The Greatest Show on Earth


Libby Banks | May 05, 2010

Are events like the Shanghai 2010 Expo really an effective showcase for luxury brands?

China’s ambitions for the Expo 2010 Shanghai are in no doubt. Racking up costs of more than $4bn and covering 5.3 sq km (twice the size of Monaco), the event, which opened at the weekend, is in the tradition of international gatherings like The Great Exhibition. While recent Expos in Zaragoza (2008) and Aichi, Japan (2005) came and went relatively quietly, the Shanghai’s Expo wants to be heard.

Like the 1851 fair, the Chinese government is using the Expo as an opportunity to showcase its industrial prowess and innovation, and status as the superpower of the age. But there’s another side. Foreign multinationals have grasped this platform as a chance to market their products to Chinese consumers, a branding Olympics of sorts. With 70 million tourists expected to descend on the city over its six-month duration, it undoubtedly offers great opportunities for exposure, and luxury brands are taking advantage.

Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and Ermenegildo Zegna have each crafted a supersized look for the Expo, which are displayed on mannequins towering at more than 11 feet. Chanel has launched an Expo handbag that looks like a Chinese takeaway box and Prada has a tote with grass sprouting in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower, symbol of modern Shanghai. These products are sure to appeal to China’s consumers and provide further food for thought when it comes to tailoring products specifically to Chinese consumers.

Another approach sees luxury brands creating an experience for visitors. The Italian pavilion will give Expo visitors a chance to observe Italian craftsmanship “live”. Salvatore Ferragamo will bring some of its artisans to the pavilion for a live shoemaking demonstration next month. Tod’s will stage a similar event on handbags in August, and Bulgari will do the same with jewellery in October.

These ventures offer not only an opportunity for luxury companies to showcase their brands, but they give an opportunity to educate and explain why consumers should care about them. Paradoxically, the grand scale of the spectacle gives brands an opportunity to get up close and personal with potential customers, hopefully fostering thousands, even millions of new relationships. Shanghai Expo might be regarded as a loud and brash in some quarters but for those brands who get it right, it could provide an invaluable opportunity to create an intimate bond with the Chinese consumer.

Financial TImes – 29 April 10
The Time – 30 April 10
WWD – 30 April 10