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Chinese Fashion First: Consumer Nationalism and ‘China Chic’

Consumer sentiments on Western brands and made-in-China fashion are changing.

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At a time when Chinese media, celebrities, and consumers are condemning and boycotting Western brands, Chinese fashion and luxury brands are flourishing in a new era of “proudly made in China.”

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

“The first thing Chinese fashion magazines should do is support the Chinese fashion industry, Chinese domestic brands, and Chinese designers!” In a video that went viral on social media, Hung Huang (洪晃), the famous American-Chinese television host and publisher of fashion magazine iLook, called out for a healthy development of China’s fashion industry that does not rely on Western brands to continue growing.

Hung Huang’s remarks were made in late March of 2021, around the time when a social media storm broke out in China over the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and its brand members – including H&M, Nike, and Adidas – for no longer sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang region. This boycott generated a huge backlash in mainland China. The online anger was mainly directed at H&M, since the Swedish retailer is a top member of the BCI and had previously released a statement on its site in which the company said it was “deeply concerned” over reports of alleged forced labor in the production of cotton in Xinjiang.

The news developments were followed by a wave of social media boycott campaigns and Chinese brand ambassadors cutting ties with international brands. It also ignited a social media movement in support of domestic brands, ‘made in China,’ and Xinjiang as China’s largest cotton-growing area.

The hashtag “I support Xinjiang cotton” (#我支持新疆棉花#) received a staggering 7.9 billion views on Weibo within a few weeks time. Simultaneously, a rising confidence in national brands became increasingly visible on social media, where the calls for supporting domestic brands are growing louder.

A recent survey by state media outlet Global Times suggests that most Chinese consumers believe that Western brands could be replaced by Chinese ones. The article claims that 75 percent of its survey respondents agree that “national products could fully or partially replace Western products.”

 
Proudly Made in China
 

Recent years have not just seen a rise in Chinese fashion brands, but also the emergence of a fashion scene where traditional Chinese elements play a major role. The Hanfu movement, for example, seeks to revitalize the wearing of Han Chinese ethnic clothing. But beyond that, brands are also weaving more Chinese themes into everyday fashion items such as sneakers and t-shirts.

China themed fashion on e-commerce platform Taobao.

The rise in popularity of Chinese fashion brands and styles was dubbed the “China Chic” trend by CGTN in 2020. “China Chic” is a translation of “guócháo” (国潮), which literally means “national tide,” referring to the rise of domestic brands, with their designs often incorporating culturally Chinese elements into the latest trends. In 2021, for the first time ever, the Spring Festival Gala (Chinese state media’s biggest live televised event) also included a fashion show to show the beauty of Chinese costumes to “demonstrate cultural confidence.”

With celebrity endorsements being one of the most important strategies for social media marketing, Chinese celebrities play a crucial role in this trend as guócháo ambassadors. Chinese actor and singer Xiao Zhan (肖战) was praised on social media for becoming the new brand ambassador of the Chinese sportswear brand Lining. When celebrity Wang Yibo became the spokesperson for the domestic brand Anta Sports, one Weibo hashtag page on the topic received over one billion views (#王一博代言安踏#) in late April of 2021. The promotional poster featuring Wang Yibo shows him wearing a t-shirt with “China” on it, including the national flag – profiling Anta as a nation-loving brand.

The rising popularity of ‘made in China’ fashion is noteworthy in a consumer culture where Western brands are often viewed as being of higher quality than domestically produced fashion. The very fact that these foreign brands succeeded in gaining access to China’s market is, in the eyes of many consumers, a reason to believe they must be of higher quality.[1] Those sentiments now seem to be shifting.

A recent Chinese short documentary produced by Tmall titled “Proudly Made in China” (爆款中国) discusses how Western brands have dominated the Chinese fashion and luxury market for years, making it more difficult for Chinese brands to become big players in their own field.

“Why are Chinese brands not as highly accepted by Chinese consumers?”, asks Li Jiaqi (李佳琦), an influencer and new brand recruiter for Tmall who is featured in the short film: “Why do Chinese consumers seem to have a preconceived and biased view that Chinese products are of poor quality?”

In the short film, Li explains that Chinese consumers have since long had worries about buying Chinese brands, and that one slight problem with a product will automatically negatively reflect on the entire brand.

Existing consumer preferences for Western brands have even created the idea that Chinese brands should register abroad and pose as a foreign brand to enlarge their chances to succeed in the Chinese market.

China’s flourishing live-streaming market and domestic e-commerce platforms have provided new opportunities for Chinese brands to shine once their products gain consumer recognition. Especially younger consumers, those born after 1995 or 2000, show more confidence in Chinese brands than the generations before them.

In the “Proudly Made in China” film, this growing trust in domestic brands among Chinese younger generations is linked to a striking confidence and pride in China, its national identity, and its culture. On Weibo, some commenters replied: “This is the era of domestic brands!”

 
Western Brand Controversies
 

Although the influence of national pride on China’s young consumers might already have been strong before, there are also changing dynamics in the relation between Chinese consumers and Western brands which seem to have boosted the ‘guócháo’ and domestic brand trend; Chinese brands have been cast in a more positive light over the past few years due to the controversies involving Western brands.

In 2018, Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) faced consumer outrage in China for publishing a culturally insensitive advertising campaign that showed a Chinese model clumsily using chopsticks to eat Italian dishes such as pizza, cannoli, and spaghetti. The campaign, which was titled “D&G Loves China,” completely backfired with many finding it racist and sexist and vowing to boycott the brand. The controversy became so big that a big D&G fashion show in Shanghai was canceled and the company saw a slump in its business on the mainland.

Still from the promotional D&G video that was deemed racist in China, causing major controversy in 2018 (whatsonweibo).

In 2019, many different international fashion brands, including Versace, Coach, Calvin Klein, Givenchy, and ASICS, were condemned by Chinese netizens for listing Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan as separate countries or regions – not part of China – on their official websites or brand T-shirts. Chinese celebrities cut their collaborations with many of these brands.

When in 2020 the aforementioned Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) announced that it was ceasing all operations in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region amid accusations of “forced labor” there, backlash in China further grew against the organization and the brands affiliated to it. As reported by CGTN, BCI has recently removed its statement on Xinjiang cotton from its website (allegedly this was related to a cyber attack), but the discussions on the position of Western brands in China continue, with both state media and netizens sending out the message that “foreign companies that slander China” are not welcome in the country.

 
The Future of Fashion Brands in China
 

“Boycott Nike? Support domestic brands? What are we supposed to do now?” It is a question posed by the Chinese ‘Sneakersbar’ vlogger Fang (@鞋吧Sneakersbar), a sportswear-focused self-media account with over 3,5 million followers on Weibo. The question resonates with many consumers, who are caught between politics, patriotism, and personal preferences for certain brands.

In their latest video, Sneakersbar makes up the balance on where Western brands, especially those affiliated with BCI, stand in the Chinese market today. On the one hand, Fang argues, many foreign brands, including Adidas, Nike, H&M, Uniqlo, and others, have already become part of China’s commercial fashion landscape and many consumers love these brands and their products. On the other hand, these foreign brands are also making political choices that Chinese consumers cannot ignore. But does this mean they should be boycotted forever? Does it mean that you should look down on others buying these products?

The video by popular weibo account Sneakersbar: “Boycott Nike? Support Domestic Brands? What are we supposed to do?”

The answer is that consumers should stay rational in their choices, Fang argues. This means that choosing Chinese brands out of a form of “rational patriotism” is fine, but people should not attack others merely because they wear foreign brands or work in their shops. The same goes for those consumers who only want to buy foreign brands just because they are foreign; they could also consider Chinese products to support domestic brands – especially those brands which refrain from copying foreign ones and have developed their own unique designs and styles.

Many commenters on Weibo support Fang’s message of “reasonable patriotism without blind worship” (“理性爱国,也不盲目崇拜”), supporting the idea that Western and Chinese brands can co-exist and that they can be competitors in a market where Chinese fashion labels are getting more room to grow.

“Nationalism and patriotism offer opportunities for Chinese brands,” one Weibo user writes: “China Chic and China fashion trends are putting more pressure on foreign brands. Because of the speedy rise of Chinese domestic brands, which are producing high-quality products and are applying smart marketing methods, more and more patriotic young people are buying their products.”

It is clear that many consumers in China support domestic brands and hope that Chinese fashion can flourish within its own market. But there are also those voices stressing the importance of consumers’ freedom to buy the brands that suit them, wherever they are from and regardless of politics. One person commented: “Western or Chinese brand, I just want to wear the shoes that are most comfortable for me to walk in.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 
[1] Tian, Kelly and Lily Dong. 2011. Consumer-Citizens of China: The Role of Foreign Brands in the Imagined Future of China. London & New York: Routledge. Page 7.
 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Fashion & Beauty

NIKE vs ERKE: Two Sportswear Brands Trending on Weibo for Totally Different Reasons

While domestic brand Erke is all the hype, Nike is growing increasingly unpopular.

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Domestic sportswear company Erke has recently become a top-selling brand in China. The American sports brand Nike, on the other hand, has seemingly lost its reputation in the Chinese market. This week’s trending Weibo topics relating to the companies are telling of the ongoing battle between domestic and international sportswear brands in China.

 
By Wendy Huang & Manya Koetse
 

American sportswear brand Nike and Chinese domestic sportswear brand Erke (鸿星尔克) both popped up in the Weibo trending lists this week, but for two totally different reasons.

