The battle for hearts in minds in China is being fought on the screens of local millennials, a space they may spend up to eight hours a day engrossed in.
As a recent participant in one of our ethnographic studies in Chongqing spelt out: “If a brand is not on my phone, how the hell would it ever enter my life.”
Talking about 'millennials' as a demographic is problematic since the globally accepted terms falls out as three separate groups – post 80s, post 90s and post-95s – who would struggle to find a mutual topic in common.
However, when examining that substantial part of the day when their heads are in their phones, we notice a common psychology informs their mobile browsing.
To escape or to self-educate
Browsing motivation is increasingly divided between two worlds – the desire to escape and the desire to self-educate.
The first is a response to the hyper-competitive environment local millennials have inherited. In the context of office drudgery, bossy bosses and crushing commutes, social media is quite simply a way to escape.
This is experienced through gaming, immersion, and dreaming. Replacing the real with the imagined for as long your life and phone will allow.
The second response is about self-development, acquiring knowledge and experience that allow you to grow as a person. This is part personal identity, part professional survival.
In our immersive work around China, we have noticed local millennials are from their early-20s determined to ‘be in the know’ so they can come across as worldly, knowledgeable and reliable to others. To capture the social dynamics behind this, we have termed this Guanxi 2.0 (guanxi is the traditional social networks that inform business in China).
Self-education through mobile browsing is experienced through long-form content, videos from experts, shared content from like-mindeds, and Q&A forums.
So brands, how do you present yourselves – a form of escape or inspiration?
With Chinese millennials time on their phones emotionally divided between these two imperatives – an essential question for brands is which are you primarily align with?
Looking at the content of brands on WeChat, we can see that most are trying communicate escape and education at the same time.
Without naming names, it typically takes the form of presenting a romantic and aspiration brand communication with the tonality of strict school teacher – escape, but you must know everything our rules first.
To borrow the thinking of Carl Jung, brands typically present themselves as both a “magician” and “sage” at the same time, and often in the same post.
In a reality where local millennials are bombarded with branded content, the tendency to swipe rather than click-through is the norm.
To create cut-through it is essential for brands to ‘make a call’ on what is being offered, a momentary escape or a chance to improve. Capturing this psychological impulse will present the opportunity to have a more sustained and meaningful conversation with them overtime.
So remember that for so many of millennial consumers in China, social media is their first exposure to your brand. Make sure you mark out which side of the divide you sit.
A source of escape or self-improvement?
To create initial cut-through, it cannot be both.