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China Paradigm Transcript #106: Creatively multitasking for luxury brands in China

Find here China Paradigm episode 106. In this interview, Matthieu Rochette-Schneider tells us about his top management experience in Asia, Centdegrés business in the local market and creatively multitasking for luxury brands in China.

Full transcript below:

Matthieu David: Hello everyone.

I am Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue Consulting and its podcast, China Paradigm. Joining me today is Matthieu Rochette-Schneider. You are in charge of Centdegrés which provides services to luxury brands in China and you are based in Shanghai and I thrilled to have you here. I met with you a few times and what struck me when I met with you during the French chamber of commerce meeting that you organized, of course, your company was able to bring together everything that was needed to bring a product to life, from the design of the idea to crafting the product and delivering the product. At that time, it was a perfume. I don’t know if you remember? I always thought of a branding agency in the Chinese market as designing logos, naming (learn more about Daxue Consulting’s brand naming services), color sets, identity, but not producing real products, or being in contact with the factories, and to be able to design it. You told me, “It is pretty easy. We can do that.” I was amazed by how easy it seemed for you and I was given this perfume at the conference. I put this perfume in my living room and I stared at it. I was thinking how can it be so easy? I need to interview Matthieu to explain to me how easy it is and how he is doing all these works for luxury brands in China related to creativity in branding in China. The more I dug into his business, the more I realized the extent of the work.

Before we begin the podcast, I want to talk about the case of Herborist, one of a number of luxury brands in China you have worked with, because I think it’s amazing that you got this case from a Chinese company and rebranded it entirely. More about Centdegrés, it was founded in 1988. So, 32 years ago and you present yourself as an independent global design agency with strong expertise in the field of luxury, premium brands and cosmetics. You have around 80 team members. It’s on your LinkedIn profile. So, maybe we need to update that. You have offices in Paris, Shanghai, Dubai, Casablanca, Mumbai and I think we need to update that info for China. I believe that now you are in several cities in China and you will update us on this. About Chinese clients: you have worked for one of the most iconic companies, but you have also worked with L’Oréal China. Thanks, Matthieu for being with us.

About Centdegrés – what is the current company size and its size in China?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Around the world we have branches in Cassablanca, Dubai, Vietnam, Bangkok, and in France. In china, we have 7 offices. These are in Guangzhou, Beijing, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei. Shanghai is our second HQ after Paris.

How important is China to your business?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: The founders met in China and started the company in China 36 years ago just after the opening up and there were so many opportunities. I think it’s fair to say there has been a love affair between us and China over that time.  

It was pretty adventurous of them to come and to set up a branding agency in the Chinese market for luxury brands in China at that time…

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: One of them, Ellie was already in design and his father told him to concentrate on the East rather than the West. For David, the other founder, he was already working on some government cooperation projects between France and China.

Is China becoming a very big part of Centdegrés business now?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Well, our Asian activities make up pretty much half of the business and importantly we are now making things here and selling them outside China. This is a change from how things were in the past.

How does Centdegrés approach branding? I understand you offer many more services than just branding.

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Basically, as part of being a branding agency in the Chinese market we believe that all the problems a business will encounter when going to market in China can be solved with creativity so creativity in branding in China or anywhere else is the core principle at Centdegrés. anything you can call creativity comes under our remit. We cover id creation, design, factories, graphic design, product packaging design, retail, merchandising, strategy and marketing mostly for luxury brands in China and all of this we try to solve with creativity.

Creativity is core of the business – How do you then manage creativity in branding in China?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: It’s more a question of having values, we call this philosophy creative activism. This means being engaged and being inspired by the brands we are working for. All of our team have the same attitude and approach. Working with the team and giving each person the chance to be creative is how we manage creativity in branding in China.

Can you tell us about the typical Centdegrés work process?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: We do use mood boards, but take for example our project with Herborist. First, we asked the people at the brand to come to our office in Paris and spend 3 months with us to brainstorm, exchange ideas. We shared ideas and developed friendships and were really looking for the deeper meanings behind every aspect of the product and brand. Working on and finding creative solutions with them.

