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Retail Brand Building in China…and the Importance of Agility

Carol Schuster

Carol Schuster
Schuster Consulting Group

Carol Schuster is no stranger to the intricacies of introducing a consumer brand in newly emerging economies. As a global brand and marketing consultant, Carol leads high-impact teams that deliver regional, national, and international business strategies and integrated marketing programs to nascent markets in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and Asia. Having held senior executive roles in the U.S. and abroad for Ogilvy & Mather and D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (where at age 29 she founded the agency’s Warsaw office), Carol is currently based in Shanghai and is spearheading global expansion for luxury women’s retailer Lafayette 148.

Carol spoke with TMG about creating brand and brand awareness amid the seismic economic and cultural shifts in China, and what it takes to find your consumer in a country of 1.3 billion people.

You’ve described yourself as always curious and able to look at situations with fresh eyes. How has this approach helped you in your work in China?

We did a lot of research when I arrived in China. Everything was new and different about this market. I was able to find new ways of working and solving problems by looking for the similarities and listening for the differences. That was critical. If your mindset is closed and you’re determined to do things the way you’ve always done them in the U.S, you’re not open to new possibilities that can lead to success.

As a matter of fact, we should always be looking for new ways of doing things. That’s why developed markets have become complacent. Even in existing categories newness can be created.

What are the top criteria that differentiate brand building in China from other emerging markets in which you’ve worked?

China isn’t a market. It’s a continent. Tastes, behaviors, and even sizes change from one location to the next. Eventually I realized that each market required starting all over again. The new market had to be defined and the position articulated. What worked in one region did not necessarily work in another. It’s all about navigating a tightrope with laser sharp focus on one hand, while being nimble and opportunistic on the other. The loop of testing, learning, succeeding, failing, and succeeding again takes a stomach of steel.

Describe the parallels in consumer behaviors in emerging nations or economies that transcend culture.

Consumers everywhere love brands they identify with, that speak to their hearts and transport them to other worlds. You see this in emerging markets time and again. Everything is so new and different because these people have lived in the dark for so long. The world they knew was very different. With the blindfolds removed, they find themselves confronted with all kinds of offerings. Imagine what that would be like. It’s very exciting and the marketing challenges are equally difficult. How do you engage and develop loyalty? The Chinese buy into the indulgence and luxury of Louis Vuitton just as the French or Russians do. The difference lies in how a brand appeals to and communicates with the consumer from one country to the next.

What insight about brand development in China can you share with our readers that they would find most surprising?

Marketers are mesmerized by the prospect of China’s enormous population of 1.3 billion people. The big surprise comes when you’re on the ground with all this intelligence and research thinking, “Where are they? How do I find my consumers?” In the absence of throwing money and advertising at the problem, finding your customer is not that easy.

I learned that the hard way. At Lafayette 148, we do well when we maintain a sharp focus on our target woman. We know her well and everything we do to engage her is developed intentionally and consistently. We’re going after her one by one; and she’s very difficult to find.

Describe the challenge of introducing the concept of consumer choice into a society where choice has been limited.

Choice is connected to education. Brand marketers are challenged to provide the education and tools new consumers need to understand how to make a good selection. I find this most often in sophisticated categories where new consumers had been offered only a state brand. In the 90s I launched a feminine hygiene product in China and observed how women became overwhelmed by having to make a choice. In response, we covered the packaging with information and pictures. Westerners would be surprised at how the packages were tattooed with text. Offering knowledge and guidance became critical to influencing behaviors.

I’ve seen this principal transcend personal product categories, from disposable to luxury. In apparel, we teach how to mix and match and put a look together. We’ll stage fashion shows, and discuss different fabrics, production, and materials. We go deep and allow the customer to come with us so she can learn to make her own decisions.

Chinese consumers want to try everything and so they aren’t particularly loyal. Based on the experiences of packaged goods brands that have been here for twenty years, the next level of development will occur when the consumer is able to recognize the brand to which they’re best suited.

What types of adaptations to brand promise and brand experience have you had to make to engage the Chinese target market?

The Lafayette 148 brand experience serves as a role model for the current generation of Chinese women. We’re creating opportunities for women to interact with our product and learn how a brand can fit into their lives. They have no understanding of how clothes work together. Their mothers wore traditional Chinese dress. Even our sales associates have had little prior experience with fashion. The next generation will have had this exposure and training. One has to be on the ground here to understand this, learn the nuances, and determine strategies.

How do you define brand relevancy in a market experiencing such constant and dramatic changes?

Marketers must stay close to the pulse of what’s happening with the consumer. Competitive landscapes are constantly growing and shifting. Maintaining agility is key. Regional strategies require frequent adjustments while maintaining a consistent brand vision.

If you could build a fashion brand in any country, at any time in history, where and when would you love to work?

If not now, when? This point in time is a lightning rod that is moving Chinese society from the past into the future. I am doing so much more than simply maintaining a market. I am creating a market from scratch and in the process, have the opportunity to shape and enhance women’s lives. I love the work I’m doing here.


Carol is taking brands global as CEO of Schuster Consulting Group. She is currently on assignment in Shanghai and can be reached at carol@schuster-global.com.