Forefront: Margaret Zhang on storytelling
Jul 11, 2018
Margaret Zhang was just 16 years old when she set up her influential fashion blog Shine by Three in 2009. She has since gone on to study law, appear on the cover of Elle Australia and become a photographer-stylist-consultant working with brands such as Chanel, Uniqlo, Dior and Lexus as one of Australia's preeminent influencers with over 960K followers on Instagram. 

Now 25 years old, the Chinese-Australian creative splits her time between New York and Shanghai and will be heading to Sydney mid-July to appear at the QICGRE-sponsored Forefront summit discussing branded storytelling and contemporary culture. We caught up with her ahead of the summit to preview the conversation.

Tom Morris: You have covered a lot of ground across many different industries in your career so far, from photography to blogging to consulting. How would you say you'd understand your own over-arching personal brand?


Margaret Zhang: For me personally, branding is about the multi-faceted nature of what I do as opposed to what I look like, who I'm with or what I'm wearing. That is temporary and transient and has no sustainability in a career. If people are able to engage with you and your skills you have more authority and range of subject matter to cover. The mistake that people make is putting things in boxes and having very generic terms like 'digital influencer' or 'photographer'. They don't mean anything today. 


It's all storytelling at the end of the day. My background is ballet and music but my education is law and business. I've worked as a photographer. I storytell through styling. I storytell through directing film. Storytelling is such a broad category that there's always a different creative avenue to take. It's about communicating the things I believe in to the people that I want to hear.


TM: How have you noticed the landscape change since you set out with your blog?


MZ: The most disappointing thing is that media became reactive. Instead of being the authority that they are supposed to be, instead of telling consumers what they're supposed to be consuming and what they're supposed to think is cool, they're now on the back foot. They are waiting for the consumer to tell them what is going to make them a ton of clicks. Now you see all these media outlets trying to turn their readers into customers, which is not a possibility. They are coming to you for an independent voice and an opinion, not to buy product. On the other hand, you can turn a customer into a reader. From a new media perspective, someone like Nike has more subscribers than any sport publication on the planet. You have an incredible opportunity to educate them about all facets of lifestyle, sports science and technology associated with sport. They understand their voice as an authority rather than just a product pusher.

TM: Why do you think there has been this paradigm shift from people expecting content as well as product? Why do stories have more affect?


MZ: It's about a lifestyle and people wanting to be part of something. It's not good enough for people to rely on the product alone. There are very few brands that can do that still because of the incredible level of quality and the history associated with it. For example, Hermès and Goyard. They have not done any digital push because their brand is about being meticulously artisanal and mysterious. Storytelling is so much more important now and people want to engage with something that they feel authentically speaks to them. 


TM: Which brands do especially well at striking this balance between content and product and storytelling?


MZ: Gucci does a great job at exploring different types of content. They are the people you expect to do something super weird. Alessandro [Michele] has over the seasons learned to break down a look into very digestible product and have a cult leather accessories business that are both sustained with story lines. Rather than being super elevated, they are re-owning the narrative of Gucci with a very consistent aesthetic.

TM: Risk is really important in the Gucci case. He's continually pushing the boundaries with what people are expecting. Gucci before was a very safe, slightly staid Italian brand. How crucial is risk and doing something that surprises even loyal customers?

MZ: It's not about taking a risk for the sake of taking a risk. It's important to take risks when it comes to listening to new opinions and never feeling comfortable in where you are. That's always the downfall for many brands. China is a really good example here. People got too comfortable with the fact that China made them money and then ten years later they were like, 'oh damn we have no brand loyalty with our customers'. They got too comfortable with how much money this market was generating.

TM: You have been quite outspoken on what can happen when people generically try to "crack Asia" without understanding the nuances of the region, especially China. Do you have a better understanding because of your roots?

MZ: I consult a lot with Western brands going in to China and Chinese brands exporting. My education is Western business and law. My ethnic heritage is Chinese and I speak Mandarin. I understand how young people there are thinking and how they engage with product and technology. I'm in and out of China all the time and it evolves so quickly because it's such an advanced market. I'm definitely in an interesting position.

TM: On a more personal level, I think it's interesting how storytelling is still very important to you. Your website still feels and is run like a blog in terms of the copy. You still contribute a lot to it. How do you think that has helped people engage with you as a brand?

MZ: It's important for people to know that I have opinions and that's where I began and what I will always be. I never sell ads on any of my channels. I don't sell sponsored posts. It is a personal opinion space and people should always be able to come and be provoked whether negative or positive.