Probably one of the most bizarre news stories in China in recent months was that of Peppa Pig, the British pre-school cartoon, being allegedly banned from trending on Chinese short video platform Douyin. For a few days users couldn’t search for any thing with Peppa Pig in the keywords and all Peppa Pig videos, original or spoof, were removed.
Although Douyin denied the allegation, the adorable little pink pig with a hair-dryer-shaped head found itself at the centre of the media spotlight.
Western mainstream news outlets criticised the crackdown, while in China the “immoral” adults who distorted the innocent image of Peppa Pig for personal gain were to blame.
Political purposes aside, both narratives highlighted out one crucial point: Chinese millennials are a very different species from their western counterpart.
From preschool cartoon to social media icon
The journey of Peppa Pig in China can be summarised in a simple model: acquire young audience and parents via online streaming services, reach millennials via social media platforms, transform to new social icon via short video and monetize via e-commerce.
Peppa Pig premiered in China in 2015 and was soon made available on popular video platforms. Within a year, the accumulated views of Peppa Pig reached 45 billion. The reception was phenomenal; on the interest-based social platform, Douban, Peppa Pig had a rating of 9.2.
But things started to go awry in late 2017, when a Weibo KoL created the self-deprecating hashtag: #PiggyGirl#. Within a few hours, her three million followers catapulted the hashtag to the top of Weibo’s trending topic list.
Soon after, a fan-made Peppa Pig video dubbed in Chongqing dialect became an instant hit.
Then an image of Italian footballer Alberto Gilardino sporting a Peppa Pig tattoo under his left arm ignited Chinese social space. This sparked a wave of imitation, including some of the biggest celebrities in China, and the creation of the catchphrase “get your Peppa Pig tatt, shout out to shehuiren frat.”
[The word shehuiren (社会人), translated as “society person”, means "someone cool and gangster-like", as in China a tattoo symbolises gangster culture.]
Meanwhile, businesses sold 30,000 Peppa Pig temporary tattoos in a month on Chinese online shopping site Taobao, in addition to 100,000 Peppa Pig-themed watches and bracelets.
Peppa Pig — chinese millennials’ social capital
In marketing terms, the Peppa Pig phenomenon offers western brands a good opportunity to sneak a peek at what is really going on in our estimated 385 million Chinese millennials minds (reader take note, I include myself within this number).
We benefitted from being born and raised in a period that saw China’s economy develop at historic speed. The enrichment of material life and skyrocketing purchase power has enabled us to live our lives in ways unimaginable to even our parents.
We are, however, subject to immense societal pressure — to get married and have children, the rising cost of housing, child-rearing and healthcare; the complicated ‘social network’ dominated by older generations to name but a few.
The Peppa Pig craze, as well as similar preceding trends including “traveling frog” and “buddhist youth”, is a way for Chinese millennials to express our true selves and escape from reality by means of ironic memes and short videos. Such narrative, not understood by any other generation, gives us momentary fulfilment of our individuality.
Brands: Don’t Take It Too Seriously
To reach this demographic, brands need a more strategic approach.
Traditionally in China brands tend to remain neutral, even distant, from the customers in order to avoid leaving the impression of a hard-sell.
In the digital age, however, and especially in China, where the adoption of social media is unbelievably high, brands more than ever need to reinvent the way they talk to young Chinese customers.
The Peppa Pig craze created contrast. Tattoos, the symbol of “bad kids” and street culture, joined hands with Peppa Pig resulting in much amusement by all. Such random light-heartedness is exactly what Chinese millennials expect of social media to help them enjoy a good laugh.
There are, of course, many more ways to engage Chinese customers, but the point remains, brands, don’t assume that we will buy the same things you do in the west. We are different.
Arnold Ma is chief executive at Qumin