Robert Campbell
Sep 11, 2014

Was Groundhog Day a documentary on Chinese advertising strategy?

Rob Campbell, regional head of strategy for Wieden+Kennedy, based in Shanghai, explains that there is more to Chinese consumers than aspiration for material status.

Rob Campbell
Rob Campbell

Aspirational toilet paper. Aspirational chocolate. Aspirational coloured pens. In China, it sometimes feels there is only one strategy, and it’s one that offers ‘status by association’.

Of course there is a reason for this, and it’s because the need to progress is inherent within the cultural value system. But this singular strategy of ‘buy this and look successful’ is both wearing thin and ultimately becoming less and less relevant to many in society.

Don’t get me wrong, it still works because there are millions upon millions out there who are enjoying opportunities that were beyond their wildest dreams as recently as five years ago. However if every brand follows this strategy—and many do—I continually wonder how commercially viable it is to base your differentiation on the simple claim that your brand offers proportionately more ‘status’ than your competitors.

Or said another way, is it really that smart to put all your hopes on claiming your brand offers more than the current aspirational inflation rate?

So what else is there?

Well, contrary to what many in the West say, people here have far more hopes and dreams than simply ‘to be rich’.

Yes, money is regarded as a tool to achieve—and show—progress, but to think that is the sole goal of 1.4 billion people is both misguided and insulting.

Besides, more and more people are starting to realise that the ‘good life’ they seek is getting harder and harder to achieve as more folk go after fewer opportunities.

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So it’s little surprise that there are hundreds of millions of people who are looking to connect to things that offer them more emotional value and range than simply material status.

In 2012, we did a campaign for Nike during the London Olympics called ‘Greatness’.

It didn’t say ‘buy this and look rich’.

It didn’t claim you would get envious stares as you walked down the street.

It didn’t even say you would join an elite group of the rich and famous.

In fact, it did the absolute opposite.

It simply said that greatness was about giving your all, regardless of the result.

And in a culture where that word was almost exclusively associated with ‘achieving success at the highest possible level', many said that would be social suicide.

Except it wasn’t, because it tapped into the emotional needs of a generation to feel they are good enough. That not eating aspirational chocolate, using aspirational toilet paper or writing using aspirational coloured pens was ok. Which is possibly why it went on to become China’s biggest success story of the year—embraced, engaged and adopted by millions across the country.   

So while I totally appreciate the effectiveness of associating brands with ‘material status’, it’s amazing what you can achieve when you stop treating society as sheep and start treating them as people.

 

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