While Nike got caught up in controversy, Erke was praised. The stark contrast between how the two brands are represented on social media today is telling of their recent position in the Chinese market.

 
Nike Store Employee vs Chinese Migrant Worker
 

The trending incident involving Nike this week was about a bad shopping experience at the Nike store in Kunming, Yunnan province. On August 13, the 44-year old migrant worker Mao Zhigao (毛治高) took his three kids out shopping in the Nike store to reward them for their good school results.

What was supposed to be a fun family occasion turned into an awful afternoon when a female employee at the store reportedly snatched Nike clothes out of the hands of the youngest son and put them back on the hangers again.

When the boy tearfully told his parents about what happened, the incident soon escalated. The boy’s father, Mr. Mao, believed that the Nike employees were treating the family badly based on their appearance. As a migrant worker working on a construction site, Mao had just returned from work and was in his work clothes.

When the young boy’s mother confronted the employee about what had happened, the altercation apparently turned physical when the Nike employee started scratching and hair-pulling. Local police officers eventually stepped in to mediate.

Although the Mao family demanded an apology from the Nike staff and also filed a complaint to Nike, they did not receive any reply. After six days, local media got involved and the story went trending.

Nike then responded to the issue with an apology and statement that the female employee was dismissed.

By Monday, August 23rd, some hashtags related to the incident received millions of views on Weibo:

On social media, the Nike incident was mostly viewed through the angle of unfair treatment and the international brand discriminating against a Chinese migrant worker.

 
Erke as ‘Patriotic Brand’
 

While Nike is being criticized, Erke, the Chinese sportswear brand by Hongxing Erke Group (鸿星尔克), is praised because it announced to donate one million yuan ($153,800) to Henan Museum to support the museum’s rebuilding project after the devastating flood.

A picture posted by Henan Museum on its Weibo account (@河南博物院)  shows that Erke put the donation in the name of “national netizens.”

The picture soon went viral on Weibo, with the hashtag “ERKE Donates One Million Yuan to Henan Museum” (#鸿星尔克向河南博物院捐赠一百万元#) receiving 450 million views, and “ERKE Together With National Netizens” (#鸿星尔克 携全国网友#) receiving 140 million views.

This is the second time that Erke made a donation to help Henan in light of the floods. Its first donation in late July of this year is actually what helped the brand back into the limelight.

The domestic sportswear brand then donated 50 million yuan ($7.7 million) to the Henan flood. This attracted a lot of attention on Chinese social media since Erke was known as a relatively low-profile brand that seemingly has not been doing too well over the past years.

After people found out that the company donated such a high amount of money to help the people in Henan despite its own losses, its online sales went through the roof – everyone wanted to support this generous ‘patriotic brand.’ While netizens rushed to the online shops selling Erke, the brand’s physical shops also ran out of products with so many people coming to buy their sportswear. One female sales assistant was moved to tears when the store suddenly filled up with so many customers.

Image via Ellemen.

Lei Jun, the founder of the electronics company Xiaomi, also joined the Erke hype. He published a picture of him wearing Erke shoes on Weibo, the hashtag dedicated to this topic then received about 200 million views (#雷军晒鸿星尔克鞋#).

 
Consumer Nationalism and Sportswear Brands
 

It is not just Nike that has seemingly become less popular in China. Earlier this month, one hashtag about another global sports brand, Adidas, also went viral on Weibo. The trending hashtag was about the brand’s revenue growth of Q2 in China dropping by 16% (#阿迪达斯在华收入下跌16%#), receiving more than 110 million views.

During its Q2 2021 conference call, in response to a question about the current consumer demands regarding global brands vs domestic brands in China, CEO of Adidas Group Kasper Rorsted said: “We continue to see a strong demand for products in China, [but] we believe right now that demand has been scooted towards Chinese local brands more than global brands.”

On August 24, news about the online sales of the Chinese Anta Sportswear brand topping those of Nike and Adidas received over 200 million views on Weibo alone (#安踏线上首超耐克阿迪#).

It seems that international sports brands have to look for new ways of winning over consumers in the Chinese market. This shift partly relates to two issues.

The first major issue that has impacted the popularity of brands such as Nike and Adidas has to do with the fact that they are members of the BCI (Better Cotton Initiative), which came under fire in China earlier this year after it had announced it would cease all field-level activities in the Xinjiang region with immediate effect due to concerns over the alleged use of forced labor.

The BCI ‘Xinjiang Cotton Ban’ led to an online ‘Xinjiang Cotton Support’ campaign in China. The BCI member brands boycotting Xinjiang cotton were soon labeled as being ‘anti-China.’ Chinese staff members at Nike and Adidas stores were scolded during live streams, and photos of people burning their Nike shoes soon started circulating on social media.

