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What Prada’s 'Murderer Bag' Says About China's Luxury Market

Chinese consumers have come up with their own catchy nicknames for big-brand luxury products. Should executives tolerate, embrace or learn from this phenomenon? Read China Decoded to make sense of the market.
Gabriela Hearst's Nina Bag, Celine's Belt Bag, and Prada's Saffiano Bag among other nicknamed favourites | Illustration by BoF
By
  • Sam Gaskin,
  • Aijing Wang
BoF PROFESSIONAL
Hello BoF Professionals, welcome to our latest members-only briefing. China’s colossal size and dynamism makes it a top priority for any global business, but it remains opaque to many in the fashion industry. Leveraging our rare access and local knowledge, the BoF China team demystifies the Chinese market with weekly industry analysis and the wider socio-cultural context you need to sharpen your focus.

You can't not see it if you're Chinese. With their long leather whiskers, Celine's Belt bags look just like catfish, hence the affectionate pet name given to them by Chinese consumers. Nicknames for top luxury brands' most iconic products are becoming more and more popular among young Chinese consumers, according to a new report from McKinsey & Co.

These names have become “an easily recognisable currency or symbol on social media,” says Lan Luan, one of the authors of the report.

The nicknames are derived in different ways. There are aesthetic resemblances, like Longchamp's 'Dumpling Bag' and Gabriela Hearst's 'Wonton Bag', known to most as the Le Pliage shopper and Nina bag respectively. There are sound-alikes, such as Chloé's 'Piglet Bag', whose official name, Drew, sounds like the Chinese word for pig. There are pop culture references, such as Prada's Saffiano handbag, renamed the 'Murderer Bag' after it was worn by Léa Seydoux's assassin in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

What's in a name? Gucci's Jackie and Hermès' Kelly are named after Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly, who sported the bags after their release. Fendi's Baguette is named after its resemblance, carried under the arm, to a loaf of French bread.

But bags like the Birkin and Baguette were coined by the brands themselves, and the Jackie and Kelly, whose names were adopted by the brands retroactively after the bags were worn by celebrities, are glamorous and aspirational. Even the humble baguette hints at Parisian sophistication.

The same can’t be said for catfish or wontons.

Prada's so-called 'Murderer Bag' and Longchamp's 'Dumpking Bag' | Source: Prada and Longchamp

Nicknames are far more functional in China. Indeed, there’s something impish about the juxtaposition of European high fashion with everyday Chinese culture, with cheeky, clever nicknames like SK-II’s ‘Ex-boyfriend Face Mask’ — known as the Facial Treatment Mask, with its supposed prowess in inciting up post-breakup regrets — serving to entertain consumers.

However, “older examples happened at a time when we were not talking about rejuvenating the luxury clientele or millennials,” says Pablo Mauron, partner and managing director China of Digital Luxury Group, a Swiss-founded digital agency.

Some Chinese consumers, he says, “love luxury products but are not international at all, don’t speak other languages, and are maybe not that sophisticated. They just need to find an easy way to refer to a product or a brand.”

Beauty products’ nicknames, for instance, tend to describe their packaging in a literal way. Examples include Estée Lauder’s ‘Little Brown Bottle’ of Advanced Night Repair, L’Oréal’s ‘Little Fountain Pen’ eyeliner, MAC’s ‘Bullet’ lipsticks, Armani’s ‘Little Fatty’ liquid lipstick, and Clé de Peau Beauté’s ‘Grenade’, a.k.a The Serum.

Acronyms are another popular way for Chinese consumers to circumvent problems remembering, spelling and pronouncing foreign product names, and their commonly clunky Chinese translations.

"In China, people more often refer to Louis Vuitton as LV, Vacheron Constantin as VC, and Van Cleef & Arpels as VCA," says Mauron. "It's not just finding a cute nickname that resonates and is fun. In the case of these acronyms, it's a simple way to refer to the brand without having to struggle to pronounce that name."

Chinese luxury consumers are still new to luxury, so consumers and influencers need to leverage these names more.

Most Chinese consumers didn’t grow up with luxury brands around. McKinsey found that nine tenths of the Post-'90s generation demographic, a third of Post-’80s, and almost half of the Post-’65s only began engaging with luxury products in the past three years.

