The latest issue of Dumplings, our Shanghai e-newsletter, is ready to serve. And I am very happy to share with you an insightful article on China's Generation Y from Dumplings written by our H&K colleague Derek Sandhaus.
By Derek Sandhaus
The first half of 2008 was marked by relentless tragedy. China was hit by the worst winter storms it had seen in 50 years, stranding millions during the busy Lunar New Year travel season and causing damages estimated at over Y100 billion. With hardly a moment's respite, China once again found itself in the throes of catastrophe in the form of the May 12th 8.0-magnitude earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province. Almost 70,000 were killed, 5 million left homeless, and one of China's poorest provinces was left to deal with a reconstruction effort with an estimated cost of over $75 billion. Rather than give in to despair in the face of such devastation, China responded with compassion and generosity, much of it coming from an unlikely source: the post-80s, so-called 'Me' generation.
For years, the post-80s (ba ling hou) have been ridiculed as being more concerned with fashion and indulgence than their obligation towards humanity. They are "the first generation in the world's history in which a majority are single children," notes TIME magazine, "a group whose solipsistic tendencies have been further encouraged by a growing obsession with consumerism, the Internet and video games." Derisively referred to as 'xiaohuangdi' (little emperors) by older generations, they have rarely been looked to for social change.
This year's tragedies, however, have produced a sea change in activism among China's new youth. This tech-saavy population, soon to become the world's largest online community, has been quick to spread information and equally quick to mobilize. Immediately following the quakes, more than 250,000 young volunteers descended upon Sichuan to aid in the recovery effort. Stories abounded of young professionals putting their jobs on hold, sometimes even quitting, to help those affected. This summer's Olympic Games was an unabashed success in large part due to the army of over 1 million volunteers, 80% of whom were college students.
This newfound sense of social responsibility presents new challenges and opportunities for brands looking to attract young consumers in China. Up to this point, most people have marketed products to young Chinese consumers by appealing to their sense of style and individuality, but this dynamic is changing. "While the youth brands are most aware of the cool hunting and fun seeking inclination of the Chinese 'post 80s', it's equally important to understand and recognize the 'serious side' of the Chinese youth and help them realize their dreams," explains the China Youth Watch blog. By remembering that 'I' and 'we' are not mutually exclusive, messages of social responsibility can be branded as self-actualization, promoting activism while simultaneously satisfying the need to remain fashionable.
Companies are starting to realize, though, that Chinese youth activism is something of a double-edged sword. Failure to identify yourself as a supporter of a popular cause can cause swift and unexpected retaliation. McDonald's, for example, found themselves the target of picketers following the quake for failing to discontinue an add campaign viewed as insensitive. On the flipside, when you do champion a popular cause, it's important to understand how much is enough. In the aftermath of the quakes, Chinese netizens set up online donation trackers and were quick to pounce on companies deemed overly stingy, effectively forcing them to give more generously.
Brands should also be aware that the Western conception of social responsibility is not always the same as the Chinese perception. Chinese youths overwhelmingly support their government, viewing it as driving force behind China's skyrocketing wealth. This growth in activism, thus, is wedded to an unbridled sentiment of patriotism. This can be a blessing for government initiatives, like the Sichuan relief effort and this summer's anti-plastic bag green initiative, which find built in, highly receptive audiences. It remains to be seen whether this sense of national loyalty will eventually translate into broader global responsibility. Companies looking to import foreign causes may run into a knowledge gap that requires extensive educational campaigns to bridge.
What's clear is that the needs of the post-80s are evolving and, in order to compete, brands must find ways to adapt. Identify what ways your brand taps into the desire for change. What socially responsible activities does your brand already undertake and how can you effectively communicate this to your customers? What additional steps can you take to better include customers in the future?
The central challenge is how to present yourself as an advocate of change and, by extension, how make your customers part of that change. "To befriend this group, brands need to stand for something," reports Bergstrom Trends, a research group focusing on young Chinese. "Helping youth try out new ways to contribute to social issues can be a powerful way to connect with your audience and be remembered as a force for empowering China."
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