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China Lifestyle Branding – In Sight

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An Education In Sight stakeholder.

Winning in China means ignoring advice to dig into traditional Chinese culture, and instead delivering universal best practice experience.

Today, that experience must center on a ‘Why’ that resonates with your target market. The experience must have a community context that gives the consumer a mode of expression through her purchases, and other engagement with the brand.

Such is ‘lifestyle branding’, an approach as relevant to the China market as anywhere else, but particularly lacking here. 

Enter Mantra, an eyewear brand rooted in a particularly resonant ‘Why’ – Education In Sight, a non-profit that gives glasses to children in need. They are launching eyewear brand Mantra as a lifestyle brand that will drive far more money for glasses to give away than traditional fund raising.

“We see a lot of companies in China making attempts at lifestyle branding, but they stumble when it comes to sincerity” says Mantra Co-founder Sam Waldo. “Sure, a shirt might have a golfer on the lapel, or a glasses brand might have a model wearing their glasses while riffing on a guitar, but these attempts ultimately fail to ring true with the customers we meet.

A lot of these failed lifestyle brands don’t have an honest narrative to share with customers – what do they stand for? What relevance does this have to my passions, my beliefs? Customers are uncannily gifted at judging whether a brand has anything at its core, any actual reason to exist aside from vacuuming up this or that customer group’s disposable income.”

Luxury mavens bemoaning the slump in China’s elite brand sales are starting to understand. Anti-corruption has far less to do with LV’s loss in revenues than the fact that ostentation is trending towards the tuhao. Finding brands with personal relevance is the new mandate for the Chinese “super consumer”.

This means yet another arbitrage opportunity for western brands in China’s frothy retail market. Domestic brands are largely still playing catch up, inventing names and instant histories that ape global brands. Meanwhile, large Chinese ecommerce sites are still “platforms”, obsessed with pricing and logistics, but never a larger purpose, or the community framework that gives meaning to a purchase.

As Sam puts it, “Mantra was first conceived as a way to help us raise money for our non-profit, Education In Sight, or EIS. We spend most of the year bringing corrected vision and vision education to students in rural areas of Yunnan province through EIS, and we found the process of fundraising for our non-profit to be a huge pain.

Sam Waldo and Andrew Shirman

Mantra’s Andrew Shirman & Sam Waldo

At the same time, we were living in Beijing, and noticed how few compelling brands there were. With few exceptions, there are so few companies that give customers an emotional reason to invest in their brand. And we thought, let’s try to solve both of these problems. First, let’s start a brand to help our non-profit grow sustainably – for every pair of fashionable eyewear we sell through Mantra, we donate one pair of prescription eyewear to a child in need through EIS. And also let’s make a brand that starts with a strong ‘why’ – we’re starting this brand to help students in need and to invite more upwardly-mobile urbanites in China to get involved in a social cause.”

This doesn’t mean a brand has to be committed to positive social impact to win in China, but it helps. In a global study last summer, Nielsen found the strongest willingness to pay more for socially responsible brands in APAC (64%), whereas North America registered 22 points lower.

If it sounds paradoxical, this concern for social responsibility, in a part of the world where corruption and government malfeasance are baked into the culture, that’s because it is. So is the fact that the poor are always the most willing to share their meager resources.

Mantra can depend on reciprocal sharing as part of its China strategy. Getting consumers to feel good enough about a brand to share its content is the golden fleece of marketing, usually attained by only a few iconic standouts such as Apple and Nike, to the tune of hundreds of millions in sponsorship and creative campaigning.

When you’re responsible to the underserved, rather than your shareholders, the script is flipped. Whereas most brands on WeChat do about as well as Leisure Suit Larry at a speed-dating event, Mantra will have in the social app a bully pulpit from which messaging will spread like kudzu, if not go full-on viral.

“With a purchase of our eyewear, customers will get a digital charitable receipt via WeChat detailing their contribution – photos, info on where and when and to whom their donation will be distributed. And all of this content is highly shareable because every student offers a compelling narrative that can move people to get involved.

Our customers share this content and invite friends to the cause, simultaneously increasing their personal capital and spreading awareness about Mantra. We get people’s attention in a positive way with the social mission, and, at the same time, they are exposed to our style and design – the fashion side of the brand – and they notice that the product itself is cool and high-quality.”

Not that a sound ‘Why’ is a passport to instant profit. Rather, it is a springboard, allowing higher and higher leaps of execution without attendant increases in effort. It’s scalable marketing in the best sense of the term.

For instance, Mantra will not suffer the lower rates of conversion many brands experience on independent ecommerce sites, compared to transacting on Tmall or JD. Genuine goodwill leads to authentic social proof, and correspondingly high conversion rates. Word-of-mouth, KOL, and other earned traffic will grow organically, sparing marketing budget with which to re-invest in the community, for self-fortifying market share.

Social responsibility is not the only high-potential driver of China lifestyle branding. However, it is the most compelling. Broadly speaking, lifestyle branding must be based on authenticity that withstands the stripping away of all commercial factors.

 “At Education In Sight and at Mantra, our vision is a world where every student has the eyeglasses they need to succeed in school. Just giving glasses is equivalent to an entire extra year of school for a student, and glasses have demonstrated a higher impact on a child’s academics than parental education levels or family income.

And yet there are an estimated 30 million students in China who need glasses but do not have them – just imagine how China would look if all of these students suddenly had the ability to engage in school? At EIS we’ve already donated over 6,000 pairs of glasses, but we need to move faster – our goal is to cover all of Yunnan province by 2020, which means a million pairs of glasses for students. It’s an ambitious goal, but we can do it with the help of a new wave of socially conscious customers in China.”

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