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    The global AI divide: how brands must adapt across cultures

    As AI grows, brands must adapt to different global views. 78% in China are optimistic about AI vs 35% in the US and Europe. How can brands connect with diverse audiences?
    Popular AI-generated content on Xiaohongshu. Image: User @Ouyang Chenxi on Xiaohongshu

    “I’ve seen a lot more artificial intelligence (AI) content in the last six months, even when I’m just on Xiaohongshu, or in the subway,” says Sylvia Chen, a 27-year-old tech professional in Shenzhen.

    The rise of AI is transforming content creation, with its use projected to surge by 2026. However, a striking divide exists in how different parts of the world approach this technology.

    A 2021 Ipsos survey reveals a stark contrast in perception: 78% of Chinese respondents view AI's benefits as outweighing its drawbacks, the highest among all countries surveyed.

    Popular AI-generated content on Xiaohongshu for the Year of the Dragon. Image: users @mantouwawawawa and @pinkycaty on Xiaohongshu
    Popular AI-generated content on Xiaohongshu for the Year of the Dragon. Image: users @mantouwawawawa and @pinkycaty on Xiaohongshu

    In contrast, only 35% of Americans share this enthusiasm, with over half expressing more concern than excitement — a sentiment echoed in Europe.

    This divergence in attitudes underscores a global crossroads: as AI's footprint expands, so does the discourse on its implications for society. How can brands navigate this contrast?

    To AI or not AI?

    "Does it really matter if content is produced by AI? It largely depends on my intent,” says Chen. “If I'm just browsing for some creative inspiration, AI origin content doesn't bother me. However, if I stumble upon an appealing hotel photo that makes me want to visit, only to discover it's AI-generated, I'd be quite disappointed."

    According to a survey by Boston Consulting Group, a significant 83% of Chinese consumers are open to engaging with AI-generated content, a figure that surpasses the global average of 66%. This openness contrasts sharply with the trust levels in AI development and usage: only 34% of Americans and 38% of Europeans believe companies can handle AI responsibly.

    China's luxury market has embraced virtual humans, with renowned brands like Bulgari, Porsche, Estée Lauder, and Tissot collaborating with AI entities. More control, faster content and novelty value are just some of the benefits.

    Left: Calvin Chen’s AI clone conducted an AI-generated livestream last September, eating for 15 hours straight on Douyin to promote pre-cooked dishes. Right: Calvin Chen. Image: Weibo
    Left: Calvin Chen’s AI clone conducted an AI-generated livestream last September, eating for 15 hours straight on Douyin to promote pre-cooked dishes. Right: Calvin Chen. Image: Weibo

    In China, influencers and celebrities like Calvin Chen, actor and former singer of boy band Fahrenheit, are pioneering the use of AI clones for livestreams. Chen’s AI clone conducted an AI-generated livestream last September, eating for 15 hours straight on Douyin to promote pre-cooked dishes. According to IDC forecasts, this digital human market is poised to reach a valuation of $1.5 billion by 2026.

    For example, Ayayi stands out as a leading figure in China's luxury influencer sphere, having collaborated with prestigious brands such as Ferragamo, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Guerlain.

    Virtual influencer Ayayi has collaborated with renowned brands such as Ferragamo, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Guerlain. Image: Ayayi
    Virtual influencer Ayayi has collaborated with renowned brands such as Ferragamo, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Guerlain. Image: Ayayi

    This contrasts sharply with reactions in the West to similar technologies, such as Meta's AI bot "Billie," modeled after Kendall Jenner. The bot has elicited unease, prompting articles like the New York Post story titled "People are freaking out over Meta’s ‘creepy’ AI bot ‘Billie’."

    Branded AI fails and successes in China

    The response is China is not always positive: "AI synthetic mascots and AI advertising illustrations are now ubiquitous in subway ads," wrote netizen @Black Puppy on Weibo, pointing out that the often "greasy" style of AI art can be off-putting as it lacks the genuine touch that even average human-created content possesses.

    Netizen @chaobingningmengcha standing next to one of the many AI-generated posters JD.com made for 11.11, seen offline across China. Image: Xiaohonghshu
    Netizen @chaobingningmengcha standing next to one of the many AI-generated posters JD.com made for 11.11, seen offline across China. Image: Xiaohonghshu

    Netizen @Roujiu on Weibo critiqued an AI-generated poster for JD.com, saying, "This poster is so ugly."

    In May 2023, McDonald's embraced AI-generated content with a unique showcase. A post attributed to McDonald’s fan @PotatoRen featured items like Big Mac bronze burgers, ancient chicken nuggets, heirloom jade French fries, and more, presented as ancient Chinese artefacts, much to the delight of netizens.

    Netizens loved McDonald's post about McDonald's food items as ancient Chinese artifacts. Here are the "ancient golden nuggets." Image: McDonald's
    Netizens loved McDonald's post about McDonald's food items as ancient Chinese artifacts. Here are the "ancient golden nuggets." Image: McDonald's

    User @California Sun inquired on Xiaohongshu, "Can you sell these products? I love it. So high-end." “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful,” wrote @Aoi fish on Xiaohongshu.

    McDonald's "ancient Chinese potato." Image: McDonald's
    McDonald's "ancient Chinese potato." Image: McDonald's

    Content, regardless of being AI-generated, spans a broad spectrum of quality. Just as with traditional content, AI creations can range from disappointing to impressive.

    Navigating the evolving landscape

    Brands should consider local attitudes towards AI influencers. The choice between an AI influencer or a digital influencer depends heavily on the region — China versus the US, for example. For international brands, adeptly maneuvering through this varied terrain demands a tailored strategy.

    Understanding regional consumer attitudes and expectations through in-depth research is crucial. Adopting a universal approach to AI content creation might not engage consumers effectively across different cultural landscapes, and could damage a brand’s reputation, especially in the luxury realm.

    In the US, brands could harness AI for crafting personalized product suggestions and curated social media content. Meanwhile, in China, there's an opportunity to tap into the market's excitement by employing AI-driven virtual influencers for brand promotions, aligning with the local audience's greater openness to technological innovations.

    To stand out, brands must make substantial investments in differentiating their offerings, ensuring they resonate with and captivate the target audience's unique preferences and cultural nuances.

    Navigating this evolving landscape requires a deep understanding of consumer preferences, cultural nuances, and ethical considerations. By adopting a strategic and differentiated approach, brands can leverage the power of AI to create meaningful connections with consumers across the globe.

    Chen says, "Sometimes the problem is the idea, not the tool used to convey it."

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