When we look at advertising in China today, it is not hard at all to come across images like a family gathering around the dining table, a mother acting as a gatekeeper in purchasing for the family, a young boy happily sharing snacks and drinks with his father, filial children offering gifts to parents and many more.
Effective as this type of advertising may be in using family as a backdrop or a consuming and decision-making unit in brand communication, much more could be done to maximize the importance of family in marketing.
Opportunities in what I call ‘family marketing’ lie in two areas: using family as an emotional anchor in brand advertising, and leveraging the hidden family dynamics in brand purchase.
Brands must identify and be able to respond to cultural values as well as certain deep-seated, emotional and spiritual needs in order to build strong connections with consumers. This can be done by highlighting the importance of family. During the last 20 years of my research career in China, I have noted some exemplar TV commercials which were fondly recalled when I spoke to consumers about great advertising campaigns.
One such commercial was an ad made by Diao Pai (雕牌) detergent in 2000. People called it the ‘helping mom wash clothes ad,’ because it depicted a boy helping his unemployed mother wash clothes while she went out searching for job. This touching ad caught the consumers’ attention, and sales of the detergent skyrocketed, taking it to No. 2 in the market after achieving a significant brand share growth.
Another example was Coca-Cola’s Chinese New Year ad showing how the brand took Liu Xiang home for a reunion dinner. Although many celebrities had been featured in Coke ads before, it was this one, with the focus on family, that really struck a chord with consumers and evoked their emotions. Successful advertisements like these are not only using family as a backdrop, the advertising message is anchored in family values that are deeply embedded in Chinese culture.
Today, there’s lots of talk about the growing “individualisation” of Chinese people, especially the younger generation. We have to remember, however, that individualism in China is sheltered under the umbrella of a family. Individuals hardly isolate their identities from other members in a family. Those born under the one-child policy may be often criticized for being selfish and not knowing how to share, but that does not apply at the family level. The one-child policy has the effect of gluing members more tightly together as a unit than ever before. The reality is parents devote their energies and resources to their child, who in return has a duty later on to care for the ageing parents.
The influence of the family is greater in China than many other countries. For example, the mother often acts as gatekeeper, brand endorser, or doting provider when buying and consuming products. So, what are the hidden dynamics of purchase decision-making and consumption that determine a strategy that realises the potential of family marketing?
A three-generation Chinese family is so close-knit they may share a communal pool of money—a unique Chinese characteristic. Each person tends to influence other family members during the buying process and cross-purchase for one another. In fact, children have become the biggest influencers of all given their exposure to information through technology; they are considered the experts for some areas, such as consumer electronics. As such, parents teach their children about how to spend and where to invest at an early age.
Family time is often spent watching TV, which gives everyone the chance to discuss brands and learn about one another’s wishes and needs as they are inspired by the advertising on television. We have learnt through research that one of the biggest aspirations of people, irrespective of age, is to improve the living standard of the family. Children as young as seven or eight tell us their aspiration is to make money so that they can improve the standard of living for their parents. Young working adults say their aspiration is to take their parents to travel overseas and parents, especially men, aspire to upgrade their home so that their family can live better lives.
The importance of family as a purchase and consumption unit grows with the changes of the elderly in families. According to the China National Committee on Aging, the number of elderly (people at or above the age of 60) in China will exceed 200 million in 2013. These relatively well-paid and pensioned silver-haired consumers are more willing to spend on themselves and their families. The elderly in China may not be active decision-makers during purchase, but they actively buy for their grandchildren and are the largest consumers for products and services such as healthcare.
We propose three major decision-making patterns which should help untangle and give clarity to the intertwined relationships in the Chinese family context. Each pattern is motivated by different drivers depending on the purchaser, the user and the product/service:
- 1. All for All: A product/service that targets every member of the family and which is consumed all together. It is all about sharing together and having a good time.
2. 1 for All: A product/service that targets the whole family but which is purchased by one specific member of the family.
- The Sharer: I primarily want to buy this for me but I also want my family to be able to use it
- The Pleaser: I want to buy this for myself but I need my family to validate my choice
3. 1 for 1: A product/service that targets one specific member of the family but which is purchased by another member of the family.
- The Gatekeeper: I need to approve the product before buying it for someone else
- The Cherisher: I offer you this gift to show my love, my gratitude and provide you with great comfort
- The Attentionate: I just want to be nice to you.
To summarise, brands can leverage these patterns to reduce the complexity of family-based marketing. By understanding the motivations of family purchase, marketers are able to develop relevant and trans-generational marketing strategies and products to appeals to all groups. This leads the way for future innovation strategies and opportunities for growth.