As part of WARC’s Marketers Toolkit 2023, Amy Imbriaco, General Manager for Greater China at Tumi, spoke with WARC's China Editor Jenny Chan and discussed how the luggage company is handling just about anything the China market throws at it – with its ballistic-grade products and ‎with its thinking around recycling, personalization, and travel investments amid the ongoing pandemic.

WARC subscribers can access the full Marketer’s Toolkit 2023 here. Non-subscribers can access a sample version here.

Amy Imbriaco, General Manager for Greater China, Tumi

The Chinese consumer is itching to travel, but then we can't... It must have been interesting for a travel-retail brand like Tumi?

There's no question about it. You know, it's not just about getting PCR tests before you leave for a trip. It's also understanding how the travel experience is going to be and how your journey is going to be like, and how do you prepare for that? One of the things we saw: people were doing these very lengthy quarantines that used to be 21 or 14 days here in China. There was a demand for very large luggage because all of a sudden, you have to fill half of your luggage with cup noodles and things that you needed in the quarantine facility. 

And now we're moving a little more freely with domestic travel, and it's back to carry-ons for three-day trips and overnights. There is a level of uncertainty travellers need to prepare for in a different way in the future. It's something that we're all kind of getting used to.

It probably wasn't something that a brand could make a plan for, because nobody can predict a pandemic. In 2020, Tumi recognized the need to focus on backpacks and sling bags for short-haul, day-to-day travel, compared to long-haul flights, which was a smart move. But I'm interested in how you generated the insights at the beginning, when it was a messy Coronavirus situation?

Tumi is seen as a luggage brand. First and foremost, obviously, that's our heritage; that's our DNA. But it was important to think about the complete traveller journey. You could be going on the airplane, getting to your destination already, heading to your board meeting, meeting with a potential new client, and Tumi gives you different bag solutions with different functionalities. At that time, we realized we had this opportunity to talk about not just destination travel but everyday travel. People were commuting in a different way. They were carrying different things. So, you know, that's one of the great things about our functionality. It was very easy for us to highlight ‘this is where you can put your mask and hand sanitiser and so on’. It was a natural fit for Tumi. We kind of transformed with Covid-19 and put that focus on great solutions for everyday needs.

Did you do specific research, or was it just general observations from common sense?

The beauty of being a global brand is: something that you see happening in New York may happen a couple of months later in Shanghai, so it was sharing of information across the globe that definitely helped us understand consumer needs, and how did we fit in. We did a lot of research when we were designing products and developing strategies. You know, having so many people love our brands makes it easy for us to pick up the phone and talk to a CEO-traveller in New York and ask, 'do you need something lighter? Are you looking for something bigger or smaller?' We joke that much of our market research happens in airport lounges around the world.

I want to bring attention to redoing scenario planning nowadays as marketing leaders have to rethink effectiveness. Could you share the internal-oriented changes Tumi made? How many scenarios did you plan for in reaction to the pandemic?

If you go back to 2020, it was, like, 10 plans. Some of my team members would laugh at me because I had this rose-coloured view. I personally thought things were going to get better in a few months. That was the window period we were working on because we couldn't look that far and didn't know what it was going to be like a year from now. Bringing things to the market also takes time.

2021 in China was very different than 2021 in many other parts of the world. Things that were happening here, whether it was live events or domestic travel, were moving very quickly. It enabled us to take those learnings and share them with other countries.

Reconnecting with the consumer is something that we're looking at as we go into 2023. The consumer wants to engage in face-to-face relationships, see people, and touch things again.

During your last earnings call, there were a few mentions of China, and the Samsonite CEO revealed an intention to increase spending on advertising next year?

Tumi is a relatively young brand in China, and so for us, the top of the funnel is still important for brand awareness, and there's no denying that traditional media, whether it's OOH or print magazines, is how our audiences still like to engage —— for that tactile sense. As we go into next year, with restrictions the way they are today, we really want to get back to our experiential pop-ups, which are great ways to introduce the brand to new clients.

We have a unique positioning and strong brand message, and I think digital commerce is also very critical to our messaging. Grassroots conversations online today are between people trusting someone they've learnt to respect. They are getting Tumi content from someone else that they've built virtual relationships with. It's so cool to see someone take their Tumi bag and explain how they use it, why they love it, and have that conversation with 1000 others. Travellers who use our product are super passionate about it. They will tell you 20 different things about why Tumi is their bag, and they wouldn't choose anything else.

You joked about doing market research in airport lounges around the world previously. That got me thinking about the segmentation of your audiences going forward. We're trying to learn from the past and, at the same time, anticipate the future maybe five years out. Your core customers are probably destination travellers; they may not talk to everyday users. How do you see segmentation evolve? Do you see tribal marketing making your work more difficult or easier?

Something forward-looking is the journey we began with the esports community in China. We explored interactions and collaborations with different esports teams, like PSG.LDG athletes in the T1 competition and RNG athletes in the S11 Global Finals of League of Legends. 

Tumi has always worked with athletes, but working with esports athletes was a really interesting process because these are people who protect their equipment like their lives, and they also travel an incredible amount for esports tournaments all over the world. It was this genuine brand relationship that developed very quickly, but this young demographic was something that we knew we needed to cultivate. Today, maybe not every esports athlete can purchase a Tumi luggage or backpack, but as they grow in their sport, and as the sport grows, this is a long-term connection for us. You'll definitely see us continue to talk to that audience five years down the line. These esports athletes are going to be the coaches, the managers, and the owners of the teams someday. These are communities whom we want to be on the same journey with. I'm sure you saw our collaboration with Razer this year.

I really liked the way that you think ahead and anticipate future demand. You now have these different communities: racing, esports, and then the traditional type of C-suite consumers who are high-level business travellers. Do you have to make a lot of decisions on allocating your marketing budget and deciding on your priorities?

