What is luxury to the uber rich? No one knows anymore. It’s a concept in flux. And for no one is that truer than China’s affluent population–a group that’s sick of precious metals, but still likes to win money.
Enter the City of Dreams. It’s a partially opened, three-hotel gambling complex in Macau, with 175,000 square feet of shopping, dozens of restaurants, and a newly opened tower by Zaha Hadid. The development is building its brand by creating a new image of luxury based upon frantic creative excess and the spoils of victory, rather than old motifs of wealth.
“There are stereotypes of Vegas, and I think we have some of them for Macau, that the city itself is a little tacky sometimes,” says Richard Christiansen, the founder of Chandelier Creative. “And when it gets ‘luxury,’ that tends to mean gold and gilded.”
When Christiansen’s group was brought in to brand the City of Dreams, they were tasked with finding a new approach–to develop a luxury brand that would inspire, and even challenge, the public a bit. Of the 30 million people who visit Macau each year, 28 million are from China, most of whom are drawn to the high-stakes gambling of the resort town. The firm began researching China’s emerging affluent class, and its luxury consumer. What they found was that the design of Vegas or Macau was trapped in aging stereotypes.
For the last decade, Christiansen explains, that consumer has been treated as nouveau riche, with a sudden, endless thirst for expensive labels. Some of those habits are quite well-documented, but they’re also mellowing out. “I personally believe the mainland Chinese customer has been spoken down to, in terms of what the world thinks they’re like creatively,” says Christiansen. “I think what you’re finding now is that the taste level has evolved radically and dramatically in the last five years. You see it in the way they’re buying fashion, and creating their own brands. Gone are the days we can speak of Chinese consumers as gaudy. The over-the-top aesthetic is a very old and outdated way of thinking about them.” Indeed, Chinese millennials don’t even want gold jewelry anymore.
The City of Dreams brand created as a result is a multi-tiered, mixed-media onslaught filled with Chinese celebrities photographed by celebrated fashion photographer Nick Knight. It can be difficult to deconstruct at first pass, but that’s part of the point. It’s supposed to open the visitor up to new experiences, and evolve upon each subsequent visit.
The core brand is a letter mark reading COD. Its font looks like it could be printed on a handbag, but behind it Chandelier layers everything from computer-generated, net art-like shapes to intensely sensual video. The idea, Christiansen says, is to evoke “energy.”
“One of the main points we noticed was, all these other [casino] developments feel exactly the same. You go there this year and you feel like you were there five years ago,” says Christiansen. “We wanted an identity that would continue to evolve. In a very good way, it feels frantic. Very intentionally frantic.”
But within the brand chaos, the team still chose details carefully. “The Chinese customer, practically and tangibly, is incredibly superstitious. So the design team had to watch colors and symbols, and be very careful in how we handled those touchpoints,” says Christiansen. White, for instance, is a color typically associated with funerals, while red denotes good luck. The gift of a clock can imply death. “Something as simple as saying a place has bad luck would ruin it. Really understanding those cues was critical.”
Within City of Dreams, each hotel will have its own sub-brand identity. Morpheus, the hotel by Zaha Hadid, is meant to feel heavenly and ethereal. Zawa is earthy. And a third, yet-to-be-revealed hotel is what Christiansen calls a gloves-off, “absolute explosion of creativity.”
To advertise City of Dreams, the firm is asked Knight to photograph celebrities. The portraits are reimagined moments of victory, inspired by the history of art. They look, by all means, over the top–like a Chinese Napoleon or Joan of Arc is about to conquer the roulette table. That’s by design.
“Gambling there is sport. Winning is a sport. People don’t drink alcohol in casinos there; they drink tea. People go there because they’re obsessed with the idea of victory,” says Christiansen. “You look at the cultural and behavioral mind-set of both, this emerging upper class of Chinese tourists, but also of the hardcore gambler, and there’s this incredibly competitive, incredibly curious and driven mind-set. We came to this brand campaign idea of ‘the art of winning,’ because victory and competition were such important pieces. Maybe that seems obvious, but if you look at Vegas, that’s not the first thing you think of. You think entertainment, and ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ It’s a different jumping off point.”