hard-pressed to tell whether it’s fake or real. Or have you seen so many Chanel handbags, it’s easy for you?
Many are wondering if the current conspicuous consumption – “status shopping” – will change “from the ‘show-off stage’ of consumption to the stage of appreciation and rational consumption.” (JingDaily) – and it is a question I wonder about in the context of sustainable lifestyles, too.

Several different avenues are presently possible – and in all likelihood, a few of them will be followed, by different groups. Some showing off, some going towards refined – possibly bespoke – luxury. Many still remain poor, and whether they will remain accepting of other’s having it better remains to be seen as well. Already with the most recent generations, quite a bit has been changing in the context of expectations they have themselves and are meant to fulfill, according to their parents.


  1. Heather Druktenis

    Interesting that the motivation behind theses purchases is owning quality goods and owning things from somewhere else. I can understand that. I just love the un-usual. Anyhow, interesting read.

    1. Gerald

      Funny thing, though, is that it’s not the unusual, it’s the better. Sometimes, because of a distrust of Chinese products (with the idea that even Chinese-made products made for export are much better than those made for China itself, and far worse when it comes to food – which I’ll get to shortly), and oftentimes because of the cachet given to Western products. At times, in very strange ways, e.g. with products that are not considered luxury at all becoming expensive and sought-after in China – check out the stories about Pabst beer’s transformation, for example.

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