Elmwood Shanghai’s Creative Director, Teru Yamabuchi, discusses how brands can win back the hearts of the Chinese population and reconnect on a deeper level in a very anxious world.
Even though the pandemic seems to be under control today for the China population, uncertainty about the future remains, and anxiety still influences every move, so empathy, singularity and consistency appear to be the keys to success.
- The post-pandemic world has left Chinese consumers with an urge to cocoon and improve their home lives to cope.
- When purchasing a product, Chinese consumers make choices that align with their redefined values and priorities, choosing brands and companies that match those.
- Showing transparency and selflessness while placing the human being back at the heart of the marketing strategy will facilitate the recreation of a connection with Chinese audiences.
- Constant use of the right brand assets, with the right message, at the right moment drives ROI.
- Brands must thoroughly avoid ‘negative disruption’ and prevent confusion in branded messages so as to build memorable and recognisable brand experiences for long-term growth.
Lockdowns, unavailability of daily necessities, and frequently-updated regulations have been imprinted in the minds of Chinese consumers for the past two to three years. With constant anxiety about basic needs like food, medical supplies and mental health access, society has shifted from its usual codes.
Brands are in a bind. The pandemic has led to trust challenges in organisations and brands in general. As a response, people have naturally reverted to brands that evoke stability and reliability during uncertain times. The usual complex and perpetual flow of branded information and advertisements has become too overwhelming.
What can brands do in this context to win back the hearts of the Chinese population and reconnect on a deeper level?
China and Chinese consumers have changed
Constant changes caused Chinese consumers to now look for security and focus on what is really essential.
People trapped at home during lockdowns were unable to buy food and medicine or had to be separated from their children, causing fury and desperation. Social media data from Weibo and Little Red Book has seen a 268% increase in search interest related to essential products, according to Aug 2020 – Aug 2022 data collated from Elmwood’s sister agency Freemavens.
The pandemic demonstrated the necessity to always be ready for a shortage of supplies in case of a new lockdown or quarantine. Having enough essentials at home, and having them adequately organised in preparation for a period when one could be blocked off at any second for an unknown number of days has become so important that the habit still stays strong today.
Trust issues when it comes to brands and their communications were another consequence of the outbreak. In the past few years, many rumours have disturbed daily lives, drawn a blurry line between what is real and what is fake, and created a suspicious atmosphere. Indeed, 80% of the Chinese population has worries about false information and fake news, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer.
This leaves consumers with dubious feelings towards brands.
On top of misinformation, many brands suffered from disruption of services. For example, when Taobao and JD induced consumer panic due to long delivery delays during the Shanghai lockdown, many consumers lost faith in the retailers. This is a long-term consequence of those turbulent times. Chinese consumers have now learnt to observe companies’ actions and research businesses more thoroughly. They would show a preference for brands that contribute to society, that help people go through hard times and that demonstrate empathy.
Now, in the post-pandemic era, Chinese consumers dream of cocooning moments that elevate their quality of life, as 34% of them indicated in data consolidated by Freemavens from Weibo & Little Red Book. Chinese consumers, whatever their age, are in the process of redefining themselves. Compared to Aug 2020, there is more interest in the above topic, up by 379% two years later, indicating a clear shift in consumers’ minds.
During the last outbreak that saw cases in China beginning to rise in March 2023, soon spiralling into the worst flare-up the country has seen since the initial outbreak in early 2020, the search frequency of terms around anxiety and depression topics on Baidu Index increased by 34% and 14% respectively. This was revealing of the impact on the population’s well-being. Stress induced by a scarcity of products, separation from loved ones and being locked for long periods at home redefined consumer priorities and values.
When life has been turned inwards, home became everything. Feeling good at home, not just ensuring access to essential products at all times, became one of the most critical needs of post-pandemic times. Making the home environment the most welcoming as much as possible on a daily basis means quality. The Chinese population now tends to disregard non-essential products, unless they can enhance their home set-ups and elevate their ways of living.
Product categories that offer quality-of-life improvements, such as cheese, pet food, or ready-to-drink coffee, continued high-growth trends seen in 2021 and 2022, according to Bain’s China Shopper Report 2022 (pictured below).
Cocooning is a trend brands cannot ignore. Consumers are keen on spending money to improve their home furnishings, ornaments, air quality, and even the sense of ambience. They are keen to invest in products that make at-home cooking easier and healthier. So, it all points to feeling better at home and enjoying the art of cocooning.
What are post-pandemic consumers looking for?
During lockdowns, only group purchases would guarantee delivery of essential goods in non-quarantined cities. This has shown the population how solidarity is necessary for society. Individualist thinking gave way to consideration towards needy communities and now guides Chinese consumers in their brand choices.
When choosing which brand to trust, Chinese consumers are now more careful. They will favour brands that indulge them in being better versions of themselves and matching their values in terms of empathy for the community. In this regard, consumers analyse the actions of companies and will support transparent brands that act for the greater good of a community. Actions speak louder than words. This expectation of brands being selfless has always existed, but expectations have now reached a higher level.
How should brands react to higher expectations?