Another trend that has impacted the influence of foreign sportswear brands in China relates to the rise in popularity of local, Chinese sportswear brands. Domestic brands such as Anta Sports and Lining have been active in Chinese since the 1990s and are now profiting from changing consumer sentiments in a new era that is all about “proudly made in China.”

Besides incorporating more Chinese elements into their product design, Chinese celebrities also play a crucial role in the marketing of these domestic brands. Chinese actor and singer Xiao Zhan (肖战) was praised on social media for becoming the new brand ambassador of the Chinese sportswear brand Lining. When celebrity Wang Yibo became the spokesperson for the domestic brand Anta Sports, one Weibo hashtag page on the topic received over one billion views (#王一博代言安踏#) in late April of 2021. The promotional poster featuring Wang Yibo shows him wearing a t-shirt with “China” on it, including the national flag – profiling Anta as a ‘nation-loving brand.

On social media, it already became clear earlier this year that a distinction was being made between foreign, ‘anti-Chinese’ brands, and domestic, ‘patriotic’ brands (read more here).

Erke indirectly profited from these existing consumer sentiments when, as a relatively smaller domestic brand, it was hyped as the no 1 patriotic sportswear brand for donating so much money to help out during the Henan floods.

Although Nike and Adidas each also contributed 20 million yuan ($3 million) toward Henan floods relief efforts, their donations barely received online attention. In fact, Nike was even condemned online for donating “zero yuan” at a time when it had already announced donating 20 million (more about that here).

The Erke hype even went so far that Chinese livestream sellers of Nike and Adidas notified their viewers that they actually supported the domestic Erke brand.

Adidas livestream sellers supporting Erke.

These nationalistic consumer sentiments also surfaced during the Olympics, when Chinese sport shooter Yang Qian was criticized for her collection of Nike shoes. One Beijing Television journalist wrote on social media: “Chinese athletes, why would you want to collect Nike shoes, shouldn’t you take the lead in boycotting Nike? Aren’t our domestic brands such as Erke, Li Ning, and Anta good enough [for you]?”

During the Tokyo Olympics, Team China’s podium uniform was designed by Chinese sportswear brand Anta, which will also be the Official Sportswear Uniform Supplier for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Anta x Olympics.

In light of everything that happened during the past few months, it is likely that for the time to come, domestic brands such as Erke will continue to flourish while foreign brands might see their China sales slump.

Meanwhile, on social media, netizens continue to express their support for domestic brands while denouncing Nike.

Multiple commenters wrote: “Erke is like ‘I’ve gotten wet, so I want to give others an umbrella too.’ Nike is like ‘Put down those clothes, your dad looks dirty, how you can afford to buy?'”

“I’ll support domestically produced products,” many others write: “Brands that are not patriotic should get out of the country.”

 

By Wendy Huang & Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Food & Drinks

Adapted to the Desert: This Yurt-Style KFC Opened in Inner Mongolia

Special KFC in Inner-Mongolia: “Is home delivery done by camelback?”

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A KFC restaurant that has opened up in Ordos Prefecture, Inner-Mongolia, is attracting online attention in China for its yurt-style building.

The KFC restaurant is located in Xiangshawan, also known as Whistling Dune Bay, a tourist area – China’s first desert-themed tourism resort – in the Kubuqi Desert.

Some web users praise the fast-food giant for “following local customs” (“入乡随俗”). Others jokingly wonder if their home delivery services are also done by camelback.

Although KFC is not China’s first fast-food restaurant, it is one of the most popular ones. Nowhere else outside of the US has KFC expanded so quickly as in China. Since the first KFC opened in Beijing in 1987, the chain had an average of 50% growth per year.

With thousands of locations across the country, KFC often adapts its restaurants’ style to the local environment. On Weibo, web users share various examples of local KFCs.

A KFC sign at a Fuzhou branch, by Weibo user @渭城朝雨玉清宸.

A KFC in Shanxi province, shared by Weibo user @sheep加水饺.

KFC in Suzhou, by Weibo user @是宜不是宣呀.

KFC in Pingyao, by Weibo user @车谦渊

KFC in Orange Isle, Hunan, by Weibo user @DzDanger_

One Weibo user (@阳山花非花) points out that KFC is not the only chain to adapt to the local environment in Ordos. Chinese fast-food chain Dicos (德克士) apparently also has a special restaurant in the area.

Besides adapting its buildings, KFC is also known to be quite localized in its product offerings. KFC China offers products such as Chinese-style porridge, Beijing chicken roll, and youtiao (deep-fried strip of dough commonly eaten for breakfast).

In 2019, KFC also made headlines in China for adding, among other things, hot and spicy skewers (麻辣串串) to its menu.

For now, the KFC yurt-style location is bound to gain more visitors who are coming to check it out. Already, various Weibo users are sharing their own pics of their KFC visit.

 

You might also like to read:

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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