Opinion

How can brands reach China’s ‘Slash Generation’?

Prophet’s Tom Doctoroff on how brands can appeal to the post-95s in China: a generation comfortable with multiple roles and identities but not immune to age-old contradictions and societal tensions that make them apprehensive about the future

Several forces have expanded the Post-95 generation’s world view in China. The country now boasts a generation that embraces multidimensional identities and paths for the future.

The youth refuse to be confined to a narrow set of interests. They refer to themselves as the “slash generation.” According to a survey conducted by Ctrip, the online travel portal, 85% of Post-90s believe a “modern person should have a multitude of interests.” Their role models are people who have achieved just that: Ji Lingchen is a Taobao brand creator/reality TV star/hip hop song writer.

Li Jingchen

The explosion of possible passions combined with the ease of forging online communities has transformed social engagement. Small “tribes” of individuals who share similar niche interests — street culture, bodybuilding, hardcore gaming, gay choristers, cosplayers — have blossomed.

Acceptance of non-conformist pursuits has shaped the Post-95s’ view of the future. So, too, has the burgeoning of careers that did not exist a few years ago — for example, UX designers, data scientists, short film directors and cloud service analysts. For now at least, the new generation eschews “conventional” definitions of success and dulled-out corporate hierarchies.

But then looks are deceiving.

In China, everything is a means to an end, and requires a payoff, now or in the future. Experiences aren’t simply enjoyed.

Passions need to be converted into social currency that lubricates forward advancement. Broad societal endorsement from parents, teachers and classmates is becoming less important than acknowledgement from “the people that matter”: members of the same sub-tribes.

For instance, Xu, an independent traveller, says: “My friends and I learn from each other’s experiences so we can plan for an even better trip next time.”

Multidimensional passions and a broad worldview are spoken of as “tools” in “the toolbox of life,” skills or “weaponry” that can be deployed to overcome unexpected hurdles.

No cultural revolutions

China is still a conventional society in which Confucian patriarchic values rule. Western individualism — the encouragement of people to define themselves independent of society — has not and will not take root.

Across practically all realms of China’s cultural landscape, regimentation reigns. Overt rebellion is still a one-way ticket to the Land of Outcasts.

In 2019, the Communist Party’s propaganda is more heavy-handed than ever. Corporate hierarchies remain rigid. China’s memorisation-driven education system has not been reformed.

Success is still rooted in relationships (guanxi) as much as individual initiative. The well-connected and monied gao fu shuai (tall, rich and handsome) and bai fu mei (pale, rich and beautiful) have infinitely more opportunities than ordinary folk.

The persistence of anxiety

The Post-95’s, the oldest of whom are still in their early to mid-twenties, have not fully entered “the system.” However, China’s unbroken top-down rigidity results in two dimensions of uncertainty — one structural, the other psychological.

Stability is not taken for granted. The country has not yet shifted from an investment and export-led model to one driven by consumption and a mature service sector.

Second, due to the recency of career and lifestyle choices, Post-95’s have few mentors who have thrived over time. Many passions or skills can only be learned online.

All this leads to a new master tension: “I want to do and be what I love, but the path ahead is filled with unknowns.”

Brands that resolve this dilemma by providing tools or encouragement to leap into the unknown will touch the hearts of Post-95s. In order to do that, they must:

Dramatise the now

The Post 90s dream of living their passion, some day. But prospects are limited due to a tradition-bound culture. Marketers should provide immediate emotional release from anxiety of the future by celebrating spontaneity and richness of everyday moments.

Douyin

TikTok, known as Douyin on the Mainland, is a hugely popular social media app for creating and sharing videos, as well live broadcasting. The platform’s 250 million Chinese users, 80% between the ages 18 and 29, are drawn by a rallying cry to “capture beautiful moments.”

Airbnb, ranked 19th in Prophet’s 2018 China Brand Relevance Index, encourages travellers to just “be there” to absorb “music in the air, slow living in a fast city, the simple joy of green.” When venturing to foreign destinations, it invites explorers to “live there…even if just for a night.”

At the end of 2017, Absolut, China’s leading vodka, launched a hundred New Year’s Eve events in a hundred cities by fusing spontaneity with a twist of empowerment. The brand invited consumers to submit concepts to “throw your own party, because now is the time for fun.”

Enable cross-tribe mashups

Given a lack of role models, the appeal of getting to know different “tribes” is one of the only ways to achieve a broadened worldview. Brands, therefore, have an opportunity to encourage “cross-tribe mashups.”

Xianyu, Alibaba’s second hand app, enables user to create “fish ponds” based on various interests and encourage users to join “more groups for more learning.”

WeWork Creator Awards

In China, WeWork, the shared office space which positions itself as a multinational melting pot to young Chinese, has launched the “creator awards” to celebrate “unexpected creations from all walks of life.”

Help consumers forge their own path

Brands can be advocates – empathetic cheer leaders – of taking the leap to do what you love. Powerful stuff in a country that does not reward failure.

Nike pushes even children to define themselves from within: “You think we’re just kids? That we need protection? In your eyes, you expect us to behave. Don’t underestimate us. Don’t call me baby.”

Yuedan, the Chinese version of Task Rabbit, is an online platform that turns sentiment into action — or better still, cold cash. “Video game leveling, shopping curation, emceeing… Monetise yourself!”

Alibaba’s Taobao holds its hugely popular online-to-offline “Makers Festival,” a showcase for millennial entrepreneurs to demonstrate creations and exchange ideas.

Rally the crew

Social currency is still the fuel of forward advancement. Brands can provide platforms to inspire people in like-minded tribes.

Adidas’ “My Girls” campaign invites “super users” to encourage followers to participate in sports, with online and offline events leaders can organise.

Xiao Hong Shu, or Little Book, is an ecommerce site that merchandises upscale goods from around the world. Its social platform enables anyone to be an online opinion leader on any category topic.

Zhihu also allows ordinary folks to attract followers by spreading wisdom. The platform is question-and-answer website. Questions are posed, answered, edited and organised by its community of users, many of whom have amassed significant followings. Mouse Li, for example, has attracted 346,000 followers due to his interest in second-hand auto purchases.

Tom Doctoroff is chief cultural insights officer at marketing consultancy Prophet, and has many years of experience working in Asian markets

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