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The Chinese love a story

Why brand stories captivate the Chinese imagination

Imagine that for some reason you went into a coma and woke ten or twenty years later. Your recollections of what life was actually like before this point may have been diluted or even erased from your mind during the period of zero activity or stimulation. You would probably have to learn how to live in your new environment from a standing start, no clues or past points of reference to work from. Now imagine that the speed at which the world had moved forward during the period of your coma was double that of the time you had recollection of before the event; in effect there would be twice as much information if not more to catch up on.

Taking this analogy to more of an extreme, if those that you met and spoke to after you came out of your coma had spent most of their lives living the ‘old ways’; the way things were before you went into the coma, their ability to update you and appraise you of the life you would now have to live, you would probably find it even harder to catch up. However, if they could tell you stories and use imagery to help you understand and visualise what went before and what you would face from this point on, the learning process should become faster and more manageable to you.

The story I give here is just for illustration, but there is a point to it because it describes loosely the Chinese people and their understanding and attitude to luxury. I am not insulting them in any way, but pointing out that 20 or more years ago, the country opened its doors to the outside world before which people lived under strict confinement and took their guidance from the government and trusted the organ of the state. It was like coming out of a coma and finding yourself in a world that was unrecognisable to the one you remembered. Many of those around you would still be living in that old period within their own minds, especially your parents and your grandparents, so the idea of luxury or of luxury products was like considering a concept like life on Mars.

In the past 20 years or more, people have worked and fought hard to build a better life which has involved rewarding themselves with expensive items, and buying them just to show others that they had made it and were no longer in their ‘coma’. There was desperation in Chinese society for money and status and for many years, luxury rode on the back of this happily. The challenge for luxury brands has always been that very few consumers knew their stories or what was behind them in any detail. By comparison, every Chinese knew stories of the foreigner invaders who fought and took over parts of China over the past century, and what affect it had on their people; these stories are ingrained into their lives and passed down the generations. The Chinese love to listen to, tell and repeat stories to others as if they were their own.

Filling the heritage void?

Heritage also has an important part to play in modern Chinese culture and society. Using the same coma analogy, it is possible to understand how the period of the Cultural Revolution resulted in the detail of the historical culture and values of the centuries of the emperors being lost from daily modern communications; it had been forgotten or hidden. The modern Chinese therefore have a disconnect in their heritage that has become a buffer between the past and modern day life, and they have a need to fill it with something that could potentially fill that gap, and as importantly that inspires their imagination and vision of a cultured and mature society. Enter western luxury brands and their stories.

Readers of Luxury Insights China maybe thinking that this topic is not a new one, and that we and others have spoken of it in the past, which is in fact true. However, there has been a shift in Chinese consumer attitudes in the past 12 months and as a result there needs to be a realignment of the storytelling activities to match the new mood of the people. What consumers are looking for today are stories that lay out how a brand brings value to or enhances their current lifestyles; what does ownership mean to them personally, and how might their lives be enhanced by establishing a personal link or bond with the brand?
Previously luxury brands told their story purely in a historical manner. When they were established, who were the first customers and why they bought this product and so on, a generic ‘who we are and what we do’ format. This worked for brands that were new to China, or during a period when consumers purchased products as a demonstration of face, and as an approach it worked well. The purchaser could learn enough to explain what they had bought and look more expert than they were to their friends, rather than being seen as just a follower. This principal of story telling proved very effective while consumers were running fast to buy new products with little time to really understand their value on a personal level, when the market began to slow the storytelling landscape changed.

Demonstrate the lifestyle fit

Many of those reading this piece will understand when I say that the Chinese are a visual nation, one for whom pictures and images are very effective at communicating messages. Long descriptive sentences and eloquent statements of fact are wasted when trying to get the message across, use images and make them obvious, don’t dance around the subject.

So in the new consumer environment, in China’s leading cities, demonstrating clearly how a product or brand will fit into a persons life and enhance their lifestyle is a must, do not assume that subtlety will work. If a bag without logos is a demonstration of an understated and cultured quality life, then show the fit. If clothing from a designer of high reputation among the fashionista’s demonstrates the ultimate understanding of trend or culture, then demonstrate how this fits the modern day affluent Chinese consumer lifestyle.

What is important to acknowledge is that the Chinese luxury consumer is developing their own personal style and although they may be far more knowledgable than they might have been some years ago, they are still susceptible to influence to influence. Whether you reach them directly or perhaps more importantly via their friends and social circle, a demonstration of ‘fit’ will be communicated individual to individual via storytelling and recommendation, it’s a natural viral system to tap into and leverage.

If I meet a Chinese luxury consumer and introduce them to a new brand today, my starting point is not to tell them how old the brand is or who started it, but to explain why I think this brand fits them, what it will bring to their life on a day to day basis and as importantly, how by owning it, their life may be more stylish, individual or special than those who do not know of it. They will feel a sense of pride, of exclusivity and superiority over others, but they will not be able to tell people this, and why the brand is special! Storytelling will then commence.

Don’t just think of your product, think of their lives

The final and essential point that must be considered when currently brand storytelling in China is to start telling stories from the perspective of the consumer’s present lifestyle, not one of 12 months or some years ago, and not from that of the product or brand. This means you need to have a firm understanding of what a high quality lifestyle means to them, into which you can position your product or brand using a story. They don’t want to be told that product X is good for them unless they see where and why this is; don’t sell to them, let them sell to themselves.

I return to the coma analogy used earlier. So many things have gone before, some of which these consumers may not have had access to, or been aware of, so past contextual references may mean nothing. They are living today quite differently than they had in the past and are building what they consider to be very internationalised affluent lives on a par with other similar individuals from around the globe. They want help to enhance their lives, but they will not directly ask for it. But if you show them, they will thank you by buying your products, recommending them to others and possibly becoming true and loyal followers of your brand, just because you took the time to understand how you could enhance their lives.


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