Mary Bergstrom
Jun 13, 2012

BOOK EXCERPT: Clicking with the 'post-90s' in China, without alienating other generations

The Bergstrom Group, an insights consultancy focused on 'new China', has published a book titled "All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth", by Mary Bergstrom. The excerpt below looks at how and why young people born after 1990 think and behave—and how one Chinese marketer learned a hard lesson from being overly targeted.

BOOK EXCERPT: Clicking with the 'post-90s' in China, without alienating other generations

Numbering over 200 million, the post-90s are the second generation of only children and the first to be born into an already open and established society. Raised by the post-70s, the post-90s are more confident than the post-80s and prize speaking up and acting out in ways that were previously unheard of in China.

Many have criticized this generation for growing up without hardship and introducing negative elements like public displays of sexuality and violence to society. The generation has been dubbed the Jelly Generation (colorful but lacking substance).

Coming of age as China reinvents itself from manufacturer to innovator, the post-90s are more confident and eager to leave their independent mark. As change agents who draw outside the lines, the post-90s see the world that the post-80s created as out of date.

The opinions of others matter less to the post-90s, who have established a powerful insularity by introducing non-mainstream subcultures to China. By adopting new, smaller subcultures, the post-90s have drawn a wider boundary for behavior. Casual sex? OK. Skipping college? Possibly.

For the post-90s, the world has shifted from black or white, yes or no, to a big bag of possibilities. Not intimidated by taking their own path, the post-90s have earned a reputation for rebellion that can often test society’s patience. Their attitudes and behaviors put pressure on society’s notions of public versus private, and personal expression versus group responsibility. By uploading videos of their own amateur sex scenes and of physical bullying in school, the post-90s are creating a new dialogue about morality.

The post-90s are described in more neutral terms like “unconventional” and “carefree,” but are also tethered to more a negative reputation that rests on the post-90s’ notoriety for going against the grain. Many resent the post-90s’ attention-grabbing antics and technology-amped lifestyle.

“Post-90s are bastards. They are looking for too much stimulation, and they are way too crazy, too open-minded.”
—Lexie, Shanghai, a post-80s (research conducted by The Bergstrom Group, 2009)

Not intimidated by others’ judgments, the post-90s have defended their rights to express their individuality and are proud of being unique. Born into a society that had already accepted the notion of youth as leaders, the post-90s imported a new level of daring to go against societal norms and create a new non-mainstream.

Along with prizing the hunt for options and fostering the new value of individualized style, the post-90s were raised in an era that took previously private behavior public. As an outcome of their increased wealth, access to information, and individualism, the post-90s were more comfortable with public exhibition (including sex, violence, and dissent) than preceding generations. Online and on the streets, the post-90s are strutting fresh ideas in the face of old ones. While the post-80s drove the notion of status and consumption, the post-90s provided a public relations campaign for rebellion.

By embracing a “dare to do” mantra, Li Ning’s initial expressions of the “Make the Change” campaign were targeted to the post-90s. Copy that read “Post-90s Li Ning” overtly linked the message with the generation, and the expressions were implicitly targeted as well. Television spots showing a dark, artistic montage of athletes from around the world talking about their personal goals and not wanting to be judged by others was meant to resonate with a generation in search of independence and redemption.

Unfortunately, because of the competition between generations, taking a stance that visibly emphasized the post-90s risked alienating post-70s and post-80s customers. After the repositioning, Li Ning’s Baidu forum saw some members shaking their fists that the brand never truly cared about their generation. In their estimation, Li Ning had served them a double whammy: the brand had aligned with a generation they thought little of, and their own generations had not been addressed. They felt that the Chinese sports brand—their brand—had offended and damaged them personally.

“My first feeling [after seeing the ad] was heartbreak, which then turned into shame. Li Ning deeply hurt the innocent post-80s consumers. Last year, I spent 300 RMB to buy a pair of Li Ning sport pants. To afford them, I had to have instant noodles for dinner for a week. . . . Now, how can post-80s go out wearing these products?”
—GG, a post-80s

“Even though I only wear Adidas and Nike shoes, I insist on buying a pair of Li Ning to support the national brand. Every time I go abroad, I wear Li Ning to show foreigners that we Chinese trust Li Ning. But after seeing the ‘Post-90s Li-Ning’ campaign, I will not support the brand anymore.”
—Yihao, a post-80s

Li Ning learned the lesson quickly and moved “Make The Change” away from an anthem dedicated to the post-90s to a campaign that had resonance for youth across generations. As Frank Chen, chief marketing officer of Li Ning, clarifies, “There was a disconnect between the positioning and the creative expression of that positioning. To successfully target youth, a brand can be perceived as youthful if the tone and manner of the communication stirs their emotions, not by simply telling them you are their brand. They will tell you if you are post-90s or not—not you telling them.” Li Ning learned a valuable lesson in subtlety and in creating a message with implied (not explicit) meaning.

For brands, targeting the generations can be a trap. Overtly communicating with post-80s can mean seeming out of touch with post-90s, while tapping into post-90s can mean alienating post-80s. While youth primarily identify with the decade into which they were born, some also feel and exhibit alignment with other generations (these jumps can happen in under five years). While youth and the media expound on these differences, marketers need to be careful about overtly targeting one generation at the expense of another. Each generation sees itself as separate—and superior.

The above excerpt from All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth  appears with the kind permission of the publisher, Palgrave Macmillan.

Campaign China

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