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The global catwalk: emerging markets and the language of fashion in 2019

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Emerging markets and the language of fashion in 2019

It was a fashion brand manager’s worst nightmare. The recent Dolce & Gabbana “chopsticks” scandal showed how quickly and seriously culturally inappropriate messaging can impact a brand in the digital age. So, in emerging fashion markets, how do brands stay on message and in tune with an ever-expanding global consumer base?

How not to do it:  courting controversy

Context, they say, is everything. In November 2018, the Italian fashion giant Dolce & Gabbana launched an advertising campaign in China in which a Chinese model attempted to eat pizza and pasta with chopsticks.

Presumably considered a playful attempt at cross-cultural humour by the D&G marketing team back in Milan, the advert provoked a storm of protests from Chinese consumers on social media.

Amid accusations of racism and the trivialisation of Chinese culture, the video was widely shared on Chinese social media. The brand was forced into a hasty apology and the offending video was removed within 24 hours.

The damage, however, had already been done. As the hashtag #BoycottDolce went viral, a number of heavyweight Chinese e-tailers removed D&G from their Chinese sites. Attempting to avoid further controversy, Dolce & Gabbana cancelled a major runway show in Shanghai. But with Chinese consumers estimated to account for a third of luxury brand sales worldwide, the economic impact on the brand is likely to have been significant. 

A new world order

In the digital age, there is little margin for cultural misunderstanding. And the range of cultures with which the fashion industry is engaging has become ever more diverse.  In 2018, for the first time ever, more than half of all apparel and footwear sales were made outside the traditional strongholds of Europe and North America[1].

In 2019, China is expected to replace the US as the number one country market for fashion sales and the emerging markets of Asia Pacific are predicted to be the fastest-growing global fashion region.[2] In India, with a population of 1.3 billion, more than 300 international fashion brands are set to open stores over the next two years[3].

Fashion: a global language?

Even within this fast-changing landscape, fashion can still communicate across borders. With the internet, trends and collections are more likely to be shared with a global audience than ever before. Fast-moving international supply chains mean that a crop-top that is flying off the shelves in New York could be being snapped up by consumers in Shanghai or Dehli just as keenly.

However, while there is a shared visual language of fashion, the more insightful brands realise that the written or spoken language is a very different matter. Every market has a linguistic and cultural context which is crucial to understand if brands want to engage with consumers on an authentic level.

In the emerging market of Mexico, for example, using regionally specific terminology is essential. For example, while Spanish people refer to sneakers (or trainers) as “zapatillas”, in Mexico they are called “tenis”. The Spanish word for jacket, meanwhile, is “chaqueta”, but you should be wary of using this word in Mexico where it could have a serious sexual connotation; instead, Mexicans use the word “chamarra”. Retail is still detail, online or off.

Beyond translation

Understanding the cultural framework adds value in ways that go far beyond the traditional idea of “translation” as a service. Instead, it is more useful to think of the concept of “localisation”, which involves the adaptation of assets to a specific country or region with a specialised in-market knowledge of the social, linguistic and cultural context.

Sometimes, especially in marketing or advertising content, a literal translation makes little sense in the target language without its idiomatic or cultural context. In such cases, it is necessary to creatively reimagine the content to fit its new setting, a process known as “transcreation”.  Put simply, the more creativity that has gone into the original content, the greater the likelihood that it will need to be transcreated for target language.  

Slogans are not forever

For example, in 1948, De Beers introduced one of the most admired taglines of all time: “Diamonds are forever”. It has appeared in every one of the company’s engagement adverts since and was selected as slogan of the century by Advertising Age.

However, when the luxury jeweller wanted to open up the Chinese market in the 1990s, it realised that the classic phrase needed a little cultural adaptation. Translated literally, it lost its emotional resonance and suggested qualities of physical durability – “a diamond lasts forever” in contrast to the original sense of “a diamond can be forever treasured”.

In a masterpiece of transcreation, De Beers opted for a subtly different approach: 钻石恒久远,一颗永流传. Translated literally, this means “One diamond is forever, it can be passed from generation to generation”. As well as re-emphasising the original idea expressed in the English, it has a poetic ring to it in Mandarin, making it memorable and sophisticated for Chinese audiences.

The internet generation: always on

Across both mature and emerging markets, the impact of the internet, ecommerce and social media has been profound and will continue to play a decisive role in customers’ relationships with the world’s biggest fashion brands. Armed with smartphones and widespread WiFi access, a new generation of fashionistas is “always on”.

The consequences of this are twofold. On the one hand, there is an unmistakable opportunity for the fashion industry to develop much deeper relationships with consumers (through online loyalty programmes and interactive experiences including virtual or interactive reality, for example).

On the other hand, however, consumers are empowered with more choice than ever before. This means there is a hugely increased volatility of the purchasing moment, with impulsive buying now possible from any connected location on a 24/7 basis.

In this multi-channel environment world that combines both the physical store and the online infrastructure, the localisation challenge is to provide a seamless experience which reflects the brand values at every stage of the customer journey. In linguistic terms, this means developing and maintaining a consistent usage of terminology, but also displaying the creativity to transcreate slogans or phraseology for which a literal translation into the target language fails to convey the intended linguistic nuance or style.

Getting personal

The future of fashion marketing in the 21st century will be focused on helping brands to find purpose, identity and consistency in emerging markets which are developing at ever-increasing speeds. Brands that offer personalised customer journeys and experiences relevant to individual consumers will create most value in a crowded global marketplace.

One of the ways in which brands can cut through the noise is to provide emotive and engaging storytelling, creating narratives that connect with consumers on an emotional level but are always grounded in brand values.

On social media, the opportunity to connect with consumers has never been greater, yet a “one-size-fits-all” approach will never create the “native” brand experience. Instead a market-specific approach to social media helps to create and maintain brand identity, collaborating with local influencers to engage with customers in innovative new ways.

Selling to customers in their mother tongue is already seen a prerequisite for the leading fashion brands, but this alone is not enough. In an industry where companies jostle for position at the cutting edge of style and youth culture, using culturally relevant language is a way of defining brand values as much as the latest runway collection. As the Dolce & Gabbana debacle proved, a cultural misunderstanding can have a profound impact on brand perception. Conversely, fashion businesses that are engaging consumers through localisation strategies are building brand value creatively and consistently across valuable emerging markets.


[1] https://cdn.businessoffashion.com/reports/The_State_of_Fashion_2018_v2.pdf

[2] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/the-state-of-fashion-2019-a-year-of-awakening

[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/retail/our%20insights/the%20state%20of%20fashion%202019%20a%20year%20of%20awakening/the-state-of-fashion-2019-vf.ashx