The usually busy Huaihai Middle Road shopping district in the heart of Shanghai looked pretty quiet on a recent Saturday afternoon under the scorching July sun. But the unbearable heat didn’t stop consumers from lining up in front of the store of Gentle Monster, a high-end Korean eyewear brand.
This has become a common scene since the flagship store opened last September. Consumers keen to check the latest Gentle Monster releases fill the store to the point that it needs crowd control and a long line forms outside. Inside, on the second floor, the line at the checkout was no shorter.
It’s not just Shanghai. Founded in 2011, Gentle Monster, which sells oversized and low bridge fit sunglasses at premium prices (from $200 to $500), has become one of the fastest trending fashion brands in Asia and is expanding globally.
It has reported three-fold, or even four-fold, sales increases every year. It now runs over 10 flagship stores: seven in Korea, one in New York, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chengdu, respectively. It also sells in over 20 countries through authorized retailers. Its revenue last year was $250 million, of which 70 percent came from direct sales, according to Business of Fashion.
What has this Korean brand done right that made it grow into a phenomenon in just a few years? At the “New Consumption Summit,” held last month by IDG, a Chinese-owned U.S.-based media, data and marketing services company, Gentle Monster’s founder and CEO, Hankook Kim, shared some secrets to the company’s success:
Consumers like to shop new products. It’s human nature. In fact, Kim said, consumers are not paying for his products, but rather the feeling of experiencing something new and fresh. So a brand’s task is to keep exceeding consumers’ expectations to provide “newness” for them.
His formula? Belief x Interpretation = Attraction, or Newness. Belief refers a brand’s creation, and Interpretation is consumers’ understanding or expectation. Kim emphasized that brands should not think of newness from their own perspectives, but always approach it from the understanding of the consumer.
2. Strange Aesthetic
But how does a business keep appealing to unpredictable consumers? For now, Kim attributes Gentle Monster’s swift rise to its superb retail store experience, a result of his “strange aesthetic.”
Before opening up his first flagship store four years ago, Kim did a thorough research of retail stores, but only to find most of them were simply sending one message to customers: please buy our products. He decided to do something different—to provide freshness in an art space. Gentle Monster’s stores would feel like art galleries. Eyewear would just be the byproduct.
He changed the display in stores every seven days, at first—finding it extremely difficult, he slowed the pace to every 21 days and continues to keep up with that pace today. Every display has a distinct theme such as: The Artisan, Home and Recovery, Secret Apartment, and Quantum Project.
Each display is curated, as if it were an art exhibition. It takes a while for consumers to finally start to look for sunglasses—they always rush to take photos first.
“You would think they are crazy—to hold free art exhibitions in the most expensive areas in big cities,” wrote Amanda Sun of Aurora Private Equity in a research note. “But it’s exactly their memory points. A good flagship store attracts young consumers easily and their shares on SNS would attract even more.”
Despite all these efforts, Kim wasn’t shy to admit that Gentle Monster has risen with the help of the K-pop culture. The brand started out great: it had its own factories so that quality was strictly controlled; its oversized shape and low bridge fit suit Asian consumers better than most Western brands; and its unique store design attracts a lot of attention from design blogs.
But it was not until 2014, three years after it was established, that it suddenly became known by all of Asia: South Korean actress Gianna Jun was wearing Gentle Monster sunglasses when she appeared on the hit show My Love from the Star. Soon more Chinese celebrities were photographed wearing Gentle Monster: Li Yifeng, Yang Yang, and Kris Wu. Fans from the West include models Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid.
However, as the brand is expanding globally, it’s trying to reduce the link with K-pop. Celebrities are of great help in getting consumers to know the brand, but not necessarily beneficial for branding.
For Kim, the key task is still to impress consumers with newness—though he, too, has been trying to figure out what’s new, next.
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