Robert Sawatzky
Sep 28, 2018

Surprise me! Chinese consumers want more than brand consistency

“Nothing is too crazy” in the Chinese consumer market "circus", where successful brands push creative boundaries, says JKR’s René Chen.

René Chen
René Chen

If there’s one nut most global consumer brands would love to crack, it would be how to win over the frenetic Chinese marketplace. 

Good luck with that, says Jones Knowles Ritchie’s Shanghai managing director René Chen. “One formula for success is not possible. It’s a circus of innovation and you have to learn how to navigate it,” she told a full crowd at Spikes Asia’s Spotlight stage.

While Chen has been a vocal critic of risk-averse traditional Chinese brands that constantly play it safe and fail to back the bold creative work needed to stand out, she devoted her entire session at Spikes to highlight the opposite: China’s up-and-coming brands that are winning the day through creativity and innovation.

Digital is at the heart of everything in China now, helping the market to grow at “supersonic speed.”

Faster food

Chen pointed to China’s armies of meal delivery troopers as one key example, carrying out the commands of mobile apps with endless selections of restaurants and meals.  The whole dining experience has changed, with any type of food just a few clicks away. “You can never eat the same thing twice in your lifetime.”

Brands that want to compete need to get on board, hence the triple-digit growth success of China’s Luckin Coffee, which will guarantee a hot coffee to your location within 30 minutes of when you place your order. “What it did was shake Starbucks to its core and force it to rethink its model in China,” Chen said.

Immediate food delivery means that urban Chinese no longer need to stock their fridges and plan their meals ahead. Even more complicated meals like hot pot can be delivered. It means that meals can be impulse purchases, which has huge impacts for marketers.

Grocery stores that get on board with online/offline offerings like Alibaba’s Hema supermarkets, again guaranteeing 30-minute delivery, are challenging all brands to innovate.

Shaking up tradition

There are limitless possibilities for brands with traditional products if they have the guts to explore new ground, Chen said, pointing to the success of Chinese tea retailer Heytea, which is living up to its brand promise of “inspiration for tea.”

Not only has Heytea pioneered an entirely new product in ‘cheese tea’ that has caught on with other tea houses across the country, but it has also revolutionised the concept of the Chinese tea house through design. Some of the brand's tea shops are all black in colour, others all pink. 

Heytea Pink
Heytea Riverflow

One shop, termed “Riverflow”, is designed like a flowing river. Another is called “Hills beyond hills”, while another was dubbed “listen to the rain.” Different Heytea products are presented in differently designed packaging as well.

Every Heytea brand interaction is memorable, said Chen, and while this runs contrary to the tenets of brand simplicity and consistency, it’s giving actually Chinese consumers more of what they want—new experiences that surprise and delight every time.

Chen argued that while Heytea is being innovative, it’s also tapping traditional notions of Chinese art, which aim to capture the soul or spirit of an object rather than a direct representation. 

Step right up to the circus marketplace

It shows Heytea understands what the China consumer market is in its essence—a circus.  “It’s huge and loud but very exciting and bustling,” Chen said. “Everything is happening at the same time. It’s colourful, very dynamic, extremely energetic and alive.”

No one heads out to a circus in a sad mood, Chen said. Chinese consumers venture out into the chaotic circus marketplace because they’re curious and want to be surprised and make new discoveries.

While consumers will always have their preferred products, the worst thing for a brand is to make consumers say ‘oh, I’ve seen this before’, argued Chen.

“Nothing is too crazy. Nothing is too unusual or freaky. Creativity should be boundless. Open it up.”

What is modern Chinese design style? The only style is “endlessly changing,” Chen said. "That’s the formula for success for your brand.” Look what can happen if you embrace this innovation circus of endless change, she said. “All things can happen.”

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