Matthieu David:

So Centdegrés cover many aspects of brand building journey, some are very tangible such as production and design, but there seems to be also be a lot of intangibles, such as guidelines set for the company to rely on in the future. So where does it start and where does it stop?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: For us as a branding agency in the Chinese market, building up luxury brands in China does not have a start and end point. For me, its more about how you work. What I mean by that is that you cannot set limits, you must be very generous with your time, and to offer up all your ideas, even if you think it will get shot down, and of course you must think from the perspective of the business. And also, there is the aspect of delivery. So, for us the day the client no longer requires our services that means we have delivered because we have given them the tools they need to succeed without us.

What are the tools Centdegrés provides to their clients with to make them successful?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Our generosity, so being generous to the clients, thinking from the client’s point of view. Be open minded, entrepreneurial. Be far thinking and think long term about the client’s brand and of course creativity in branding in China is what we bring and impress upon our clients. And that separates us from any other branding agency in the Chinese market

How does Centdegrés manage to stay competitive?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: We combine the cultures of many different people from around the world. But when you come in the door you are now from Centdegrés. But also, we would never describe ourselves as just a branding agency in the Chinese market. We are all creatives who will take on any challenge.

How do you win over potential clients in China?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: The only way is to show your honesty. It’s never too early to start pitching ideas and through this, we show our endeavor and creativity in branding in China. It is not necessarily pitching for free, because it could be just a sketch, a conversation, a movie, a painting, a book, or anything but for us, it’s showing that you are generous with your time and creativity

For the last 10 years I have been hearing about the rise of luxury brands in China through leveraging the heritage of China – Can you give us examples of successful luxury brands in China?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: For me, it’s not a question of time but I think it’s a question of process. I think the time of Chinese brands becoming truly international brands has begun but it is not an issue of suddenly one day having loads of globally dominant Chinese brands. It involves soft power and its long term. Also, we see now that all global brands cater to China, if you don’t, you will fail. Herborist, Shangxia, Chando, and Qingdao are 4 already global brands. These are prime examples of successful creativity in branding in China on the part of luxury brands in China.

Brand domination – is it China’s time to shine?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Well American brands did not become global overnight. It took them two centuries to become globally dominant. But I think the journey of luxury brands in China will be more similar to Europe’s journey because of the long history and high diversity of language and culture and cuisine that both continents have. But I think it will be a slow process. In terms of industries that could dominate nationally and internationally then there is great potential in cosmetics, food and beverage, traditional medicine, and fashion which I think has huge potential in terms of dominating newer, more niche markets such as sustainable fashion, haute couture. These are the jobs that any branding agency in the Chinese market will face in the future.

In terms of luxury brands in China you have worked for, what did Centdegrés do for MG Mask?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: It was to reconnect to the brand’s original ethos, which they had lost a little bit after the L’Oréal takeover. In terms of creativity in branding in China what we did was to reconnect with the brand’s original message of taking a magic moment for yourself and importantly we did this through using Chinese ingredients.

What about branding for HAPSODE?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: That brand is Chinese-Korean one so there was a mix of influences in the project including French. So, working with that brand was especially interesting.

You have worked on one branding campaign and you combined the comic book giant Marvel with the cosmetics brand Sephora. How did you combine the two pretty contrasting backgrounds?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: So we have had an amazing working relationship with luxury brands in China over the years and particularly with Sephora and when they came to us and mentioned they wanted to work with Marvel and at first we weren’t sure but we came up with the idea of make-up being fuel, in the same way, that many superheroes have some kind of inner fuel.

What books have inspired Matthieu Rochette-Schneider in his career?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Candide by Voltaire and The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

What does Matthieu Rochette-Schneider read to stay up to date with China?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Stuff on WeChat. Also, we’ve just launched a website to share creative stuff in China called

 What book or movie about China would Matthieu Rochette-Schneider recommend?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Two movies which impacted me were The Last Emperor and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

If Matthieu Rochette-Schneider had extra time what other business would he pursue?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: I would like to write a book at some point. About both Centdegrés and China.

What unexpected success and failure has Matthieu Rochette-Schneider witnessed in China?

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: A success I have witnessed has been China Red by Sephora. This was an amazing case of a branding agency in the Chinese market engaging in creativity in branding in China. In terms of failure I think maybe of my personal biggest regret and that is that I don’t have enough time to delve deeper into other places and aspects of China.

Matthieu David: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with us today. It was very informative and interesting. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours and I hope we can talk again at some point in the future.

Matthieu Rochette-Schneider: Thanks a lot for having me on. It was a pleasure to chat with you. Let’s do it again sometime in the not too distant future.