The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Was Groundhog Day A Documentary On Chinese Advertising Strategy?
June 26, 2015, 6:15 am
Filed under: Campaign Magazine, China, Culture, Insight, Planning

So before I begin, I should point out this post appeared in Campaign magazine.

The reasons I feel I can re-post it are:

1. I wrote it.
2. I forgot I wrote it.
3. I actually think it’s quite good.

So now I’ve got that out the way, let’s get on with something that – sadly – is as relevant today [for once] as it was when I apparently wrote it sometime last year.

Aspirational toilet paper.

Aspirational chocolate.

Aspirational coloured pens.

In China, it sometimes feels there is only one strategy adopted by brands and agencies, and that is 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.

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 – literally millions – all 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.

22 Comments so far
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Great article Rob.

I really liked what you did for the London Olympics so I imagine the pressure to do something bigger for Rio is huge. Will you zig or zag? I think I know the answer.

Comment by Pete

I’ll let you know in a year, ha.

Comment by Rob

You had me at aspirational toilet paper.

Comment by DH

because you needed something to wipe up the shit?

Comment by andy@cynic

That is an excellent read. Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but it seems an argument you could also throw at American agencies and clients. The cultural significance around status may be more weighty for the Chinese, but the end result seems very similar. You should definitely write more about this Robert.

Comment by George

I doubt there’s a country in which it doesn’t apply. Perspirational marketing is the future.

Comment by John

On face value, it is George/John … however the importance of status – as you rightly point out – has greater significance here and not purely because the commercialisation of the nation is still relatively new and there’s still hundreds of millions who are just now gaining some sort of disposable income.

As I said, I’m not totally against the materialism relationship that is promoted – there are times and groups where it is still relevant and important – but there are also hundreds of millions more who are looking for more and being ignored by marketers simply because it’s either easier to stick with the old or they’re too blinkered to discover the evolution that has been going on.

Though for post 90’s kids, I’d argue there was little evolution because they started at that place given the environmental circumstances they grew up in [at least those in Tier 1 cities] was about as different as possible from their parents situation.

Comment by Rob

Fascinating article Robert. I also think this comment shines even more light on the situation. It appears you are saying some agencies and their clients are stuck in the 90’s. I wonder how many of them get out of their office and venture in to the streets?

Comment by Lee Hill

Sheep have aspirations too.

Comment by Mr. Lamb.

yes they fucking do. to not be caught alone with an aussie farmer.

Comment by andy@cynic

fuck, that reads wrong. i dont mean they fear being caught fucking an aussie farmer, they dont want to be in that position in the first place. i can’t fucking believe ive just explained that. fuck my life.

Comment by andy@cynic

I just would like to say I love that you had to explain it.

Comment by Rob

fuck. you.

Comment by andy@cynic

i find it fucking hysterical than a bloke with no value is writing about status. in fucking china. he’ll be writing about real madrid next, based on notts fucking forest.

Comment by andy@cynic

Don’t you mean he has a lot of value but no status?

Comment by DH

Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Comment by Rob

good point davey. the fucker makes trump look poor but he has the status of a queen fan.

Comment by andy@cynic

the psychology on that rocks, and its what we tell our kids after every blown game, but forget to tell our athletes when the stakes are so much higher. its about time someone did.

Bravo, bravo.

Comment by judyt54

I don’t see the difference. They’re both status oriented. I achieve because I have more money and a greater sense of aesthetic or I achieve because I really believe in my own potential. Both strategies ask the simplest of questions a brand can ask – do you want to be part of our gang? And then they answer with the greatest of outcomes “because you’ll be awesome (and better than everyone else) if you did”.

Comment by Plannernumberseven

Have you ever worked in Asia Plannernumberseven? If you haven’t you’ll know there’s a world of difference between the two. They may come from the same place but the nuance takes them to totally different points.

Comment by Pete

You’re right Plannernumberseven, they are similar, but the context of China’s history means that material status has been the predominant value chased by millions and promoted by every agency and brand for decades, which is why talking about moral value – or said another way, self-worth, which as a byproduct has status curse but is not the core reason for celebrating or promoting it – is both new, refreshing and empowering.

Comment by Rob

[…] I said, I am being very generalistic and not everyone has followed this path … but the fact of the matter is this approach has paid huge dividends for many companies […]

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