Luxury travel is a sector that defies borders. The trends shaping and changing travel at the luxury level seem to transcend cultures. Instead, they follow the habits of high-net-worth individuals who can opt to see the world in a way that’s possible only to the 1 percent.

Despite their similarities, however, not all high-net worth individuals can be marketed to in the same way. Most notably, the Chinese market employs a unique set of digital platforms, making the context within which this segment receives brand messages very different than in the Americas and Europe.

As luxury travel and hospitality marketing matures in China, international brands are learning that both the messaging and the technology used to share messaging matters if they hope to develop the deep-seated customer relationships that they are after. The challenge is to develop content for this important market while maintaining the global story line.

Content Built on Cultural Connections

A new Reuter: Intelligence study, released in partnership with ILTM China, examines how travel and hospitality brands can build out their digital presence in China.

The report suggested luxury brands should look beyond mere functionalities of Chinese platforms and rather focus on building meaningful content within the context of Chinese culture. The report argued that the international brands who have performed the best were looking beyond technology and telling stories that built an emotional connection.

Two examples from the report focused on hospitality brand collaborations with Chinese influencers.

Bulgari Hotel earlier this year collaborated with Chinese actor Hu Bing to give his followers insights into the hotel brand. Hu, through social media, personalized his stay, explaining how he first learned about the brand because someone he liked was staying there. The ability to develop this personal story line had the potential to deepen the brand relationship with the model-turned-actor’s community.

Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, part of the Hilton portfolio, hosted Chinese pianist Lang Lang and his wife on their honeymoon. Lang Lang and the hotel brand went beyond the superficial and shared content that focused on the resort’s sustainability efforts in regenerating the coral reefs.

Nuanced Messaging for a Major Market

The brands kept the core message consistent while highlighting certain features — whether it’s the level of luxury or depth of experience available — through their Chinese partners. This balance of global branding and localized messaging is something that Chris Donnelly, founder and CEO of London-based luxury digital agency VERB, said is vital.

“While it’s important to make certain concessions to reach Chinese consumers, because the digital sector has developed so differently — and cultural and linguistic differences need to be overcome — it’s also important to not change a brand too much within the market,” explained Donnelly. He suggested that luxury brands consider their core brand story versus the execution of that story. It’s important to keep the core consistent even though how that story is told, and through which context and characters, is open to change depending on the market.

When luxury hospitality projects based in the English countryside, for example, started reaching out to the Chinese market, they didn’t realize the stigmas that existed around a rural experience. Although that perception has changed throughout the past decade, it is still a good example of how certain experiences need to be more clear in their particular appeal in a culture that’s different than their own.

“Localizing a brand for China is a fine line that should be carefully tread, especially for an increasingly globalized consumer,” said Donnelly. “Too much one way and a brand risks straying from their global brand image, confusing Chinese consumers when they encounter the brand in its home market. Too much the other way and a brand can risk not telling their story correctly within China — and losing an opportunity to win over new consumers.”

Tom Griffiths, commercial director of VERB China, has worked at the intersection of luxury marketing and Chinese consumerism for years. He recalled a situation in which an international hotel group misled Chinese consumers around the opening of a new hotel in Shanghai. The backlash on social media was swift and immediate, with Chinese consumers complaining that the level of luxury portrayed in the global marketing message didn’t match the reality on the ground.

Griffiths has also observed other cultural missteps, such as the time a major American celebrity wore a green hat in photos shared on Chinese social media platforms. The fashion choice drew cultural references to China’s past when pimps, or partners known for infidelity, were referred to as wearing a green hat. Although it wasn’t a total disaster for the travel destination in question, the fashion choice showed the lack of local and cultural acumen.

The Platforms to Play On

WeChat is still considered China’s super-app, and the foundation of any travel brand’s digital communications in China. There are, however, opportunities to engage with consumers in more personal ways on other platforms.

Griffiths was particularly excited by the potential of Dedao — a platform popular with young businesspeople. Dedao posts videos of lectures from prominent individuals from various industries. Although the app has the right audience, the question of how to tap into that opportunity in an organic way remained.

Considered the TikTok of China, Douyin is most popular among young, affluent customers based in Tier-1 cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. The proliferation of user-generated content means that a high-quality video produced by a luxury travel brand has the potential to stand out.

RED is a place to publish behind-the-scenes content and intimate interviews with the personalities that built and use the brand. It’s particularly useful for beauty and cosmetics brands but could represent an opportunity for travel brands seeking to engage with China’s growing ‘sheconomy’.

The number of women occupying high-level positions in China is increasing, and overall spending by Chinese women grew by 81 percent in the past five years to $670 billion. This presents an incredible opportunity for luxury travel brands. The nuances of marketing here can be difficult though, as Griffiths warned a campaign targeting this more individualized, ambitious customer base could come at the cost of other potential customers including families and groups with more traditional values.

Photo Credit: Woman looks at her mobile device while having a glass of wine at the Sky Bar. As luxury travel marketing expands in China, international brands are learning that both the messaging and the technology used to share messaging matters. Leung Chopan / Adobe Stock