Recently Victoria's Secret held its annual runway extravaganza, and as in prior years models of color were few. Walking the lingerie was a single Asian model: China's first-ever supermodel, Liu Wen. As we've said before, US fashion casting works much like Hollywood: Asian Americans are still pigeon-holed while scarce opportunities are given to those from Asia. Still, this rising trend of token Asian models may have ramifications beyond the fashion industry, as well as have the potential to transform marketing assumptions made about us.
In his book Brand Washed, world-renowned marketing guru Martin Lindstrom calls out brands for deliberately playing up their "Europeanness" specifically with Asian consumers, even though they manufacture many of their products in Asia:
"… in Japan the models are never, ever Japanese. They're either ambiguously ethnic or stylishly 'French looking' … even though Louis Vuitton in fact manufacturers a large number of its products in India, it continues to manufacture the luggage it sends to the Japanese market in France, just to keep up that 'French' image."
Louis Vuitton isn't the only label, and fashion isn't the only industry, which manufactures many of its products in Asia yet practices the strategic marketing assumption that Asian and Asian American consumers want white images instead of Asian ones. Unfortunately, these carefully crafted images have paid off in the past, generating such brand (racial) prestige that Asian consumers are more avid consumers of premium-priced western labels than western consumers. As Lindstrom notes:
"In all my years in the marketing world, I've consistently found one fact to be true: nowhere are people more easily brand washed than in Asia. In Asian countries, it's perfectly normal … for a woman to carefully put aside a month's salary for a pair of Prada shoes."
From a business perspective, then, this should look like a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." And yet, some western labels are now using Asian faces with the expectation that it will increase sales. The tactic suggests a nascent recognition that certain approaches may have indeed worked in Asian markets in the past, but going forward they may become outdated as those markets increase in affluence, power, and thus demand -- to see themselves in lights.
Of course, companies like Target and AT&T have been using Asian faces in their advertising for some time now. But couture houses have lagged in adopting a new marketing paradigm that supposes Asian images may increase sales, not only among Asian consumers but also among non-Asian buyers. That they're beginning to do so now is a hedge, because labels have not discontinued traditional strategies and could easily revert to using white images exclusively if they see no difference in purchasing behavior. But as we approach a tipping point in global shifts in wealth in the 21st century, the promotion cycles and marketing mindset described by Lindstrom may not endure.
Broad commercial validation of Asian images could have ramifications beyond fashion, or media, to include the likes of clinical trials in medicine, where the prevailing mindset is still that excluding Asian patients in human trials does not matter. Such a transition would echo marketer recognition of other previously ignored groups.
On a related note, very few Asian or Asian American brands are on the global A-list. Historically, most Asian creators have followed an OEM distribution model, in which Asians companies produce the goods while western firms brand the product (like Apple). In these cases most of the market value accrues to the western brand managing the marketing. Asian and Asian American brands (not just for fashion) will continue to struggle to enjoy global prestige (and related premium pricing power) until new campaigns are developed which reject the internalized assumption that white images are superior. Currently, even among Asian American fashion designers, few appear to use Asian models to showcase their designs. Would Asian and Asian American consumers spring for high-priced Asian images and products if they did? Time will tell.