Julien Lapka
Nov 18, 2013

Taking back time: An attitude shift in China

A growing desire among consumers in China to slow down and enjoy the important things in life suggests that brand advertising may need to downshift as well.

Julien Lapka
Julien Lapka

Editor's note: This is the second in a series outlining three big behaviour shifts Flamingo Group observed in its "Game Changers" report, which the company produced along with Wolff Olins. The first installment discussed 'sidestepping' and the final entry will focus on 'making meaning'.

Increasingly, people are shaping time. This trend is about letting people do things on their terms, in their time: total convenience to create the experience they want. For brands, this has meant offering the consumer the means to get things when they want them, where they want them, and on their terms.

'On their terms' is of course part and parcel of what the Chinese middle-class expects, with brands like online grocer YiHaoDian allowing people to set their delivery schedules along with prices (when people band together in online group-buy forums). However, a more interesting and pertinent manifestation of shaping time revolves around Chinese seeking to slow down and make time the things that truly matter: people.

For more than a decade, China fully bought into Benjamin Franklin’s motto of “time is money”. China’s capitalist thrust made the adoption of this motto timely and necessary, as many feared being left behind during the boom years. However, the times they are a’changin’.

China’s middle-class is beginning to question how time should be spent and to what extent time is primarily about the pursuit of acquiring more products and experiences. What good is money when there is no time to enjoy it?

Adding depth

Hours spent at work represent the most significant amount of time people use on any given activity. Up until now, the thinking went something like this: Work hard, make more money, use the extra money to dive into as many activities as possible and buy new brands and products as they become available. For many, this logic no longer applies.

Fresh graduates are now seeking employment in government agencies as they offer decent pay and, more importantly, work hours that allow for people to have time for themselves (of course potential connections to higher-ranking officials also help). Nonetheless, finding a well known Fortune 500 company in order to move up the corporate ladder and earn more money isn’t as aspirational as it once was. For a generation of young people who saw their parents put in long work hours at the expense of spending time with loved ones, that life is not something the post-'90s generation seeks. To the contrary, taking time to re-establish personal relationships drives a lot of their decision-making.

Long work hours in exchange for a bigger paycheck is no longer the sole aspiration—employers take note! By taking back time, people are seeking to add depth to their experiences and relationships.

Quality time

Gaining time to deepen relationships and immerse oneself in an activity without feeling pressured to do it all is increasingly how people describe good experiences.

Travel patterns are changing in line with this view. Young independent travellers are increasingly foregoing sprinting from one major tourist site to another and finding ways to immerse themselves in local culture. These people are interested in finding homestays “to live like a local”—whether that means going to the supermarket with them or simply spending an afternoon at a coffee shop reading the paper. As weekends in China often require white collars to do some work, performing mundane weekend chores while away on holiday can become a true antidote from their routines back home. This is about slowing down time and not adding more stress by creating a long checklist of things to do and see. The slow weekend is the new holiday.

A popular diary app, Day One, is another example of how seeking quality time appeals to the post-'90s. The app allows and encourages users to take stock of their day and reflect on their lives. Rather than encouraging users to share the myriad experiences they partake in via WeChat, Day One seeks to let users approach their days in a more reflective manner, by offering a platform to jot down and think about what’s important. This is about creating “me thinking time”.

In the world of skincare, a category obsessed by time and speed (the speed at which a benefit can be delivered), the success of the MG brand has largely rested on its message to women: to slow down and take time to enjoy their beauty. After a long hectic day, MG offers women a moment in the evening to enjoy their skin, femininity and beauty.

Disconnected advertising?

From car to beer campaigns, brands encourage people to see it all and do it all, when in fact Chinese are increasingly looking to do less and slow things down.

Julien Lapka is managing director of Flamingo Shanghai.

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