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Q&A: Martin Reid reveals how to engage with China’s youth

Fresh from publishing China’s Youth: Challenger Consumers, the brand strategist explains what makes the country’s youthful, value-redefining tribes tick.

Young Chinese consumers are redefining their values and championing individuality, so how can brands connect with them? Well, trend expert Martin Reid, who’s just published China’s Youth: Challenger Consumers for Stylus, has an idea or two.

We caught up with Martin to discuss China’s home-dwelling zhai faction, its ironically defeatist ‘sang’ culture and the xiao qingxin – the county’s answer to hipsters. And, interestingly, how China shares more cultural parallels with the West than you might think.

So Martin, why did you decide to start looking into China’s youth?

“There were two reasons. Firstly, I was greatly interested in seeing how their attitudes and expectations aligned and differed with the West. China’s younger generations developed their formative experiences in much more challenging circumstances – they grew up during a huge revolution shaped by the one-child policy and rapid socio-economic growth.

“On top of that, many of the narratives about Western millennials and Gen Z are, in my view, tedious and overwrought, so it was refreshing to research familiar age demographics from a completely different perspective.

“Secondly, I have always been interested in brand innovation and consumer behaviour within Asian cultures, so this topic was right up my street. I just recently moved out to Hong Kong for work, so my research ended up challenging what I thought I already knew about both China and Hong Kong’s cultural attitudes.”

Presumably, then, there were a few surprises in your research? 

“Yes. I was surprised to see that China shares many immediate cultural parallels with the West, only their motivations and originations are slightly different.

“For example, the West has its own strain of homebody consumers – house-proud types who invest in home care and enjoy the wholesomeness of Danish hygge. However, China’s zhai faction dwell at home because they’re either overworked, live with too much pollution or seek vicarious escape through their screens – or a combination of all three.

“Most surprising to me was China’s underbelly of social dissent being manifested through ‘sang’ culture, where China’s youth share despondent memes and express pessimistic thoughts in quiet defiance. I think China’s science fiction boom also feeds into this unspoken state of China’s consciousness, where many Chinese are questioning their immediate reality and conditions of existence.” 

How can brands tap into these attitudes, and have many already done so?

“Chinese consumers increasingly value authentic voices. I think SK-II’s campaign challenging the idea of ‘leftover women’ is a great example that reflects the attitudes shared by many of China’s young and single women, who feel pressured to marry and have children rather than seek fulfilling careers. 

“However, I think brands like Sung Tea take a braver and more relatable approach. Its branding actively captures the voice of an existential generation. Some commentators have even said: ‘Stand up, and be brave. Refuse to drink Sung Tea, choose to walk the right path, and live the fighting spirit of our era.’”

How receptive are China’s youth to international brands?

“While some consumers, such as China’s answer to hipsters, the xiao qingxin, are becoming more interested in the efforts of home-grown brands from a sustainability and authenticity standpoint, I think international brands still carry a lot of clout with China’s youth.

“A huge part of their appeal comes down to quality, in every sense of the word. The big-name global luxury brands are always valued for their prestige, but many consumers turn to them for their reliability in passing basic health and safety standards. The huge daigou movement exists on this principle, where Chinese entrepreneurs will travel abroad to buy reliable high-quality goods such as milk powder – and then sell them back in China.

“Beyond quality, the challenge international brands face is mostly down to communication. Brands should align their proposition to the existing culture rather than try and get consumers to expend effort to learn or change their behaviour.” 

So international brands should try to integrate with the Chinese experience?

“It’s pretty important that they do. Chinese consumers of course appreciate other experiences, perspectives and influences from other cultures, but not at the expense of their own.” 

In the report you mention how the reclusive zhai tribe, who spend their spare time at home, use their personal devices to engage with the world. What does this say about the future of China and globalisation?

“Their insider looking-out mentality represents an interesting issue. While zhai consumers yearn to travel internationally and consume foreign content, China is quick to censor any international cultural influences that threaten its self-sustaining ideology.

“Beyond China-only apps in place of the West’s banned social media, China frequently shuts down popular American shows and livestreaming channels, including Weibo’s own livestreaming division. It’s even barred Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga – both seen as corruptive Western influences – from entering the country.

“Whereas most globalisation theories assume the stability of a ‘transnational elite’ and conditions where there will be a mutual free flow of people, money, goods and ideas, I think globalisation underestimates the power of China’s insular nationalism.

“The feeling is far from mutual. China is only really interested in protecting and promoting China, as shown by harsh censorship, ruthlessly competitive economic development schemes and Orwellian data capture and registration systems. Many are worried that Trump wants to build a wall; China already has its up.

“That’s why China’s youth are so interesting and so important. Millions of xiao qingxin, zhai, sheng nu and other tribes can really shake up how China moves forward as a global superpower.”

If you’re a Stylus member, you can read China’s Youth: Challenger Consumers now. If you’re not, and you’d like to find out more about the benefits of membership, get in touch.