We’re watching very closely what's going to happen in airline travel, but I think train travel is interesting too. It’s well known how many high-speed railways have been built across China, and how people are looking at them as a travel alternative. So as far as budget allocation goes, like I said, brand awareness is the most important. Making sure that people get interested in Tumi and have the opportunity to consume the content that we're putting out there for them is still a big part of our spending and investment.

Given the economic environment we are in, a lot of brands are very cautious. Purse strings are being tightened in China, so does this trend affect Tumi —— technically a luxury product from the pricing and positioning perspective? Do consumers see you as a discretionary purchase?

I think actually quite the opposite. You know, looking at how things have evolved in the economic downturn, because we haven't travelled, we haven't invested in our travel needs. When we do begin to travel again after China opens up, quality, durability, and functionality are what we may not have thought about before, but all of a sudden becomes very important to future travel investment. We're finding that people are thinking about Tumi purchases in this way. Your things are protected, you've invested in having a good travel companion, and it is worth it.

People are facing higher costs, both on the consumer and business sides. Let’s switch the conversation to the cost of sustainability. The process of ensuring sustainability, whether in supply chain operations or product design, increases costs. How do you strike a balance between embedding sustainability across your business and ensuring acceptance of higher prices as a result of it?

Our products are designed with the ethos of ‘built to last’. So our designers are thinking ahead about how to make a bag live longer and how to ensure that the consumer can utilize the bag for many years. So in that, we're thinking about repairability and longevity. We don't use rivets, we use screws, so they can easily be replaced. Things like this are top of mind for the Tumi designers.

Maybe we were not the first in the market to use recycled materials. But we were never going to do two things. We will not sacrifice quality and will not pass that cost on to the consumer. Yes, these materials cost more, but it's the right thing to do. That was really important for us as an organization to make that decision.

In our 19 Degree collection, we use recycled polycarbonate for the outside case, recycled PT bottles for the interior lining, and recycled zinc for zipper pullers and metal components. And for me, recycled zinc is interesting because everybody talks about recycled fabrics. Sustainability is not just about taking things out of landfill but also about not taking them from the earth. You know, less mining, less taking of natural resources, and being able to reuse what we've already taken from the mines and making sure that it was still the same quality that users expect. That's one of the pinnacle pieces that we've been able to do. I think that answers the question on costing.

I know that nearly 20 percent of all Tumi FW21 collection styles feature some component of recycled materials. In China, some other brands don't do sustainability that well. How do you avoid any challenges, such as greenwashing criticisms from people who don't understand the full picture?

There're two words I probably haven't said enough. In all of the decisions we make, not just in our products and our designs but in our communications, we are ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’. We believe in everything that we put out there because that's just part of who we are. I don't have that concern, because I know that what we're doing is done with the right intent. It's the right thing to do for the consumer. It's the right thing to do for the brand. It's the right thing to do for the planet. And so it's actually not what I put on my radar because I don't have that concern.

The digital landscape in China is shifting rapidly, with companies like Alibaba, Douyin, WeChat, Taobao/Tmall, JD, Pinduoduo, Weibo, XiaoHongShu, Bilibili, Toutiao, all building out their advertising propositions. As an advertiser, how is your relationship with these Big Tech platforms evolving?

Our brand DNA allows us to talk to different audiences in different ways. What transcends the tech platforms in China is the importance of short-video content. The chunks of video that consumers take in are going to look one way on Chinese e-commerce platforms and different when you get to Douyin and Little Red Book. And so understanding how short-video content is dispersed is important.

You're gonna see Tumi doing more livestreaming in 2023. Livestreaming was what a lot of people thought was going away with the end of the pandemic. I don't see that happening at all, quite honestly. I think people really love to see products in motion and products in use. That's something that we'll continue to invest in going forward.

There are many different paths to purchase that are exciting in China. From the customer journey point of view, are you able to track conversions more clearly with more things to play with?

It’s incredible even 10 years ago, when I would listen to experts in e-commerce, and they would talk about decisions they made with the data analytics they had, I would be like, ‘Wow, that's really cool’. And that's impressive that as a retailer, we could take e-commerce data and then understand how to translate it offline.

Now, we invested in CRM to understand paths to purchase and capitalise on information to make decisions. Things like, where do you want to open your next shop? Where do you want to do a pop-up and test the market? How do you want to segment your advertising? We definitely use the phrase 'be where the customer is'. The information that's out there about the consumer makes Tumi smarter and better. 2023 is going to be pivotal. It's going to be pivotal for other brands too, because there's a lot to be done with the information we have and enter deeper relationships with our current and future consumers. I do believe that the Chinese tech platforms are recognizing the strengths of the brands they brought in, and we know collectively what success looks like.

Are you anxious about rising media costs, notably in less tried-and-tested channels and platforms (short videos, gaming, metaverse, NFTs, or Tumi’s Virtual Store experiential digital space)? How does Tumi incorporate virtual assets into your overarching marketing strategy?

You have to get the balance right. When we relaunched our Alpha Bravo collection, we created this modular ecosystem which we called TUMI+. Basically, it allows people to have personalization and additional functionality to make their bags their own and perform the way they want them to. That works incredibly well offline. Well, how do we do that online? How do we bring personalisation to life? We invested in our mini-program. That investment allowed us to take something that was a great brand idea and bring it into a digital world where it didn't necessarily work right away.

Marketing is shifting towards more personalisation; the feeling is like attending a huge stadium concert and suddenly the artist kind of looks you in the eye. Even if there're 1000 of these Tumi bags made globally, but that personalised bag was made for you because it satisfies exactly what you wanted from it, down to the rain covers. That's the brand experience that consumers want from all of their purchases.