Media maven Hung Huang

Introducing luxury brands to Chinese consumers

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BEIJING--When Hung Huang relocated from New York to her native Beijing in 1991, just as China began to shake off the slumber of the past half century, she had no idea a budding career in investment consulting would lead her to the helm of one of China’s most innovative media companies.

As CEO of China Interactive Media Group (CIMG), Ms. Hung, 44, now connects advertisers, particularly luxury marketers like Bulgari and Tiffany, with local consumers through TV, print, online and mobile content. At the same time, she’s helping thousands of newly-affluent Chinese find their footing with unfamiliar designer fashion brands, five-star hotels and vintage wines.

China's last frontier
The company’s transformation into a full-fledged media outfit happened almost by accident, when Ms. Hung, then a partner at Standard International, and her colleagues were approached by the owner of Look, a struggling high-end fashion magazine, in 1996. They took over the title and relaunched it as iLook. By carefully balancing the integrity of its editorial content with advertisers’ desire to reach consumers in sophisticated, compelling ways, iLook has become one of the most successful fashion magazines in China with an audited circulation of 50,000.

It caters to China’s most affluent consumers with average monthly incomes of RMB 20,000 ($2,500) per month--more than most Chinese earn per year--in all major top tier cities, “basically anywhere that has a Louis Vuitton store,” said Ms. Hung, who exudes both American confidence and Asian charm.

“We were a bit early, but we thought media would be a huge business in China. We knew the government would eventually open up the market for collaboration with non-state companies, so this is a good place to sow some seeds,” she said. “Media entertainment was the last frontier in China. As you look at the country’s development, first the government opened up on agricultural policies, then land ownership, industry, service and commerce. The last was media.”

Seventeen older, more unisex
The gamble has paid off, CIMG grows about 75% annually with 100 employees in Beijing and Shanghai, a dozen of whom are non-Chinese, such as an Austrian creative director. Even though the company “was still really very raw” in the early days, iLook’s resurrection earned the respect of Primedia, which approached CIMG about publishing a Chinese version of Seventeen (now owned by Hearst Corp.), in 2001. It was launched the following year and now has a circulation of 100,000 with a mixture of local and foreign content.

The title’s readership in China is surprisingly different from its American teen base. The Chinese edition is aimed at 15-22 year-olds, particularly university students, and about 40%of its readers are male, a fact reflected in the significant content devoted to male grooming.

“Young Chinese don’t grow up as fast as American kids and they usually become interested in lifestyle issues when they become independent of their parents after high school,” explained Ms. Hung. Also, “most Chinese kids do get an allowance, but parents want to go shopping and spend that money with their kids” on consumer goods like sportswear, not magazines.

CIMG also publishes the city guide Time Out in Shanghai in Chinese and both in Chinese and English in Beijing. The company, which is privately held by Ms. Hung and a handful of private investors, is considering launching an English version in Shanghai as well, and Chinese editions in Hangzhou and Chengdu.

Desire for stories behind brands
The company has also expanded into television, with iLook Cafe, a weekly luxury lifestyle program airing on China’s Travel Satellite TV network in 62 Chinese cities. It is the channel’s second-highest rated program, with regular viewership of just over one million.

“Because of the rapid but sizable wealth that’s been created in China, there is tremendous demand for luxury goods, but along with that demand came a large demand for information,” said Ms. Hung, particularly about the branding and history of top labels. “People here want to know why they should buy certain brands of clothing, wine or watches. The stories behind the brands are very important to these consumers.”

They also want to know how to use and enjoy luxury brands, like what kind of glass to use when drinking Champagne or should women wear heels or flats to a cocktail party.

“If you send out an invitation that says dress is ‘elegant casual’ in China, some people will still come in jeans. Those who can afford luxury crave information, because they don’t want to do the wrong thing or appear gauche after having spent the money. Our content provides the cultural context about why these are such wonderful brands and also how to use them,” said Ms. Hung.

CIMG expanded a four-page ad spread for Estee Lauder, for example, into a ten-page editorial section about the American skin care company’s history, at no extra charge to the company. Estee Lauder later revamped it into into a glossy pamphlet distributed at sales counters.

Christian Dior used iLook to promote the color pink, a prominent color in a collection earlier this year, even though many Chinese women shy away from it as too girly. CIMG created pink-colored pages in iLook as well as several segments for iLook Cafe talking about femininity, the color pink, such as inviting celebrity guests to talk about pink experiences.

“We do challenge them, our clients are picky, but we keep going back to [CIMG], iLook is one of the few local fashion titles we use, because they are very innovative and open-minded,” said Charley Kan, managing director, Beijing and national creative director, China at WPP Group’s Mediaedge:cia in Beijing. The media agency took over all the ad space in iLook’s August issue last year, for example, to launch Chanel’s Fall/Winter collection, including a 40 page branded content insert that told the fashion house’s history.

“It was quite a smart way to engage consumers and introduce Chanel to a Chinese audience with genuine content, not through advertorial or a typical promotion,” said Mr. Kan, who has created similar branded content deals with Time Out for non-luxury clients like Sony Ericsson and United Airlines.


Cheat Sheet

Who? Hung Huang, CEO of China Interactive Media Group (CIMG), based in Beijing

Age? 44

Her Challenge? Develop innovative cross-media platforms for luxury advertisers in print, TV, Internet and mobile media

Biggest obstacle? Finding and training staff, clients and partners to produce stylish, Western-level creative

Top tip for foreigners in China? Trust your gut

Which CIMG advertiser is the most innovative? Louis Vuitton, "they are always searching for new ideas"

What type of programming would you like to see more of on Chinese TV? Late night comedy

Favorite designer? He Yan, Cotton Talk in Beijing

Favorite restaurant in Beijing? "My humble house, for the care it puts into choosing its ingredience"

Favorite hangout in Beijing? My living room
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