CELINE’s China image blowup: intention or accident?

The luxury market is booming in China – more and more young people are aspiring to afford high-end products. Their consumption patterns differs from “old-school” markets such as Europe and the US, where luxury consumption happens on an offline and rather understated level: Chinese consumers are very active and visible in the online space. How do brands respond to this trend? They constantly come up with novel, highly sophisticated methods of online promotion and marketing which are worth studying for many a “Western” marketing professional.

However, before trying to navigate the Chinese online space, you need to know its rules. This article analyses the response of Chinese social media to recent events related to high-end fashion brand Celine. It shows how Web mining technology can be used to gain insights and transparency in troubled times, thus avoiding “blind shots” and reputation losses. The article is based on large-scale data from Chinese social media, incl. Weibo, Vogue and Cosmopolitan. We apply Natural Language Processing technology to structure the data and extract the relevant insights.

What happened to Celine on September 29th?

Celine has become a hot topic in recent fashion discussions. The related daily social discussion peaked on September 29th. Spotting this anomaly, we had to dig deeper into the data. It turns out that the increase in buzz happened on the day when Celine’s new designer Hedi Slimane presented his first collection at the Paris Fashion Week 2018. As can be expected, Slimane’s takeover was discussed in the context of predecessor Phoebe Philo, known for her simple and classic designs, and the production stop of some of Celine’s most popular and cherished bags.

Social discussion on Celine

Keywords discussed during Paris Fashion Week

It’s all about the people

The new designer made a highly controversial debut which disrupted not only the style, but also the new, liberating female identity developed by Phoebe Philo. It was characterized by simple designs radiating a nonchalant confidence – attributes that are on the rise as Chinese women rediscover and manifest their self-sufficiency and individuality. Slimane’s new collection is tight, sexy and looks anything but comfortable – a drastic change from Philo’s feminist ways that led to feelings of disappointment, emptiness and abandonment among Chinese fans of the brand.

Emotions expressed for Slimane and Philo; Sadness prevails for Slimane, whereas Philo is strongly associated with happiness.

Phoebe bags: It’s now or never

Beyond the style change, Slimane’s start also ended the production of some of Celine’s IT bags, incl.  Frame Bag, Classic Box and Twisted Cabas. In social media, the sentiment of these public favorites turns downwards. Chinese consumers report rushing to Celine boutiques shortly before the production stops to gather the last relics of Philo’s time at Celine – the ideal opportunity to take advantage of scarcity effects and use all the tactics of the traditional closing sale.  Others were saving money for years to buy one of the cherished pieces and now report disappointment: “Twisted Cabas, 我的dream bag, 为什么你不能等到我买得起的那一天?” (Twisted Cabas! My CELINE dream bag, why don’t you wait for the day when I can afford you. I am so sad that the production is stopped.) Celine will clearly need to address the negative impact that this move has on the loyalty and trust of its customers.

A radical reaction to a radical change

Slimane used radical change to make a strong entrance – however, the aftermath of public reaction will determine the long-term success of his work. In China, Celine’s new image is currently far from acceptance. Celine’s sentiment on social media dropped significantly during the last two months. A special hashtag #Celine 设计师令人窒息 (“Celine’s new designer makes it hard to breathe”) was created after the Paris Fashion Week and got millions of impressions.

Discussion surrounding #Celine 设计师令人窒息 (“Celine’s new designer makes it hard to breathe”)

Chinese consumers miss the classic style introduced by Phoebe Philo in her landmark pieces, such as the Classic Box and Frame Bag. Without further action, competitor Chanel also gets its share of increased awareness: Slimane’s new pieces are frequently compared to Chanel’s style. Posts such as “一打开celine的官网,一口老血喷在屏幕上, just like a fake slp or chanel by zara” (Celine’s C Bag looks like a fake Chanel made by Zara) get Chanel caught in the crossfire and generate unexpected publicity for the brand.

Opinions expressed in social media not only reflect, but also shape public opinion. Was Celine aware of this and consciously supported the online turmoil as a marketing stunt? Whatever the roots of the shift – Web mining technology could have been used to test the reaction of the social space before launching the campaign and to track changes in public opinion afterwards. The confidence gained from Big Data allows marketers to make decisions with a cool head, whereas the realtime data stream allows to test, iterate and measure “on the fast track” and quickly respond to shifts in public perception. Ultimately, data-driven decisions significantly contribute to the design and implementation of a rewarding marketing strategy.