It’s about always being on the pulse of what’s next for Asian consumers at the Bluebell Group – that’s the Asia-based omni brand curator and operator behind the introduction of global luxury brands such as Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Morphe, and Moschino to the Asian consumer.
Founded in 1954, the family-owned and operated firm today operates over 150 brands across ten markets in Asia, and saw a turnover of $2.5 billion in 2019, due in part to its strong local expertise and major networks woven throughout the Asian landscape.
With its roots in French fragrance, the firm is also a market leader in the category, specifically in Japan, where it operates 40 brands in over 60-plus select retail locations, in addition to e-commerce platforms and its wholesale business.
Julia Liotard-Vogt, Bluebell Group Business Development Director, told WWD, “Asia will remain a very vibrant market for global brands, and today the Bluebell Group, always operating from its entrepreneurial core, is opening new markets in Cambodia and Australia.”
Here, Liotard-Vogt talks to WWD about the origin of Bluebell, dipping its toe into new markets, and pioneering luxury shopping in Asia.
Fairchild Media Group: Tell us about Bluebell. What’s the story behind the brand?
Julia Liotard-Vogt: Bluebell is known as the brand behind the brands; the Group has been responsible for introducing some of the most desired brands to Asian consumers for the last 65 years, some of which we still operate today. The company began its business by bringing French fragrances to the Japanese market in 1954 and expanded to what is today the largest distribution network in Asia across ten markets, focusing on lifestyle and luxury in multiple product categories including fragrance and beauty, fashion & accessories, watches and jewelry, gourmet, eyewear and tobacco.
Primarily in the luxury sector in its beginnings, introducing brands like Louis Vuitton and Davidoff to the Asian consumer in the 1970s, the Group is a true pioneer of luxury in Asia. As the business grew to cover all of Asia by the early 1990s, the diversity in brand and product categories expanded, and a shift towards bringing in the right lifestyle brands, which Asian consumers were ready for, occurred. Today, we work with over 150 brand partners across 1,000-plus retail touchpoints.
Fairchild Media Group: How is Bluebell differentiated in the Asian market?
J.L.V.: Being an Asian company with a diverse global management team is a true asset for our brand partners. In each of the ten markets we operate, our teams are very close to their customers, and always on the pulse of what is happening locally. This is key to success in Asia, as every market operates very differently, and their consumers are all very distinct, in their language, culture, customs and consumption patterns. There is often a lack of understanding of the diversity within Asia. If we look at China alone, there are clear distinctions between cities and retail ecosystems. Navigating these markets through our local knowledge and networks is what makes our business a success for our partners and us.
When taking on new brands, agility and flexibility are an add value. Each and every brand is different, so are markets, and our platform has been adapting throughout time to include different business models. This capability to tailor our approach has resulted in our long history and in-depth market know how, as we work across different categories and types of businesses, from niche fragrance brands to fashion brands with much more complicated structures and processes.
Our business models range from management services agreements to joint venture contracts. What is important is that each brand agreement is custom made according to the long-term strategy for the brand in a particular market or across several markets.
Fairchild Media Group: Would you elaborate specifically on the Chinese market? Why is entry into Chinese markets so complex for beauty brands?
J.L.V.: Consumer demand in China continues to show strong fundamental trends in terms of both mature “tier 1-2” consumers and younger consumers 15-25 across all city tiers. But with so many new international brands coming in, sales per brand are dropping. And additionally, Chinese brands, mostly in make-up but also other categories, are surging with massive marketing investment, business innovations, on-trend products, excellent tie-ins with local IP, and yes, very high value for money.
The first hurdle a prospective brand needs to address in considering China is commitment. China will stretch you in many ways and a strong financial plan coupled with a willingness to deal with China on its own terms, and with an open mind, is a must. Second is getting access to the market, meaning either entering through cross-border e-commerce or engineering a cruelty-free way to enter the total market (China requires all beauty products to be animal tested). And third, one way or another, Tmall will be a part of your plans. These are just the basics.
Now we get to the complex part! While Tmall is a go-to platform, it should be seen as one step in the path to successful national presence and not an end in itself. With more than half of beauty sales online, the consumer journey in China has excellent opportunities to drive business from awareness to interest to purchase. For example, consumers can learn about a brand through influencers on Weibo (like Twitter) and link over to Tmall to purchase. But they can also find out about brands through Douyin (i.e., Tik Tok) and make a purchase within the same app. The same can be done on Douyin’s competitor and rising star Kuaishou, or even in Wechat (like Facebook + Whatsapp). Leveraging the right pathways to conversion are all part of the critical path to success.
This brings us to one critically important point that most brands do not realize until they have been in the market for a few years: Success in China is all about the talent of your team on the ground, not only what they are capable of now, but what they can learn and how fast they can learn it. Star Brands Asia, Bluebell’s strategic partner for beauty in China, focuses on digitally centric omni-channel solutions for beauty brands.
Due to the high degree of synergies between influencer marketing, social media, e-commerce operations and even offline expansion, the best if not the only way to win is to have all functions controlling the image and positioning and messaging of the brand under one roof, driving the message through to consumers in a consistent and synergistic way. This approach is working well for our partner brands as we move through the changes on the road to full market coverage and a sustainable and growing business in this promising country.
Fairchild Media Group: What’s next in Asian retail? Any insights Bluebell can share?
J.L.V.: Having closely observed the situation of the past year through our own business operations, our market insights team further monitored the market through an ongoing in-depth market by market study of 50 global brands and their performance, the Asia lifestyle and luxury Barometer.
By far, the most resilient product category has been beauty, with an average drop year-on-year sales of only 20 percent in Asian markets including South-East Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan; and an increase year on year of 30 percent in Mainland China. This resilience was also driven by agility: Brands in this category were pushed to innovate through digital in order to address “try before you buy” consumer habits.
Strategic shifts in markets that were traditionally reliant on luxury shopping from tourism, such as Hong Kong and South-East Asia, forced brands to focus on their local clientele. And with the rise of local travel, in China for example, popular tax-free destinations, such as Hainan in southern China, capitalized on the sudden rise of domestic travel by increasing their duty-free quotas per person. This has resulted in a whole new domestic travel retail eco-system, with four new duty-free outlets operating as of August of last year that grew its sales by 2.5 times in 2020 and will continue to grow over the next year.
Our mission today is to grow new partnerships with the many exciting brands coming out of Europe, the U.S., as well as with new Asian brands. Our passion has never veered from our founders’ vision – to bring to the Asian consumer the most desirable brands, build them and make them thrive.