Opinion: Brands Are Cashing in on Male Millennials’ “Midlife Crisis”

The life of a male Chinese millennial isn’t easy. If you’ve followed China’s social media discussions over the past months, you’ve probably seen how a collective aging crisis is affecting Chinese as young as post-90s. Media representations of a stressed out, hair-losing twenty-something who feels he has passed his physical peak struck a chord with many.

Among these representations is a viral ad called “Middle-age Men Lie” from L’Oréal Men Expert. The ad shows how stress, overwork, and social expectations have made Chinese men constantly lie to reassure others, and especially to reassure themselves. The ad also suggests that a Chinese man reaches middle age around 35, which is 10 years before the global average offered by the United Nations.

Men’s ability to achieve and provide in material terms are perceived to be of the utmost importance, but in urban China rising living costs and inflated real estate prices have made it difficult to live up to these traditional beliefs. Sandwiched between old social expectations and a new economic reality, Chinese millennial men are stressed out.

With high levels of stress and a culture that increasingly celebrates youth, male hair loss greatly affects this demographic. A study conducted by Ali Data and Ali Health shows that 36.1 percent of anti-hairloss consumers are post-90s. The study shows that 高富帅 (literally “tall, rich, and handsome”, the Chinese ideal man) are just as prone to hair loss.

Photos: Ali Health

At the same time, ambitious, career-driven, luxury-loving, post-90s Chinese males are more concerned about their appearance than past generations. The “New Middle-class Male Consumer Whitepaper” by JD.com testifies that compared to post-80s men, post-90s invest more in personal care and fashion. According to Kantar China Insight, the male skincare market will surpass 15.4 billion RMB by 2019.

That’s huge, and yet the current offers aren’t as rich or varied as the female skincare market. As addressed in L’Oréal’s “Mid-age Men Lie” commercial, failure to provide in material terms, to achieve a certain place in life are among the deepest fears for Chinese millennial men. As opposed to marketing toward women, which tends to highlight good looks, brands are heightening male anxieties to provoke a purchase.

Woven into male anti-aging marketing are two messages. Firstly, that men need to deliver, provide, and suck it up. And secondly that brands understand their struggle and can help them to overcome the signs of aging.

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1. Estée Lauder’s Lab Series – Mr. Have it All

Lab Series brand ambassador Wu Zun, born in 1979. Photo: Lab Series’ Weibo

High-end men’s skincare brand Lab Series has chosen actor Wu Zun (吳尊) as its brand ambassador, underscoring Wu’s reputation as “Mr. Perfect”. A famous actor, fitness business owner, father, and youthful-looking 38 year old, Wu is the quintessential ideal for what Chinese society expects from a man.

In a promotional video, Wu shares how he manages to keep his skin looking young despite the fact he only gets few hours of sleep in his busy life. The brand’s campaign “Never settle, never stop” precisely captures the credo shared by Chinese millennial men.

2. Biotherm – Signs of Brilliance, Not Signs of Time

David Beckham. Photo: Biotherm Homme

Biotherm Homme’s recent anti-aging campaign featured David Beckham, who has a big fan base in China. To Chinese millennial men, Beckham is yet another example of someone who supposedly has it all, including a career that continues after his peak physical years as a footballer, as well as a famous family.

The campaign “Leave signs of brilliance, not signs of time” sums up the goal for many young Chinese men. Beyond wanting to achieve more in their career, they also want to keep up their attractiveness score (颜值), something older generations are less concerned about.

3. gf – Mr. 24 Hours

Photos: gf’s Weibo

While multinational brands are the main players in the high-end anti-aging market, domestic men’s skincare brand gf stands out for its social media presence and creative marketing. Targeted to on-the-run, working urban millennials, the brand created a “Mr.gf’s 24 hours” series on Weibo, using the hashtag #Mr.gf’s 24hours#. The series portrays a typical twenty-something man’s life: meditating about life in a cramped metro, nailing a presentation, and passing out in the bathtub after a tough workday.

As a domestic brand, gf more intimately sympathizes with young Chinese men, directly addressing their lives, and appearing to be a reliable friend.

Understanding Chinese millennial men’s “midlife crisis” is critical for brands. Sympathy for an often stressful, overworked life, and showing ways to alleviate the physical impacts of their efforts to make it are key ways in which brands are marketing to young Chinese men. There is still plenty of room, however, for brands to create more positive messages that men can rally behind, whether it’s by brands providing motivational pep talks or by celebrating different kinds of success and different ways of aging.

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