An increasingly important trend that can't be ignored by brands and marketers in China is the growing individualism emerging among the country's younger consumers. Unlike their older counterparts, China's so-called "post-80s" and "post-90s" generations are showing a different approach to brand relationships, increasingly basing purchasing decisions on personal connection and interest rather than peer or group-led trends. According to a new McKinsey study, this growing "sense of the self" in making spending decisions is already having an effect on the way brands must consider marketing and advertising, making mega-brands like Kraft, P&G, Unilever, and Coca-Cola rethink the "umbrella brand" strategy -- whereby brands emphasize the uniformity of products across a range of segments and price points in order to calm consumer fears of product safety or quality. Now, the study notes, "the importance of emotional considerations in purchase decisions is shooting up," particularly in categories like chocolates and mobile phones, where the need for "emotional benefits" rose from 1 percent of respondents in 2009 to 19 percent last year.
Marketers will have to cater to Chinese consumers' desire to express their individuality by developing brands that "talk" directly to them. That will apply not only to high-involvement products such as cars and mobile phones, but also to commodities such as milk and salt. Even in a low-involvement product category like detergents, 7% of Chinese consumers — up from 2% in 2009 — say that the best products should not only clean clothes, but also make them feel special.
As the Chinese become more knowledgeable about products and more affluent, and safety standards become tighter and better enforced, they'll feel safer trying out lesser-known brands. That'll make them more receptive to niche brands that talk to them as "individuals" as a way of setting themselves apart.
A Dutch infant formula brand, Friso, is among those showing the way. While other brands focus on product safety and the ability to strengthen the immune system, riding on fears of the recent food safety scandals, Friso emphasizes emotional benefits for mothers. It has positioned the brand as "mom's best friend," and the claim is backed by a website that provides facts, nutritional information, and tips that will be useful during the mother's pregnancy and the child's infancy. According to the company, the website has received more than 50,000 unique visitors in the first two months after its launch.
Though it'll be difficult for every brand to simultaneously use the "emotional" strategy in more developed cities while using the "umbrella brand" strategy in more underdeveloped inland areas (where consumers' buying trends and priorities are far different), the McKinsey study does offer some interesting recommendations for brands to develop portfolios of more targeted brands and sub-brands: segment the consumer base granularly, create tailored product offerings, roll out niche brand concepts, and re-think brand strategy.
While it's a new study, and its recommendations are important for brands that are -- or may soon -- hit a wall in terms of current engagement with consumers, much of what McKinsey points out in its report is already pretty obvious to anyone keeping a close eye on marketing trends in China. One area in which we've seen digital marketers branch out to reach consumers on an emotional level in China is product placement in films and TV shows -- still a very controversial topic in the Chinese blogosphere.
Back in 2010, Jing Daily looked at the growing trend of consumer brands investing in product placement, using the example of films like "Color Me Love" and "Go Lala Go!" -- popcorn fare aimed at the country's white-collar "post-80s" consumer. In those films, which border on saccharine, brands like Lipton, Apple and BMW are given ample screen-time in highly emotional scenes. In addition to international giants, home-grown Chinese brands have invested in reaching China's "emo-sumer" via television or film placements, with the likes of Hong Kong's Giordano looking to take advantage of rising post-80s nostalgia, releasing products like t-shirts imprinted with characters from Chinese textbooks.