Anjali Puri
May 26, 2014

The shifting meaning of money in Asia

Money is changing from a signifier of security to a means of access. Here's what that means for marketers.

Anjali Puri
Anjali Puri

We’re witnessing a shift in what money means to Asian consumers, from its role as a definer of identity to one where it is a gatepass to previously inaccessible worlds.

It used to be that money secured your place in society, signalled status and marked progress. This has been a particularly important theme in hierarchical societies like China and India, where money has represented stability and security—the ability to distance oneself from the ‘have-nots’ and join the upwardly mobile middle class. Having a stable income implies a certain kind of education and set of values, and is linked to future prospects in the job and marriage markets.

From security to access

Yet increasingly, money is now about having access to experiences and goods that would be considered outside one’s reach. This is quite a stark shift since in many ways it directly opposes the need for security; instead of conserving, holding on and planning for the future, we are seeing a younger generation that thinks of money as having a transient value, closely linked to what it can immediately buy.

Money, very simply, now provides the right to play. In China we see this in the upper-tier cities, especially among a generation of single-child youngsters bankrolled by their parents. In India, the shift is starker because it is noticeable across SECs and town classes, without any real funding that backs it. Workarounds like deal-hunting, pooled budgets and group buying are common, and informal credit mechanisms abound.

From status to freedom

Money also provides the right to break the rules. This is particularly visible in China, which has been a regimented, rule-bound, compliant society. Young people are now asserting their right to make different career choices, starting their own businesses as a shortcut to earning money or simply having the leeway to ‘follow their dream’. Fifteen years ago, Chinese students who studied abroad wanted to stay in the foreign country because they wanted a better standard of life. Now they go abroad simply because they want to explore and experience the world around them.

Consider the changing themes and symbolism in financial brand communication. The ubiquitous umbrella denoting protection and security continues, but there are also images of sailing denoting freedom (eg Bank of Ningbo) or invitations to ‘love yourself’ (Bank of China cards). In HDFC life insurance advertising in India, not having money has moved on from the indignity of being dependant on someone else, to the awfulness of being deprived of luxuries.

What does this mean for marketing financial brands?

The need for self-expression and freedom is at the heart of much communication targeting the young, but what’s missing is a tangible enabler to help make it real. There is an opportunity here for financial brands to create practical offers. Examples include facilitating loans for offbeat education such as a career in art or music or facilitating travel abroad and diverse experiences. Especially in China, the idea of ‘following a dream’ has huge appeal among young people and is a recurrent theme in advertising. Yet given the cultural leaning toward stability and predictability, making it real is still hard.

Looking ahead, and contrasting with the West in light of the trajectory of credit-based consumerism, I would argue that there may be a case for responsible marketing in proactively helping young people manage debt. Youngsters in Western markets seem to be moving in the direction of post-materialist caution with respect to credit, having learnt from the experiences of their parents. There could be a ripe opportunity for brands in Asia to get there ahead of the consumer.

Anjali Puri is head of Centre of Excellence, TNS Qualitative

 

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