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Julien LapkaCo-CEOFlamingo Shanghai
Julien Lapka, co-CEO of brand and cultural consultancy Flamingo Shanghai, spoke to eMarketer’s Man-Chung Cheung about young adults’ activities—digital and otherwise—in China, and their attitudes about marketing.
eMarketer: Everything has transformed so quickly in China in the past 40 years. Prior to that, many consumption habits simply did not exist. How has recent history shaped the way China’s Post-90s generation approach digital devices and content compared to their counterparts in the West?
[Editor’s Note: China’s Post-90s generation is generally delineated as people born between 1990 and 1999. They are the second generation in China to grow up as only children and the first to do so in the post-Tiananmen era. They have a reputation for being more digitally savvy and consumerist than older generations.]
Julien Lapka: If all you’ve ever known is that your country is constantly in flux, and that’s how you perceive the world around you from day one, you’re actually going to become much more adaptable, much more flexible, and have a greater willingness to experiment with all the new things that are coming into the market. Partially because [the market] used to have very limited sets of goods and services, you’re obviously quite curious to see all of these new brands, products and lifestyles that are coming into the country.
The mindset that has developed is that newness is exciting. Newness means that you are progressing. That’s really making people take chances and crave new things. And that kind of mindset is not found in the West.
eMarketer: Do people in China trust brands more?
Lapka: There’s much less pushback in terms of ideas about security or ideas about identity theft. Questions that people might raise in the West don’t necessarily occur here.
People here are also much more [trusting] of larger, mainstream brands. Obviously, anything that’s sponsored by the government will be seen with skepticism. Brand messages will be seen as having been filtered through a set of quality checks, if you will.
Now that’s not to say that people will just blindly follow what brands tell them. The Post-90s generation has been overly marketed to by both domestic and foreign companies. They know when they are looking at brand content. But there’s a greater receptiveness, and perhaps a little more trust. It’s quite different from the West, where you have broader sets of print, TV and media that people can choose from.
eMarketer: How does the Post-90s generation feel about digital media?
Lapka: People in China are much more willing to adapt new technology and to bring it into their lives because they haven’t necessarily had to go through this technological development from the clunky modem, to the desktop, to the laptop, to the mobile.
You can think of digital content in the West as actually narrowing your world. If you just think about your Facebook feed, for example, you have befriended most likely likeminded people, so people that will share similar political or world views. So, often what gets shared in your Facebook feed in the US is a mirror of the way you think. And so people get their word views constantly reinforced in digital media because you are opting into what you believe in, and you’re opting out of what you don’t believe in.
That’s the complete opposite in China, where people want to actually opt in to a lot of the ideas and ways of doing things that are different. There’s a tremendous thirst for seeing different ways of approaching, say, motherhood, and different ways of looking at the broader world.
The way that people in China interact with things is they look at a much broader set of information, and then make their own sense out of it. Digital tends to act much more as a journey of discovery, where people are actually very willing to tap into and follow a set of brands and organizations that actually offer different points of views.
eMarketer: Recently, the media mentioned a lot about the younger generation in China taking up sports and living a healthier lifestyle. Is that true based on your observations?
Lapka: In the realm of sports and health, I think it’s perhaps not as rampant, since being able to do sports is relatively limited compared to the West.
There is pressure coming from teachers and from parents for their kids to concentrate on studies, to concentrate on the accumulation of knowledge. Spending time and getting into sports is still seen as a distraction from all of the knowledge gathering meant to prepare you to succeed in life.
There’s often a bigger link in China between sports and the idea of being mentally prepared and mentally alert.
eMarketer: Can you recall some of the more interesting campaigns that a sports brand has done incorporating some of the elements you mention?
Lapka: Brands like Nike have created campaigns that depict women who get into sports and go to the gym as gaining inner strength, this mental toughness that prepares them to combat daily pressures, to combat work stress and to really succeed in life.
Sports is viewed as something to showcase your progressiveness, your internationalism, your modernity within the context of growing up in a big Chinese city. So going to the gym has much more social significance.
eMarketer: In what ways has the WeChat phenomenon changed Chinese consumers’ expectations of brands?
Lapka: From a branding perspective and from a service perspective, WeChat is increasingly being used as a means to offer customer service in a manner that’s more timely, efficient and consistent. For example, Ctrip, one of the biggest online travel agents in China, has started a WeChat client service account where you can speak directly to an agent.
Another trend is for smaller, grassroots brands of entrepreneurial Post-90s people to create, very easily and cheaply, a community of, say, 4,000 or 5,000 people on WeChat within a very short time. They are building these communities in the hopes of seeding and selling their own products.
This [community-building around a startup] will change the way that people think about brands. This trend signals the beginning of a shift where people will no longer solely want to buy into the big, known brands, but actually start to explore these smaller, homegrown brands that are being created and disseminated through WeChat.
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