Is Hip-Hop the new K-Pop for luxury brands in China?

Hip-hop is a cultural phenomenon that has expanded the possibilities of music through innovative use of language and technology. Like many subcultures before it, more than just a gender, it represents a series of attitudes and perhaps even beliefs. Growing in popularity since its groundbreaking origins, it is now arguably the soundtrack to today’s world. in particular, of the youth of this world. As a result, luxury brands are leveraging the hip-hop pull to connect with Gen Z.

Despite this, it is K-pop that has always been seen as the natural fit for luxury brands in China. According to Statista Global Consumer Survey, 53% of Chinese digital listeners are pop fans (compared to 40% in the US). Despite a string of high-profile scandals, K-pop is still seen as a “safer” option given that hip-hop has been the target of government crackdown. Still, companies shouldn’t abandon style prematurely. Such myopia could mean a missed opportunity for luxury outfits seeking to remain relevant and part of a cultural force for change.

The streetwear boom

The global popularity of many streetwear brands is rooted in hip-hop culture. Now, data shows that only 25% of local digital listeners are hip-hop/R&B fans (compared to 34% in the US). But what the survey does not reveal is the age distribution of listeners (the survey covers 18-64 year olds) or the “intensity” of fanhood. This is a critical gap as streetwear has become synonymous with youth culture on the continent. Nielsen and OFashion reported that domestic spending on streetwear has increased nearly four times as high compared to non-streetwear between 2015 and 2020. Similarly, China’s growing obsession with must-have sneakers, such as Kanye West’s Yeezys line by adidas, demonstrates an expression of key hip-hop trends. . Streetwear is about identity and the cultural codes of hip-hop are crucial in how it creates meaning.

General public atmosphere

Hip-hop in China has long been considered a niche, even underground musical genre. That changed with 2017’s first TV talent show breakthrough, china rap which brought hip-hop music and many of its associated labels into the mainstream. The first season recorded over three billion views. The format has since evolved to be more in line with other popular talent shows, and in 2021, Next generation hip-hop project (a rebranding of the original show) included rap mentors GAI, VaVa, Tizzy T, Wang Yitai, and DamShine. The irony is that hip-hop in China is less about adopting an “anti-establishment” point of view and has increasingly become a roadmap for patriotism. talent show, china new rap, should be launched around 2022.

Alternative to K-Pop

The 2021 arrest of Kris Wu, one of China’s most prominent pop star/hip-hop rapper and former Louis Vuitton brand ambassador, is a stark reminder of the risks of working with celebrities music. However, a new generation of local hip-hop artists has the potential to differentiate the labels from more conventional K-pop collaborations. VaVa, also known as “Chinese Rihanna” (6.8 million Weibo followers), has been the face of advertising campaigns for many global companies, including Sandro, while GAI (11.2 million followers on Weibo) was the Li-Ning brand ambassador. Lexie Liu (8 million followers on Weibo), who has admittedly diverged somewhat from her original rap territory, recently became a brand ambassador for Miu Miu. A point of difference for luxury groups is to focus less on the number of followers, and more on the lifestyle that the personality projects.

Lexie Liu (pictured left) rose to fame after appearing on The Rap of China in 2018. Picture: Miu Miu’s Weibo

Hip-hop on the mainland may have distinct cultural differences from elsewhere, but it still contains a sense of subculture, community, and belonging. Young consumers who are “in the know” view hip-hop as something that breaks down the boundaries between music, lyrics, fashion and lifestyle. This can lend credibility to luxury brands in a market that is looking closer to home for inspiration and identity. Perhaps leaders should heed the words of one of China’s most successful hip-hop exports, Superior Brothersto take the pulse of a changing country: “my chains, new gold watch, made in China”.

Glyn Atwal is an associate professor at the Burgundy School of Business (France). He is co-author of Luxury Brands in China and India (Palgrave Macmillan).

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