One of the icons of China ‘economic miracle’ has been the growth in personal car ownership. Having a car, quite literally became a ‘symbol of arrival’ as Chinese consumers started to enjoy modern, middle-class lifestyles.
As we the SMART@Resonance team look forward to an exciting ethnographic study with a new auto client, it is interesting to think about the relationship Chinese drivers have to their cars, and how this has changed.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of cars as ‘cultural icons’ – how they can confer status that goes far beyond the car itself. In China, cars somewhat naturally symbolised the idea of economic status, a ‘I have kept up with the Jones'” badge for all to see.
When cars were just stating to become an obtainable items of a wider number of Chinese consumers, I was lucky enough to working as an ethnographer and futurist for brands such as Ford and Nissan. Spending time with consumers, mainly in 2nd and 3rd tier cities, I would ride with families in their cars to understand how they understood and used their family vehicle.
The car as an insulated bubble
One insight that informed this early stage of car ownership in China was the idea of the vehicle “as insulated bubble”. The key psychology was negative, in a sense that the care presented an ‘escape’ from the rest of society – akin to a fortified house. Once in the car, the family was ‘in control’ and ‘insulated’ from the chaos and rapid change that defined outside society.
For this reason, there was huge focus on the exterior robustness of the car – not necessarily from a practical standpoint, but from a physiological one.
This mindset extended into a particularly style of driving as well (that exists to this day). In the absence of two-dimensional give-way rules in China, ‘might is right’ is the logic that informs traffic flow. So, this driving reality cemented the idea of the car being an ‘escape from the chaos’ – as simply no one could get at you in your car. Even from a cultural perspective, pedestrians acknowledge this, by allowing cars to ‘run reds’ and ‘cut across zebras’ indiscriminately – maximising the benefits of car ownership at an implicit level.
Shift to the car as an enabler
However as car ownership, and second-car ownership has become more common, perception of vehicles have changed. This can be summarised as the car as ‘an enabler’.
This has happened on a number of ways.
- Locals have started to use their vehicle more to travel and explore
- Locals have used their cars more to commute and take up economic opportunities
- Local drivers have started to use their vehicles directly to make money (through ride hauling app, such as Didi and Uber
This has arguably meant that consumer have shifted their defensive motives for vehicle purchase, to more positive outgoing ones. In turn, this transforms the car into an ‘experience maker’. So locals create their cars as places that are educative and informational, more focussed on dialogue and the production of memories.
As part of the upcoming study, I will be in the cars with the local families understand how this shift has taken place. It is only through direct observation, that such nuances can be dug up, for the good of my client, and ultimately the end consumers.
Certainly, the ‘car as bubble’ is, I believe, being replaced by ‘the car as an enabler’, a new driver mindset for China’s future. I will certainly look forward to finding out first hand.