I’m here to meet with Carol Potter, CEO for Greater China for the ad agency BBDO. Of British origin, she has been living and working in Asia for many years. Carol mainly has global clients and plays an important role in translating Western brand messages to the Chinese market. She receives me at her office that overlooks the city, and after a short introduction she starts telling me about her work.
“The Chinese consumer is obviously not like the Western consumer,” she says. “And while the Chinese are changing rapidly, they are not becoming like Western consumers. We have to understand the difference in culture, norms and values. And while we of course share some fundamental needs and desires like the need to be loved and to belong, we will always have to view these needs through the lens of cultural differences.”
“So how are Chinese consumers changing?” I ask. “What’s happening? I know they are modernizing rather than Westernizing, but what does that mean exactly?”
“Well, that is a hard question to answer, particularly in the midst of rapid change. That’s why we conduct our own research with the help of an independent company called Jigsaw. We ask the questions that our clients don’t usually ask in their research.
“We don’t look specifically at brands and categories,” says Carol. “We ask about life and how it feels to be a young Chinese consumer nowadays.”
“And what do you find?”
“Young Chinese feel they are under great pressure to be financially successful. Our research has shown that while roughly a half of them are satisfied with their financial situation and believe it will get better in the next 12 months, 41% agree that they have to work harder and longer hours to succeed. And a full 75% of them feel a ‘big pressure in their everyday lives’. On top of which the vast majority need to make their parents proud, and for their parents ‘having material things’ defines success.”
“So it sounds like there is a lot more stress in life than, say, 25 years ago,” I say.
Carol nods. “Definitely: 65% of the people we spoke to believe that their life is more stressful than it was for the older generation. And it is not only about material success. Men must find wives in a society where there is an imbalance in the numbers of women and men, and where over one quarter of women earn more money than their partner. In cities like Shanghai, without a good job, an apartment and a car they can forget proposing to anyone.”
“It sounds like being young in Chine is pretty tough these days.”
“It is,” Carol nods. “But you know this generation is not just driven by selfish desires. There is also a genuine desire to improve society. So for example, 85% believe that social progress can provide a better environment for self-development and a significant 61% have volunteered for a charity.”
“That’s interesting,” I say. “So do you think people believe that these rapid changes are eroding social values?”
“There has been much debate in the Chinese media and especially social media as to whether China is pushing too far too fast and in its haste losing its moral values and compass. Certainly 68% agree that China is in ‘too much of a hurry to succeed’. And sadly only 23% agree that people of their own age have strong moral values.
“While they are proud of China’s rising national strength and its history and culture, over a third are not proud of its morality and lack of integrity. However they do recognize that China has very strong traditional values and there seems to be a genuine desire to return to some of them. The discussion and the intentions are very encouraging.”
“So where does branding come into this rapidly changing consumer landscape?” I ask.
“In the midst of all of this change and stress, brands can play an important role. People want to realise their progress and really feel their own success. Being able to buy, own or experience certain brands can help them in this. They can also provide valuable self-indulgence or reward in an otherwise relentlessly stressful world. Perhaps most importantly brands and the companies behind them can help to stand for values and purposes that can help improve the tenor of society.
“You’ve been working and living in Asia and China for quite some time,” I say. “How have you seen the changes impact your agency?“
“Well,” Carol says, “I guess what stands out for me is how our agency has adapted in response to the changing Chinese consumer. It goes without saying that social media, online video and experiential have all taken on a greater significance. In general I think our work is more creative than it used to be. Chinese consumers were previously sometimes looked down upon a bit, as if they would buy anything that was on offer. That was unfair. The challenge was that they suddenly had a massive choice and they weren’t used to that. So we needed to find how to communicate in a way that would compensate for the lack of visceral understanding that consumers in other markets have built up over years.”
“How did you do that? And do you see storytelling fitting into this framework?” I ask.
“We are always trying to find a way to short-cut the building up of an emotional brand identity, and a good story is one very effective way of doing that,” Carol says. “Stories can create emotions and memory structures as well as impart information in a way that is easily absorbed. This can all help consumers to navigate the world of brands and make their choices easier. That is a very useful job we can do for them: to help make consumers’ life easier and more meaningful by guiding them through the jungle of choices.”
© 2014 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands