As more and more Chinese become part of an established middle class standard of living, the resulting consumption and culture shows similarities to America in the post-war period. So brands need to stop thinking of China as weird, but as exhibiting a recognisable pattern of a maturing, increasingly consumer-lead, economy.
Recently, I have had the pleasure of interviewing two different groups of Chinese consumers at their homes – Chinese families about toys, and Chinese VIPs about luxury.
What stood out for me is how both groups talked about their pasts, current life and future expectations primarily in the context of consumptive and branded experiences. For local Mums and Dads they projected this vicariously through their child’s life as well.
What I believe I was hearing is a clear expression of a Chinese Consumer Culture, something in the making for a few decades, but it seems it has finally formed coherence.
The New Normal
But such a world shaping development does not occur in a vacuum. The Chinese government has consciously placed consumption at the forefront of a fundamental shift of the economy. In what President Xi terms “the new normal”, China will move from a nation that manufactures to one that consumes and innovates.
China’s shift mirrors the emergence of consumer culture in post-war America – a period where Americans quite literally learnt to “consume”, as individuals and as families.
The richness of post-war America’s consumerism is projected and immortalized by the popular culture of the period. However it feels this golden era may just have been beta-testing for the real consumer revolution that is now occurring in China.
If asked to design a perfect consumer, I believe the blueprint would closely approximate contemporary Chinese citizens.
Keeping Up With the Jones, or should I say the Zhangs
The first positive characteristic is a widely held belief structure based on Confucianism that advocates an intense form of “keeping up with the Jones'”, creating the necessity to actualise through consumption. Fitting in is achieved by tapping into specific and acknowledged patterns of consumption.
This sets up a number of exemplary expectations that people feel they must live up to. Marriage, promotion, wealth, business connections, happiness are therefore increasingly built on your ability to consume the right items.
To make the perfect consumers more perfect, we would also ask for a technological environment that supports instantaneous purchase. In this context, the e-commerce and social media revolution in China is quite simply adding fuel to an already blazing fire.
However, the long held dream that Chinese consumers are becoming just like those in “the West”, is exactly that, a dream. This consumer revolution is very much 2.0, borrowing somewhat from the post-war American precedent, but largely taking on a unique Chinese form.
America Dream was American, China’s will be indelibly Chinese
Just as the American dream was deeply American, so too will the Chinese dream be indelibly Chinese.
It can be argued that consumerism is becoming a defining attribute of Chinese expression and identity. For example, Chinese tourists abroad proudly identify with the stereotype that they are the most extravagant purchasers of luxury goods. At home, the rise of local technology brands such as Tencent and Alibaba are proudly celebrated, precisely because they embody a specifically Chinese form of consumption that demands smarter, faster, and more interactive solutions than elsewhere.
But the most critical factor to ensuring China will deliver the next wave of consumerist culture is precisely the fact that the Chinese state has established it as part of the “new normal” and more widely as integral to the “Chinese dream”. Put simply, national stability and prosperity, is based on Chinese citizen’s ability to consume consistently as part of an entrenched lifestyle.
This will certainly change the world but is it good for your brand?
Only if you take Chinese consumerism as a distinct cultural phenomena will you be able to connect in a differentiated and meaningful way with local consumers.