Gen Z China Media

Brand rejuvenation: presenting yourself to the next generation of Chinese customers

By Rocky Chi, Head of planning

Emerging Communications


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October 25, 2021 | 8 min read

What do a 20-year-old influencer, 100m pre-campaign impressions and 1m WeiBo reposts have to do with the iconic BMW brand? Yi Yang Qianxi is a Chinese singer-dancer-actor, astonishingly famous among the country’s youth, and perhaps surprisingly BMW’s new brand ambassador. But why would a 100-year old car brand be collaborating with such a young celebrity?

Emerging Communications on reaching younger audiences in China through relevant, high-quality, eye-catching and creative marketing.

Emerging Communications on reaching younger audiences in China through relevant, high-quality, eye-catching creative

Why are brands going to such an effort to address gen Z now?

Currently aged 16-25, generation Z will be China’s dominant consumers in the coming decade as their influence and purchasing power continues to upend traditional markets. Many global brands are realizing that their target market demographics in China are radically different to that of the west, necessitating a radically different marketing approach. In BMW’s case, Chinese luxury car owners are on average ten years younger than their US equivalents, and as of 2019 account for 30% of the country’s car ownership. BMW’s innovative campaign with Yi Yang Qinxi is a textbook example of brand rejuvenation in China done right, generating enormous engagement across social media platforms and boosting orders for new BMW cars from this generation of consumers.

Unlike millennials, gen Z grew up in a time of economic prosperity, witnessed China’s seemingly unstoppable growth and were pampered by families that have produced a generation of optimistic and self-confident youngsters. They are impulsive, tend to outspend their budget and show high brand loyalty. Their purchasing power outstrips that of their western peers, accounting for 17% of China’s population but 25% of the total expenditure on new brands, according to L Catterton’s consumer insights report. Ensuring branding resonates with gen Z has become essential for success in contemporary China.

It goes beyond consumer goods

But this trend is not limited to consumer goods and retail brands. Regardless of your business category, welcoming gen Z to engage with your brand now is crucial to building brand loyalty for the future.

In the travel industry, Marriott’s strategy in China successfully attracted a younger audience by listening to the needs of this generation. The Moxy Shanghai Hongqiao hotel, opened in June 2021, is specifically designed for “young guests” – with minimalist but functional bedrooms, “furiously fast and free wifi” and 55-inch flat screen TVs, pitching themselves as offering “room to play.” The launch included creating a Douyin (TikTok) account exhibiting cutting-edge creativity, attracting 193,000 followers and counting.

In B2B, Merck & Co Inc knew that its 352-year-old western biotech brand wasn’t resonating with China’s gen Z. As a very niche B2B firm, developing and producing medicines, vaccines and more, it recognized the importance of including Chinese youth in its talent pool, with its future leaders coming from this generation. To make itself more relevant, it not only launched a Bilibili channel but produced a series of geeky and cute videos, competitions and articles in a way it would never approach its western marketing. The campaign was extremely successful, resulting in thousands of views and powerful engagement on WeChat.

The growing influence of young Chinese people

The benefit of appealing to gen Z stretches beyond their own purchases but also to the influence they have on other generations, even if the price point is far beyond that of gen Z’s buying power. According to NRF research, 90% of parents say their children will influence their buying decisions, not just on children’s products but on purchases for the entire family. This is because in general, the digital knowledge of gen Z far exceeds that of their family members, and their input is welcomed across the buying process from product evaluation and buying methods to post-purchase activities.

Key Opinion Consumers

Gen Z also live and breathe ‘social’ and will share the content they enjoy. Falling into this age bracket are many of China’s Key Opinion Consumers (KOCs) – average consumers who love to share their honest product reviews on social media platforms. Compared to western celebrity influencers, most KOCs have a very small and engaged fan base, but the absolute trust they build gives their opinion hefty weight in their followers’ buying decisions. As they are everyday shoppers themselves, their content is more authentic and makes them much more relatable to the average follower.

Creating content that resonates with KOCs is absolutely vital to attracting the enthusiasm of China’s gen Z, regardless of whether their cohort is your final audience. Some of the benefits of working with KOCs for brands include:

  1. Spreading existing content by adding to existing discussions with their reviews and opinions

  2. Engaging potential customers with the brand by inviting them to share their own opinions and reviews, with the potential to convert passive followers into active consumers

  3. A form of earned media that is free to engage with

Effective campaigns don’t just reach gen Z – they resonate

So what works? The key is content that resonates.

China’s gen Z are inundated daily with some of the world’s most innovative and exciting marketing, meaning that merely choosing the right channel is not enough. If your messaging does not convey the core values that speak to gen Z, you cannot expect them to convert or to even share your content.

Don’t preach, encourage two-way conversations

Social interaction is a major consumption motive of gen Z, according to a Kantar whitepaper. Gen Z are confident, outgoing and love interaction. They are more willing to try out immersive marketing activities than the one-way output of brands through advertisements and one-off communications. Examples include pop-up shops and virtual stories such as ‘Script Killing,’ but brands have also found success with user-generated content and competitions. However you choose to start the conversation, creating a relaxed and fun atmosphere allows for communication between the brand and consumers, helping to build a close connection.

Establish common ground: your brand values and their daily interests

Finding a common touchpoint and creating an authentic connection between the interests of gen Z and your brand’s value points has been a fundamental element of many recent brand rejuvenation strategies. An example was Audi’s choice to base a campaign around the popular anime Ling’s Cage, which has attracted a large, young audience – exactly the prospects Audi is trying to reach. The series has a sci-fi theme, incorporating stunning imagery, cool mechanics and 3D effects. This gives Audi the opportunity to demonstrate its scientific and technological prowess, the dystopian setting matches Audi’s spirit of exploration, and the discussions of universal emotions and human nature are highly consistent with Audi’s image as a pioneer in the era of humanistic technology.

Without reaching younger audiences in China, brands will not achieve the conversion rates they are looking for. High-quality, eye-catching and creative marketing is no longer a differentiator in this saturated market, and if companies don’t make an effort to resonate with the younger generation, they’ll be playing catch-up with those that do.

Emerging Communications has the expertise to help you resonate with your new Chinese audiences – for a nuanced understanding of gen Z’s value, click here to read our gen Z guide.

Rocky Chi, head of R&D at Emerging Communications, with editorial input from marketing executive Michaela Zhu and business development executive Emily Hassett.

Gen Z China Media

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