Alex Wilson
Nov 19, 2014

China: Branding the intersections

It's time for brands to move beyond polarised ways of thinking, especially about China. Instead they should focus on the in-between spaces, writes Flamingo's Alex Wilson.

Alex WIlson
Alex WIlson

Editor's note: This article is part of a series revolving around the concept of brands as intersections.

Throughout this series, we’ve explored and evinced how the theme of ‘intersections’ can offer a kind of liberation for brand managers—via a mental re-framing, or a new spatialisation of what a brand is. This intersections theme marks an exciting opening-up process, in which brands no longer rely on established shorthands, but take on new, more refined and nuanced meanings.

This article is about intersections as a way of thinking within branding strategy, and how it can lead to enrichment in the way we work—especially in the context of China, where I feel we’ve become overly reliant on a conceptual model of ‘polarisations and opposition’ at the behest of exploring the ‘in-between’ in more depth.

The broader advertising industry (particularly my own branch, insights and strategy) has long considered that the world operates in oppositions. At times this has influenced what might seem like, to a normal person, peculiar distinctions in the way we organise ourselves, or evaluate our own ideas (digital versus traditional, online versus offline, functional versus emotional, comprehension as a measure of creativity, etc.)

Perhaps the most frequent commitment to our dualistic worldview plays out most dramatically across the everyday conceptual frameworks we use to create and develop our thinking—and the very structures through which we express our insights about people, brands and cultures.

As an industry captivated by the allure of transformation, we’re of course inclined to revel in the possibility of ‘the next big thing’, so we use these oppositions because they serve as convenient framing devices. This allows us to deal with big concepts—people, culture, and brands—in terms of shifts. Oppositional thinking allows us to make quick and clear comparisons across time and space. There’s also obviously a strong case for simplicity, which we’ve come to accept as the ultimate factor when thinking about and presenting an idea.

Think of the familiar trends presentation at a conference, with a slide showing how the world has moved ‘from’ one state ‘to’ another (a change we frame as both discontinuous and dramatic).

Think about the agency planning deck that seeks to resolve a tension between two opposites as the basis for a creative idea. Whilst for the stronger creative agencies this reconciliation can lead to brilliant ideas and work, we regularly end up working with mixed-metaphor creative work that simply restates the original problem/solution type contradictions, eschewing the creative fertility of exploring the ‘tension’ itself.

I find a few issues with this mode of thinking. I feel our insistence on thinking in such binary terms—or at a minimum our overreliance on the overused 'polar opposites' that frame our thinking—lends a laziness to our work and our assumptions about a culture.

At best, we seek an inspiring alchemy and epiphany from reconciling two conflicting ideas. But what often happens is the point of confluence—the intersection in the middle—becomes more of a quick intellectual shortcut, an oversimplification or a paradoxical mess.

It’s in this context, in China, where we see stark and misguided comparisons between collectivism versus individualism, urban versus rural and so on.

The (international) news media is a prime culprit for visualising China in terms of extremities and dichotomies. Just think of recurrent visual motifs in news editorial features—multiple order and structure versus individual disorder and chaos, traditional buildings juxtaposed against skyscrapers, or the boom/bust narratives of the financial press.

Because China itself is diverse and unwieldy as a place and a concept, because it’s so resolutely modern in the way it refuses a fixed history or a comprehensible narrative of the future, it’s easier to be more sensational and ‘black and white’ than to explore the complexity of a story.

In our industry, we cherish simplicity of concept. But I'd argue we should not in the case where it becomes regressive or reductive to cultural understanding. And our industry is often guilty of the latter.

Interrogating the zeitgeist

Working in China, I’m confounded by the number of agencies (across research, advertising and—perhaps most alarmingly—innovation and ‘trends’ agencies) that espouse a singular view on the culture as a tension between tradition versus modernity.

As an observation, it’s beyond obvious to anyone who walks around an Asian metropolis; as a strategy, it’s equally ambivalent. We tend to spend little time articulating (or seeking to prove) what our point of view on that ‘space between’ tradition and modernity actually is.

