Recently some of the younger people in my company were talking about brands they buy. No surprise there. But then their conversation led to talking about which Brands they did not buy and why. They used the Chinese word “Tu” to described these undesirable brands — ”Tu” a Chinese word often used to describe a country bumpkin, an old-timer who is behind in the times, or just something a little low-brow or crass.
I asked these brand-savvy Chinese colleagues to list for me the brands they could think of that fit their description of ”Tu”. Here is what they came up with:
Now this list is in no way compiled by any scientific method, nor is it complete, and perhaps there are some brands that wouldn”t be included by all youths of the same generation. But it is just one example by some youth in China of brands they call “Tu”. Brands that are still popular with other (older) generations.
There are two reasons why I can see this happening:
1) First mover luxury brands that gain a bad reputation for being first movers in a developing country
This almost seems counter-intuitive, as we have been taught that first-mover advantage typically means domination of the marketplace, which all things being equal, is usually true. But things aren”t equal. First-mover brands can easily fall out of favour with very little brand equity given to being first in market.
Some people would guess that this generation”s distain for these brands may come from a reaction to differentiate, reject or rebel against the brands that are identified with their parents. This phenomenon is seen time and again in developed countries like America. However, this is mainly not the case in China. As I have learned from Mary Bergstrom, a China Youth expert, most kids today help their parents select the brands that they buy. Household consumption is a concertive effort.
Then if it is not an act of rebellion to their parental generation, what then? Discussing with my young colleagues, I get the sense this phenomenon is more a reaction to something I call ”New-Money Syndrome”: As experienced in rapidly developing countries, individuals & families instantly finding themselves wealthy often-times try to ”buy” status and taste, as an expression of their wealth and accomplishments. The over-extension/abuse of this action is what I call ”New-Money Syndrome”. The First-Mover brands came into China at the exact time to become the object of desire, the love affair of the ”First-Monied” generation and became the hallmark brands associated with ”New-Money Syndrome”. We””ve all seen this syndrome in the flesh; people dressed head to toe in brand logos for the sake of the brands and less attention paid to how the clothing matches. Today”s China and today”s Youth have grown up in a world where the ”New-Money Syndrome” has been an ever-present reality for a long time. Now, these young Chinese consumers are more sophisticated, needing individuality while still buying brands for their quality, but assigning brand value a new meaning, and using brands to reach different objectives.
So did First-Mover Brands make the wrong decision entering China early because they did not foresee the negative reaction to the current stigma of being the ”New-Money Syndrome” brand? Is it better to delay market-entry to be a brand that stands with the second wave of reactionary, ”value”-driven consumer generation?
Having thought through these questions, I would answer for myself No, it is still better to be the first-mover brand in a developing marketplace. Here””s why:
a) First-Mover Brands get all the revenue from the ”First-Monied” generation b) First-Mover Brands still have perceived value within the reactionary generation c) Branding is a fluid thing, brands disdained today can be turned around and loved tomorrow. There is always the next generation counter-reacting against the current reactionary generation.
Here is the second reason why I believe brands are being called ”Tu” by the current Youth in China:
2) ”Tu” Brands entered into China simply trying to replicate what worked in other countries, without localizing to the norms and intricacies of the Chinese market. This strategy is now met with negative reactions from a generation that demands localization and a form of communication they appreciate.
The Chinese Youth place brands in the same realm as the rest of their constructed world: as interactive relationships. Chinese Youth treat brands as they treat the numerous ”Wang You” (Net Friends) that they have. These Net Friends remain faceless (or have make-believe personas aka avatars), and many may never meet face to face in person. The Chinese Youth is grounded in a blending of virtual and real relationships and conversations. Chinese Youth perceive brands in exactly the same context and hold the same expectations: a brand must be an identity, a real relationship, a conversation.
Pepsi engaging Chinese Youth Gamers (Pictures from Printeresting.com, China.org.cn)
I had two very enlightening conversations recently specific to the issue of Youth Marketing. One was with Graham Brown of MobileYouth and Lisa Li of China Youthology (you can hear the conversation as an online TV or radio broadcast here and here). The second conversation was with Mary Bergstrom of Begstrom Trends, another China Youth research specialist at Omnicom & Fudan University”s Executive Digital Marketing training course, Digital:Works. Both Lisa Li and Mary Bergstrom on their own pointed to the important insight that China Youth were becoming much more vocal and widespread in their support for causes such as environmentalism, nationalism, and specific rights issues. As we discussed further for elaboration, the same conclusion from Lisa Li and Mary Bergstrom was the same: the proliferation of new media and the ability to communicate simultaneously one-to-one and one-to-many has allowed China”s Youth to realize that they, as an en-mass group, have the ability to make their collective voice heard. An example of this can be seen in the “Love China” phenomenon preceding the Olympics. It is of profound importance that this generation of Chinese Youth feel like they have an outlet for expression, a factor that earlier Chinese generations did not enjoy. Leaving aside the question of how and why China Youth are taking up personal causes, this observation illustrates that China Youth have an intrinsic need to be interactive with the issues and influencers around them.
This brings us back to the brand question of why some brands are perceived as ”Tu” and others not. Brands that do not understand how to engage China”s Youth — an interactive, communicative, co-creative generation — will ultimately come across as out of touch, stale, and immobile. Active brands must seek out the local influencers of today”s Youth generation. Brands must take their identity and go to the topics and issues that China”s Youth are already concerned with. Brands cannot sit and wait for China”s Youth to come to them, because China”s Youth will pass them by, on their way to those brands that are meeting the youth on their level. Perhaps having difficulties engaging in two-way conversations is a curse of Early Entrant brands. They were so successful marketing to the older, “First-Monied” generation — a generation that only needed direct, one-way brand statements — that these Early Entrant brands have not grasped the communication and branding demands of the new generation. Now their brand is paying the price, and being called ”Tu” by today””s Chinese Youth generation as a result.