China has risen from developing nation status to second place in the global GDP rankings in just a decade. The resulting improved living standards and greater spending by Chinese consumers has proven a tremendous opportunity for both local Chinese and global brands. These developments were also a shock to China’s system as its own citizens sometimes struggled to keep up with the pace. Just who are Chinese consumers? What are their lives like and what are they looking for? These are the questions China’s Evolving Consumers attempts to answer. It does so, and with some success, by lifting the lid on other aspects of their lives.
The “8 Intimate Portraits” of the subtitle are vivid descriptions of well-chosen types of modern Chinese city-dwellers, written by co-authors of various backgrounds—Chinese nationals, foreigners, women, men, academics and market researchers. The chapter subjects are as diverse as the contributors and provide the different perspectives needed to put together the puzzle of urban residents in China and their purchasing patterns. The book offers insights for marketers entering or exploring China for the first time as well as for those who want a better understanding of the average Chinese urbanite. The chapters are clearly presented, explained in detail, and often from an accessible personal perspective.
The first chapter, “Wealthy and Evolving, ‘Tuhao’”, explores the tuhao phenomenon: those who suddenly gained wealth in a short time, particularly during the early days of market reform and often by sheer luck or suspect means. The term tuhao is derogatory and refers to people who purchase luxury items but have more money than taste. Thrust into their new status, many opted for ostentatious and tacky displays of wealth that involved well-known international brands as a visible signal to others of their “class”.
This chapter is particularly relevant to luxury brands. These individuals are their potential customers, but marketers need to look at their behavior more closely. Contributor Sacha Cody notes that tuhao consumers are often originally from lower social classes, live outside China’s first-tier cities; their wealth is in large part due to entrepreneurial opportunities that arose from Deng’s economic reforms. Their conspicuous displays of consumption are influenced by these factors; tuhao individuals are proud to display their wealth and are impervious to criticism. Is this a form of insecurity or a lack of real satisfaction? Are these displays just attempts to grab attention and spur envy in others? This chapter helps the reader better understand the world of these complicated consumers.
Ashok Sethi’s chapter,“Young, Urban Couples”, discusses Chinese millennials who, more educated and open-minded compared to previous generations, show strong similarities to those in other countries. These couples value quality and are willing to spend yet still retain traditional principles of duty, hard work and respect for their elders. They particularly value education as the gateway to a successful career. The young couple cited in the book, Li Qiang and Wang Li, show modernity in the way their intensive consumption is focused on investing in their daughter. Li Qiang “shepherds her daughter from piano classes to English classes” daily while staying alert to any new products/services that promise to help her daughter’s intellectual and physical development and give her a competitive edge.
Few publications have gotten to both the heart and the nuances of the real issues facing successful single women in China. I therefore enjoyed how Annie Fang explores the social, cultural and emotional factors in their lives as well as the pressures they face in a modern yet traditional society.
From early childhood, the one-child policy, parental expectations and a traditional education system that focused on memorization, achievement and constantly measured progress, have fostered their competitive drive. Angela, the pseudonym of a typical “post-80s” woman born to factory workers in Shanghai, is one of two women profiled in detail in this chapter. Angela’s story reveals how this environment led her to success, but also to an inability to nurture and sustain relationships, resulting in multiple breakups, with an inevitable impact on her standards for the men in her life. She’s only impressed if a man is more successful than her, ideally being in corporate upper management or a CEO. She must deal with societal contradictions and double standards, such as prizing success and career while attaching negative labels to successful career women, which also contributes to her anxieties and concerns.
This newly emerging segment of the market has sophisticated demands and is becoming a powerful intellectual force in society. My own takeaway is that brands should market with messages of empowerment and inspiration as they support these women to continue doing what they’re doing.
One successful campaign cited in the book did exactly that. Lancôme launched a campaign featuring a well-known TV character that many successful single women already identify with. The campaign not only showed her vulnerable side but also that she did not have to hide it and it could be used as a source of strength. Many women related to these messages of empowerment and the campaign established a strong connection with an entire group of female consumers.
These selections, however, give only a partial view of the book. There are a total of nine contributions from ten authors, including an overview by editor Tom Nunlist. The book’s minor drawbacks—an unevenness of tone and a somewhat different approach from chapter to chapter—result from this structure. Although statistics, anecdotes and interview responses are valuable, each chapter has a different proportion of each, making some more convincing or compelling than others. The chapter “Modern Chinese Mothers”, for example, is written by an insider in a very meaningful, personal way about her own situation. The book however doesn’t feel like a textbook or a study and as a result, information about the preoccupations, aspirations, fears, worries, hopes and challenges of various groups is transferred organically.
China’s Evolving Consumers: 8 Intimate Portraits is one of the most comprehensive recent publications on the subject of Chinese consumers. Marketers and business owners can use its insights to identify the various types of consumers in the Chinese market and walk in their shoes.