When we rely on polarisations to drive our thinking, we remain too fixed on the extremes to guide our answers. Our natural cognitive responses are to compromise, and so we end up with conceptual compromises. We too readily re-frame ‘the future as the past’ via awkward neologisms such as ‘neo-traditionalism’, or we overindulge in the ‘nostalgic’ as an easy appeal to sentimentality. We turn out ugly terms like ‘Confucian innovation’ and everyone’s favourite for describing design trends—‘a fusion of tradition and modernity’. Our lack of drive to explore and articulate the space in-between seems like a growing crisis, and one that’s increasingly important for brands in the luxury sphere that can successfully talk about contemporary themes of status, craftsmanship and progress with relevance and distinction to a Chinese audience.

We often lack the language to verbalise and the time to explore what our zeitgeist means, but I think it’s an important consideration—and one we should commit to defining with more purpose—to develop our own epistemology.

As an example, over the past few years, we’ve been intrigued by the critical theory of metamodernism as a useful one for understanding the Asian zeitgeist—precisely because it’s based upon exploring the ‘oscillation between two poles’. Whilst another 'meta' or an in-between idea doesn’t lead us any more concrete answers, it inspires us to push our thinking further overall.

There is a need to define what a culture is from within—not to define it merely by an opposition to others, or a conflation of itself. And we owe more time to the exploration of the zeitgeist than is currently on offer.

Defining the audience(s)

Marketers’ obsession of dealing with China’s generations as ‘discontinuous’ and ‘in-opposition’ to each other is great for a balanced PowerPoint chart. But it equally leads to exaggeration and overreaction, which fail to recognise the subtle negotiations and gentle overlaps between age groups.

As the post-'90s generation becomes ‘the’ audience for brands to connect with, we find a lot of understanding around this group is mired by an ‘us versus them’ analysis. This is more representative of how older people may relate to younger people than a true exploration of what a generation thinks and feels.

Experimentation, individuality, expression—these are all clichéd labels that overshadow who the memebrs of the post-'90s generation are. They hold truth, but feel like a starting point rather than an answer, given such attributes are as much rooted in the typical life stage of any generation, as symbolic of a specific generation within a specific culture.

In a recent study we worked to explore this generation, and concluded that in many aspects of life, post-'90s took a far less extreme view toward their preceding generations than many youth/trends agencies would like to purport. Consequentially, they are a generation more complex and nuanced than advertisers and brands frequently depict them. In sum, by exploring the grey-area—the middle-seam and the intersection—we arrived at a much more complete set of opportunities for our client across communications, new-product development and even new business models.

As with the generations issue, the audiences in our research and insight briefs have become looser. We frequently see broad allusions to ‘China’s emerging middle class’ as a targe—a casual catch-all term. We need to think smarter and longer in order to define, prove and understand such nebulous audiences. We need new lexicons for the ‘middle,’ so to speak.

And there’s creativity in those intersections. Gender is a topic that’s poorly served by tensions between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’—namely because mothers, for example, don’t want to make choices between the modern spicy mum versus the traditional loving mum. They want both.

So the intersection becomes a highly contested space—not one where we merely re-articulate the tension as a bit of this and a bit of that, but one where we need to negotiate multiple messages, visuals and meanings to land on a nuanced cultural idea. We previously worked on the idea of a woman as polymath for a client—which allowed us to dial up a panoply of characteristics of modern women across various communications. In this case, to give meaning and nuances to the spaces between created more opportunities than the compromises or platitudes from the extremes.

With the limited scope of an opinion piece in check, how can we summarise how intersections serve as a useful thinking device for branding strategists in China? What are some of the applications?

There are continuous themes where I see insights struggle to articulate the contemporary Chinese audience and their values—where oppositional shortcuts trump intersectional nuances. In travel, the distinction between group versus independent travellers; in luxury, the status versus knowledge dichotomy; in retail, questions around online versus offline. All of these areas feel ripe for new lexicons, ways of thinking and articulation.

Alex Wilson is a co-founder director at Flamingo Shanghai


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