“Chinese luxury consumers are still new to luxury, so consumers and influencers need to leverage these names more,” Luan says.

Tao Liang, the leading Chinese influencer better known as Mr. Bags, says product nicknames can be seen everywhere in China. Although they can be an important shortcut and sometimes help oil the wheels of the sales machine for entry-level consumers, they are not just popular "among those purchasing their first few luxury products."

“They are not just nicknames,” he explains. “They’ve become the [official yet unofficial] Chinese name for certain products. For example, when you ask someone about Le Pliage, they might not know what it is, but when you mention Longchamp’s ‘Dumpling Bag’ they’ll get it, even if they’re not hardcore fashion fans.”

Liang says he enjoys coining names for products on his platforms, like the "Big Mouth Bag" for Tod's Wave Bag. He does so for colours too, describing the greyish-blue shade as "Foggy Blue".

How valuable nicknames are to brands operating in China — which McKinsey predicts will deliver 65 percent of additional luxury spending heading into 2025 — is difficult to assess.

Estée Lauder’s ‘Little Brown Bottle’, L’Oréal’s ‘Little Fountain Pen’ eyeliner, MAC’s ‘Bullet’ lipsticks, Armani’s ‘Little Fatty’ liquid lipstick, and Clé de Peau Beauté’s ‘Grenade’ | Sources: respective brands

“We don’t have quantitative analysis on this, but the products with widely known nicknames are normally highly popular,” says Luan. “It is hard to establish the cause-effect relationship. The products with nicknames are more likely to perform well not only because they have nicknames, but also because they have unique design, emotional value or functionality can resonate with consumers,” she says.

While they can also help consumers search for products and make purchases, nicknames can be a liability and undermine brand positioning or open the door to competitors. Brands rarely hold the trademarks to nicknames that emerge organically online.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for daigou," Mauron says, referring to luxury's cross-border shoppers. "They're going to be shameless, target that keyword like crazy, and take advantage of the fact that you're not doing it."

For brands that find their products attached to a rather unfortunate nickname, there is not much they can do to intervene. “They don’t really get to shape online behaviour [in terms of how] people talk, search, or the [nicknames] people use, ” Mauron says. “If people start to refer to your bag as the catfish bag, good luck changing that.”

If people start to refer to your bag as the catfish bag, good luck changing that.

However, he says, even if a brand can’t adopt a nickname because it undermines their positioning or encourages rivals, brands shouldn’t disengage. If a given nickname becomes “super popular”, he says, “you should make sure that you have a paid strategy that at least gives you visibility through advertising on this keyword, even though you cannot use it on your own channels.”

While the brands BoF spoke to were unwilling to go on the record, their local Chinese management were well aware of the nicknames given to their products. Some have begun working with e-commerce platforms and insight agencies to try to create and promote new nicknames for their products.

“I remember in the first few years working on promotional projects with brands, they would try to make sure their product names are correct,” says influencer Fang Yimin, better known as Becky Li. “But in the past couples of years, brands are more willing to accept this culture. They don’t jump out to say ‘no this is not what the bag is called’.”

“Beauty brands especially like nicknames,” she tells BoF.

This accommodating approach aligns with Luan’s advice for brands to get out ahead of the problem by working with influencers and consumers.

“We believe going forward, brands should take more initiative to create nicknames so they can truly reflect the brand and product positioning, and also connect to Chinese consumers,” she says.

Mr. Bags is more circumspect about the ability for brands to make their own nicknames go viral.

“Many brands [already do] try to give Chinese names to their new styles, but in most cases they don't get what they want. Either the name is not a good fit with the bag, or the design of the bag is not so brilliant that it [lives up to the name] or qualifies as a successful ‘It' bag,” he says.

时尚与美容
FASHION & BEAUTY

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科技与创新
TECH & INNOVATION

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消费与零售
CONSUMER & RETAIL

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Office of the US Trade Representative Lists Pinduoduo Among Notorious Markets

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政治、经济、社会
POLITICS, ECONOMY, SOCIETY

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China Decoded wants to hear from you. Send tips, suggestions, complaints and compliments to zoe.suen@businessoffashion.com.

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