Changing tastes of consumers: What do Chinese want to buy?

Don't even think you can trick us with big foreign names any longer ...Of course, some of them still insist on big brand names, but it's changing gradually to quality and design...

Many find it strange that the lingerie show by Victoria’s Secret, a headliner wherever it is held, only became a Chinese social media sensation after the model slipped and fell. Most of the discussion on online sites was about the Shanghai model — if she was to be blamed for being unprofessional or praised for standing up and finishing the walk.

TWO videos recently went viral on the Chinese social media — model Ming Xi slipping on the ramp in Shanghai and American businessman Jim Rogers’s teenage daughter reciting an ancient Chinese poem in perfect Mandarin.

The videos reminded me of two questions I often get asked by my foreign friends:

1. How do you feel about China’s changing position in the world?

2. What do Chinese want to buy?

The changing position refers to a variety of aspects as China emerges on the global stage. One of the aspects involves China’s huge consumption power and the growing market of consumers, which brings us to the second question.

What do Chinese want to buy?

It was much simpler five years ago. Stamp your products with terms like “bestseller in the USA or UK” or “Michelin” or “five-star” or “top French quality” and it was sold. It still works in some industries but it is no longer the buzzwords for the younger generation.

The video of the fashion show is an example. Many find it strange that the lingerie show by Victoria’s Secret, a headliner wherever it is held, only became a Chinese social media sensation after the model slipped and fell. Most of the discussion on online sites was about the Shanghai model — if she was to be blamed for being unprofessional or praised for standing up and finishing the walk.

There was no brouhaha about the brand, the show, its new flagship store in Shanghai or its online shop at Alibaba’s Tmall. Things were much different just three or five years ago. The young Chinese then followed the event even though it was held in far away places like London, Paris and New York. They got excited discussing the show, the fantasy bra and the “goddesses.”

“Well, it’s not so hot abroad anymore, so it is only natural that it is not making headlines here as well. We are absolutely in tune with the global trend in every aspect,” said Xu Lu, a 23-year-old online fashion retailer.

“Don’t even think you can trick us with big foreign names any longer. Most of my clients are under 35. Of course, some of them still insist on big brand names, but it’s changing gradually to quality and design. I believe this trend will continue as customers become more sophisticated.”

Back to the first question then — how do you feel about China’s changing position in the world? ºWell, we know now that companies from all industries want to sell to us, especially those with declining revenue in their principal market and which only just started to acknowledge the buying potential of the Chinese.

That includes fashion, medical, fast-moving consumer goods, education, films, and other sectors that cover almost all aspects of one’s life.

I have often been consulted by newcomers to the market on how to create new products that fit the Chinese needs — and often it leads to nothing new. Despite the survey results and my suggestions, most companies think that if they have succeeded in the USA, the United Kingdom, Germany, Africa, Japan with the same product, why not in China?

Localization

Some try to be a bit more tactful — coming up with a Chinese name, changing the package to red or adding a few Chinese characters on the product to suggest that they have adapted to the local tastes. It works for a while, but the new buying consumer are no longer smitten by it.

Show respect, if not for the country or the people, at least for the sake of money if you want to sell here.

The young Chinese, born after 1980, 1990 and 2000, are not so different from their peers around the world. They are not so easily fooled by big names or perfunctory flattering. Many fashion brands try to embrace Chinese elements — or what appeared to be Chinese elements to them, such as the whimsical costumes that looked anything but Chinese at Met Gala 2015, the porcelain patterns so popular with many brands, the bright red identified with China, etc. Most of these efforts only evoke a partial glance than real desire. How can they think that is Chinese? Can they really tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese or even Indian?

Many people also complain about the size and the function that don’t fit Chinese families. For example, many big lingerie brands come in with exactly the same products they sell around the world — simply too big for many Asian women. Some house appliances are built for big houses in the West, not apartments in China. Many foreign friends don’t like Mark Henry Rowswell, perhaps the best-known foreigner in the country. They often ask, why is he so popular? Just because he speaks good Chinese?

Yes and no.

He speaks fluent Chinese and continues to learn about contemporary China, which shows his respect for the local culture and the people. Just like Rogers’ viral video that won over millions of Chinese. Well, Rogers did say young people should learn Mandarin!

The Rogers’s video led many to joke that “I am so ashamed my pronunciation is much worse than that little girl,” or “Trump is probably interviewing a new Chinese tutor for his granddaughter.”

The American co-founder of Quantum Fund left New York for Singapore ten years ago, and has since said repeatedly that part of the reason for his move was to get his daughter to learn Mandarin.

Many Chinese thought he was being polite or even a bit flattering before they saw the video. At a recent investor’s forum, Rogers said that Mandarin was important to learn and and showed a video of his daughter Happy speaking Mandarin. Ten years of bilingual education in Singapore has made her Mandarin pronunciation impeccable — with eyes closed, one would not be able to tell it came from a foreigner.

Many foreigners think that the Chinese are inadequately informed in the world due to a variety of reasons, most of it related to language. Well, for one, most of the information out there are translated, posted and well-read on the Chinese social media platforms, while only a subjectively selected fraction of what’s happening in China is reported abroad. Actually, only those that fit the pre-assumptions are read widely.

It may sound strange, but the wall is much taller and thicker on the other side — we definitely know much more about the world than the other way around.

So what do we want, especially when international brands are stripped off of their glamour and “Made in China” labels are getting more competitive at home and abroad?

Many Chinese and foreign marketing experts like using the example of KFC when talking about foreign brands in China. When the fast-food franchise opened its first store in Beijing in 1987, people dressed up to dine there, while young couples, considering it a fancy foreign restaurant, even held their wedding ceremonies there.

Times have changed.

Earlier this year, another fast-food franchise McDonald sold the majority stake of its China operations to a Chinese financial firm, which registered a new Chinese name “Golden Arches,” and has since announced a new plan focusing on high-end hamburgers and digital services.


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