Chinese Consumer Trends Following, Expanding On, Western Trends
Wine and spirits companies have exponentially increased their outreach efforts in the lucrative Chinese consumer market over the last five to 10 years, with western companies finding varying degrees of success — for scotch producer Chivas, success beyond their wildest dreams; for beer companies, more muted success. In the Chinese market, as the more insightful branding experts have noted, it’s not enough anymore for imported consumer goods to simply be expensive. As the Chinese middle and upper class becomes increasingly sophisticated and develops more focused tastes, companies need to appeal to potential buyers on a personal, visceral level (much as they try to do in developed markets).
In recent years, the market for fine wines has grown dramatically in mainland China, following what has been a comparatively strong market and consumer base in nearby Hong Kong for decades. Marketing wines to mainland consumers is taking a different shape, however, as wealthier Chinese consumers have typically been drawn more to expensive bottles of cognac or scotch. Although wine has been relatively popular for some time, in the Chinese market buyers typically have not purchased with a given region or vineyard in mind. As such, producers are keen to try aggressive branding measures. This week, an event in Beijing gave a preview of some of the branding tactics these vintners will probably use in China going forward to encourage more wine consumption in the mainland and turn casual drinkers into sophisticated brand ambassadors, bringing together the Chinese art world and wine:
“We’re looking at someone in his late 20s or early 30s who is creative, on the scene and wants to call himself a collector,” explains Tally Beck, director of Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. “The target now is the new collector.”
To lure that new collector, Beck organized a catered affair with music—”basically a big party”—for a recent opening of Xie Guoping’s first solo exhibition, titled “No Trace,” held at Beijing’s Dongbianmen Watchtower gallery. After spending a few hours in the space, the viewing moved to Beck’s home, where Xie’s canvases were also hung, and the real party began. Rather than present the artwork in a sterile environment, Beck wanted to demonstrate how the pieces would look in a home setting, making them more accessible and saleable. Besides, there’s always the hope that a bit of booze will encourage guests to make impulse art purchases. Darren Weatherby-Blythe, who opened the shop Art&Wine in Warwick, England, last year, has stumbled upon a similar strategy. “The wine element helps people get across the gallery threshold,” he says. “Wine is more inclusive, so it helps break down the art myth.”
It will be interesting to keep an eye on wine sales in the mainland market over the next few years, as buyers and wine enthusiasts become increasingly picky or behoven to wines from a particular region or country. Ostensibly, wine purchases will continue to grow in line with consumption of other foreign spirits, but it’s hard to tell for sure, since many Chinese purchase expensive bottles with the intention of giving them as gifts for potential business partners or friends and family rather than consuming themselves (which would lead to these buyers purchasing on price alone rather than appreciation for the actual wine). Clearly, though, we have seen interest in fine wines grow quickly throughout Greater China. As Sotheby’s sellout auction of fine wines last week showed, East Asian buyers are more than willing to shell out for good bottles of wine. For wine to truly flourish in the mainland, though, wine producers are going to have to follow the lead of art galleries in Beijing and localize their product pitch, helping to demystify their product in the mind of the urban Chinese sophisticate.
One note on this topic, the increasing consumption of wine in the mainland could present a huge opportunity for American wineries. Just as some Americans lashed out in anti-French protests in 2003, last year’s anti-French protests in China led to boycotts of French products throughout the country — including wine and other luxury goods. Although there aren’t any reliable figures about how much this hurt the French wine industry’s China sales for the year, the often-tumultuous Sino-French relationship could create a window of opportunity for American vineyards to aggresively position their brands in the mainland in coming years.