The key to China's consumers lies in embracing continual change.
Ask people about the brave new world of China’s future communications and I think most will agree on two trends.
One is that digital technology is an unstoppable force. And the second is that the pace of change it brings is accelerating.
It took 20 years for TV to solidify into a truly mainstream medium, but only 10 years for the Internet to truly take off; and it took smartphones only five years to saturate mainstream culture. The Internet of things is not far away with its wearable technology. How long will that take to mushroom into another vibrant ecosystem?
In China, the pace of change will likely be even faster, and will probably feel faster still due to the vigorous competition between established giants and hungry newcomers. The BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), which should rightly be BATX (including Xiaomi) in my opinion, inevitably will continue to drive change in the digital ecosystem. However, more new players, some seemingly arising from nowhere, should make the marketplace even more complex (JD.com and iQiyi were virtually unheard of outside of China only three years ago).
Change is the only real constant. And to cope with it, brands also have to transform. What is perhaps less obvious is that two things are likely to remain unabated - human psyche and the hybrid that is China’s approach towards business.
Human beings will continue to crave entertainment, respect and engagement; therefore expect storytelling and brand relevance to maintain an important standing. But in China’s increasingly competitive marketplace, finding the sweet spot where brands resonate with consumers, means marketers will need to understand how the human psyche contains paradoxes. We all want to be considered unique, yet we are gratified when accepted into a tribe. While we are inherently novelty seeking and crave our 15 seconds of limelight (China recently usurped the ‘most photo-sharing’ position from US), we also guard our privacy covetously and sometimes limit online sharing to only the most personal of groupings.
In China, this paradox can sometimes play out in pronounced ways. WeChat is a prime example; it started off as a cost-efficient alternative to personal text messages; then upended Weibo as a mass messaging platform; then it morphed to tap into the need for privacy and personalization, and yet later, it became the pinnacle of tribal prestige with a ‘circle of friends’. All this change transpired in less than four years.
The biggest paradox is that while China is an early adopter of technology and has incorporated global best practises (somewhat), it still marches to the tune of a highly centralised economy. No major change can really progress without official sanction. So yes, China will embrace global trends, but with a wholly local perspective. A complicating aspect of that trend though is that localization is not a one-off event; it’s a feedback loop. China assimilates in a non-stop cycle. Therefore, to succeed in China’s hybrid world, brands need talent that is conversant in both international and local nuances. Which is itself like another paradox.
The word guanxi has gained a level of mysticism in China. Networking, is very much an ingrained way of doing business, yet paradox exists even in this area. It has to work hand-in-hand with strong capabilities -including strategic thinking, a grasp of local insights and, equally importantly, capability to execute. Plus, you need team passion and dynamism. Having guanxi often just means a common language and rapport between client and agency, and among partners, that shortens the communication process to enable real-time action in a quickly changing landscape.
In this faster, changing era of new normal, expect the drive for performance to be even more relentless (regardless if it’s for a big-data Holy Grail, ever elusive growth, or bottom-line ROI). But, much like the rest of the world, the more China grows, the more likely it is to converge with major global trends; yet at the same time, the expressions and reflections of these trends will have increasingly distinctive Chinese interpretations and applications, and some may spark completely unique Chinese innovations.
So while the quest to keep pace with change (digital or otherwise) and adapt to paradox will likely be fraught with challenge and even controversy, expect its velocity to only gain momentum.