So, what does it mean for brands? With higher expectations from anxious Chinese consumers, brands should embrace a new way of communicating by reassuring them with empathy, singularity and consistency.
Brands need to show empathy.
As consumer focus turns more inwardly in the process of redefining themselves, empathy has emerged as the number-one trait brands should showcase. Empathy is the key to connecting with the Chinese population in the intimacy of their homes. Empathy is about conveying that brands understand what consumers have gone through and are here to support them.
Some brands, like bakery chain Paris Baguette, got to that level of empathy by selling bread and pastries to customers during the last lockdown phase in Shanghai. When the Shanghai population could not access food easily, some of the brand’s employees decided to accept group orders to help the local community. The government has fined the company for violating food safety laws and for operating without a license, but the brand’s initiative had a resounding impact on its image, leading Chinese consumers to a massive solidarity movement to support the Korean brand’s local outlets. Of course, we can’t advocate for activities that violate laws and regulations. Still, this example shows how empathetic initiatives can win the hearts of consumers and turn them into brand ambassadors. Brands that place the human being at the centre of any strategy and get to know customers’ pain points on a deeper level are indispensable, even in the post-pandemic world.
Brands need to be brand-focused.
In China, brands are used to developing more product-focused, commercial-focused, festival-focused or trend-focused campaigns. But today, consumer purchases are centred on what is essential, which led to the 618 shopping festival in 2022 recording its lowest sales growth ever.
Short-term campaign successes usually rode on the waves of fleeting trends that turned each of them into lucrative sales opportunities. But unfortunately, those interchangeable campaigns do not respect the basic principles of longer-term branding because they rely on celebrities, KOLs and mega-events like Singles Day. Over-reliance on borrowed interest can dilute brand recognition due to mental competition, especially when the celebrity or KOL is the dominant feature of the campaign.
Brands need to focus on their own brand message instead of going with the flow and transforming their brands for individual campaigns. While tactics to drive sales are not going away, brands need bold simplicity to thrive in these environments rewarding short-term sales. Brands need to invest in themselves to have gains in the long-term memory structure of consumers.
Most brands don’t use distinctive brand assets correctly and consistently. No specific guidelines are followed, and brands work more on an ad-hoc basis. For efficient branding, companies must develop unique assets that make the brand recognisable in cluttered environments. This will increase brand memorability and brand fame.
When brands use different assets in each piece of communication that are not consistently delivered across channels and formats, they risk ‘negative disruption’. Consumers will end their purchase journey with another brand due to confusing messaging. This can also happen when brands tamper with their valuable assets in response to the market (usually as a reaction to a sales decline, or when hopping on trendy but temporary bandwagons). In these cases, brand recognition suffers.
Brands need to be singular.
Simpler communication is one effective solution to cut through the clutter and provide consumers with a clear message. But simpler doesn’t mean minimalism, but singularity. A singular message is memorable. It conveys the brand’s vision distinctively. The brand’s output is consistent across all platforms, from offline to online. On the other hand, minimalistic communication would only focus on having one brand message per format. Simpler communication via singular messages is not necessarily easier to achieve.
For brand memorability and for long-term brand growth, brands should be strategically selective of their brand assets, prioritising simpler ones over complex ones, so that consumers are not overwhelmed with the flow of information coming at them. Regardless of the touchpoint in which the consumer encounters the brand, it should be connected to the brand’s values. Design can support this alignment of the tone of voice with brand purpose.
Brands need to focus on consistency.
To achieve such a singular voice, consistency must be the overarching point.
The convergence of the channel, the format, the timing, and the messaging conveyed by the brand not only lowers the risk of negative disruption of the consumer journey (where consumers start their purchase journey with one brand and end with another) but also prevents distrust and lost connections.
Consistently using the brand’s distinctive assets is the answer to ensure effective long-term branding and mental availability for consumers. Brands need to determine which elements in their visual identity, sonic branding, tagline, etc make them recognisable by consumers and use those consistently across all touchpoints of the consumer journey. Confusion is to be avoided at all costs. Identifying distinctive brand assets is the first step to take towards more straightforward and more cohesive brand communications.
Chinese brands, in particular, have to pay special attention to bridging their online and offline communications. Too often, Chinese brands create unique, fun and relatable branding for their online materials and e-commerce launches, but forget about consistency when it comes to tangible materials and offline communications. It’s common to overlook the design of offline assets and not be able to connect with consumers on those channels. That’s when ‘positive disruption’ can happen.
Even though the pandemic seems to be under control today for the China population, unpredictability about the future remains. Anxiety still influences every move of the consumer. In addition, the post-pandemic world has left them with an urge to cocoon and improve their home lives to cope. Remember, when purchasing a product, Chinese consumers make choices that align with their redefined values and priorities, choosing brands and companies that match those.
Though brands must navigate a more anxious and cautious climate in 2023, there are great opportunities to cut through the clutter. While empathy, singularity and consistency are key, brands should avoid rigidity in branding. Flexibility to adapt to changing environments and to react to the uncertainty that keeps hovering in China is a must for consumers and companies alike. Therefore, save room for versatility while not altering the brand’s core in the process.
This article first appeared on WARC here.