A second cultural revolution

Teenagers and young people are leading a massive change in Chinese retail culture that has seen influences from Japan and the West become absorbed into mainstream lifestyle and attitudes

China has changed at an astonishing speed during the past two decades, perhaps more so than any other country in such a short time span. The Chinese have absorbed foreign culture and quickly incorporated it into their lives, especially China’s youth, who closely follow fashion, design and lifestyle trends from Japan and the West, combining these aspirational influences with a great sense of national pride.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported a 22% year-on-year increase in retail sales in May 2008, further adding to many brands’ and retailers’ desire to succeed in the Chinese market. However, the Chinese market is constantly changing and many brands fail as they misinterpret the complex needs and attitudes of Chinese consumers. The way for global brands to become successful in this booming market is to understand Chinese consumers from the inside out rather than from a distant Western perspective.

The changing culture has meant that China’s youth are growing up very differently from previous generations. Their parents, who were young during the Cultural Revolution, did not have the same opportunities and therefore want their children to study and work as hard as they can to achieve what they themselves could only dream of.

The one-child policy has meant that parents’ expectations are focused on their only child and the pressure these children experience is often high. The one-child policy has also meant that today’s youth have never had to share with brothers and sisters, making it quite a demanding generation.

Most young people in China want to fulfil their parents’ dreams, studying hard and conforming to the traditional social norm, but they also want to develop their own identity, inspired but sometimes also confused by Western culture and the opportunities the new China has to offer.

These contrasting aspirations create an internal conflict, resulting in China’s younger consumers searching for brands and experiences that enable them to develop their individuality and successfully balance conflicting ambitions.

Ikea, for example, is successful in Asia because it helps consumers understand how to incorporate Western culture into their lives.

To release some of the pressure of being a youth in China, many embrace escapist experiences. Their search for ways of letting their imaginations run wild can be seen through the large and ever increasing following of Japanese Anime and Manga comics as well as online and real life role-play activities. In retail, this is reflected through a strong emphasis on highly innovative and immersive experiences that allow consumers to truly take part and interact, both physically and emotionally.

Destination shopping is not as common among China’s younger generation, who see shopping as more of a social activity and often meet up with friends in one of the country’s many malls where they look to be entertained. To grab the attention of this demanding generation it is important to offer an innovative and exciting retail experience to build affinity with the brand.

Temporary events and pop-up retailing are therefore proving especially successful in China: in May this year, Nike 706 was launched in a warehouse in Beijing’s up-and-coming 798 Art District where the sportswear brand showcases 100 of Nike’s best innovations. The gallery-style space will close after the Olympics, offering a limited and exclusive experience.

Contrary to some Western perceptions, the Manga youth lifestyle, which stems from Japanese animation, goes far beyond a fascination with comics into a mainstream communication device, making this movement an attractive area for brands wanting to reach a young consumer group.

Adidas’ Chinese advertising campaign for the Beijing Olympics has used animation, imaginative imagery and an emotional story, strongly referencing Anime and Manga, which together with the patriotic theme resonates well with Chinese consumers.

Cosplay (from the words costume and play) is another significant youth subculture inspired by Manga, Anime and computer games. Cosplay lets people step into a different persona as they dress up as a favourite character and engage in role-play, escaping into a different world where they make the rules.

It is important to understand youth culture in any market, but even more so in China. The roles have changed and China’s young people are now teaching their parents about life and so influencing how society develops.

It will be fascinating to watch how Chinese youth culture continues to change and see what will happen to the current wave of youth confidence and national pride after the Olympic Games. How well China does in the Olympics, both in terms of medals and international relationships, will no doubt be yet another factor affecting the lifestyle and attitudes of China’s youth. v Moa Hellstrom, Brand Strategy Planner at HuntHaggarty, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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