Ai Jie, which debuted Nov. 17, 2010, offers inspiration and advice about weddings, relationships, household planning and pregnancy for couples in China, where 10 million weddings take place annually-- five times as many as in the U.S., said David Liu, CEO and cofounder of The Knot in New York. The company has a licensing deal with an Australian wedding site but Ai Jie is The Knot's first wholly-owned operation outside the U.S.
The Chinese site provides interactive tools like a budget calculator, guest list manager and checklists, and content on topics ranging from wedding dress and cake photos to relationship tips and pregnancy advice, as well as a local vendor directory. That sounds a lot like its American counterpart, www.theknot.com, but in reality the sites have little in common beneath the surface.
Ai Jie, which means "love knot" in Mandarin, reflects China's style trends, entertainment customs, wedding traditions and browsing preferences, which are changing almost as fast as Ai Jie's staff can upload new content, said Micah Truman, The Knot's Beijing-based general manager, China. Weddings in China, the world's largest wedding market, "are completely different, so our site is a very different animal."
Chinese women, for instance, wear three dresses on their wedding day--a modern western outfit, followed by a traditional white bridal gown and, in a grand finale, a long red Chinese cheongsam dress embroidered with dragon and phoenix symbols. The animals symbolize the balance of male and female power, and red is a lucky color in China.
Web surfing habits are also different. Pages on TheKnot.com in the U.S. tend to be shorter than articles on Ai Jie, because Chinese web users dislike flipping pages, while Americans prefer web pages devoid of clutter.
The Chinese site also has a larger online community with blogs and a "Whispering Secrets" message board. "If a site here doesn't have a powerful community to it, it can't succeed on its own," Mr. Truman said.
Ai Jie doesn't have a gift registry section, but that's okay, there's no danger of a young couple ending up with five rice cookers. Wedding guests always give the bridal couple a red envelope stuffed with cash on their big day. That means that the kind of small weddings sometimes preferred by Americans who are on a budget or prefer a more intimate event give way to more-the-merrier hotel affairs.
A typical middle-class Chinese wedding costs RMB 80,000 ($12,000), not including the dresses or honeymoon, and cash gifts usually range from RMB 500-1,000 ($75-150) from hundreds of guests. But affluent Chinese are now giving--and expecting--much more. At a recent wedding for a celebrity couple in Beijing, Mr. Truman was surprised to find a cash-counting machine at the reception to handle cash gifts often topping $10,000.
For now, at least, that type of flagrant display of cash is unusual, Mr. Truman said, but one of the key trends in China is an escalating spirit of one-upmanship and "keeping up with the Zhangs. Wedding budgets are expanding incredibly, the display of wealth can be ostentatious and personalization of the event is super big. Don't think Chelsea Clinton and country clubs. It's all upfront and loud here."
A venture capitalist, for instance, recently flew a wedding cake from London to Beijing for his daughter's wedding, because it came from a bakery used by the British royal family.
While parents use weddings to cement their status and display their wealth, the bridal couple are experimenting with ways to personalize the experience, drawing not only from the U.S. but also from South Korea and Japan, and usually involving vast sums of money. Whereas Chinese weddings used to be about a dinner banquet and honoring parents, today's weddings feature more exotic fare like fire-dancing, elaborate video presentations and motorcades of luxury cars with nameplates like Bentley, Lamborghini and Ferrari.
Part of the challenge for Ai Jie, Mr. Truman said, is that China's wedding industry hasn't kept pace with the desire for status, despite a thriving luxury goods industry. There are a few exceptions. Top wedding dress designer Vera Wang, who happens to be Chinese, has a formal wear boutique at the Shangri-la hotel in Shanghai's Pudong district, as well as a presence at Mattel's Barbie superstore across town.
Aggressive marketing by global diamond and gold councils in China over the past decade have turned young brides' attention away from traditional jade jewelry in favor of western-style diamond rings. Sales soared from $230 million in 1995 to $1.2 billion in 2007, making China the world's fifth-largest diamond market, according to De Beers.
But those are rare exceptions, Mr. Truman said. "This is a really disparate market because it's not branded, not just in terms of jewelry but also by shoes and clothes and services. Every major brand in the U.S., we know and work with, but they aren't here yet. It's going to come crashing in soon though."
At least that's what The Knot is hoping. Since the website launched two weeks, it has only signed up a handful of advertisers, mostly hotels in honeymoon locations like Hawaii. The company expects to have 3 to 4 million unique visitors per month by June 2011. That kind of traffic would attract revenue from advertisers as well as e-commerce sales.
Another challenge is catering to regional differences. Beijing couples traditionally marry in the morning, but afternoon ceremonies are preferred just two hours away in Tianjin. Weddings in northern China need to take place in a lavish location.
In southern China, by comparison, "the venue doesn't matter but the food had better be crazy good. Customs do differ greatly, but so does the rate of change here," Mr. Truman said. "It's going to be a lot more extreme in a little while, because more people are getting wealthy. It's going to be blood sport in the battle for status, because weddings are such a big event."
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