The Individual vs. The Collective


A predominant image of China in the West is of indistinguishable “masses”, where conformity is enthusiastically embraced as a means of self-preservation and a sense of self. Pictures in the 1960’s of hordes of young Red Guards all dressed in Mao suits and clutching Mao’s Little Red Book come to mind.

However, since the market reforms of the late 1970s and China’s gradual opening up through the 1980’s and beyond, there has been a resurgence of individualism that has actually marked China throughout history. This is particularly true among China’s younger generations (as it has often been!), but now it is less ideologically based and we now see that it is consumerism that has become a powerful mechanism for the remoulding of individual and family identity.

We should note that the early forms of consumerism in the 1990’s in China were still largely defined by a cultural emphasis on collectivism and traditional family values and these still remain central to Chinese cultural values. In a sense, current forms of individualism seen amongst younger consumers are seen as a form of rebelliousness and a desire for some self-expression, rather than any societal challenge.  Anovax see this as China’s youth desiring to express their individual identities but always within a group construct and without really seriously challenging authority, be it family or governments.

This creates problems for the brand marketer because of the balance required between emphasizing personal identity and expression within a “tame” form of individualism.  It’s a sensitive but promising objective because it will ensure brand differentiation and immediate appeal to a younger target audience.  Being able to appeal to China’s youth with a positioning that suggests individual expression, but within the context of the broader society becomes a real communication’s challenge. From the perspective of the brand or product developer this can be a critical element of any brand positioning because those who manage this “foot in both worlds” stand to benefit.  This is why Anovax recommend that every client’s target markets should be thoroughly researched with some challenging positioning options to determine what appealing benefits the product is perceived to offer, whether uniquely indicating some appealing individuality, or comfortingly conformist, or a combination of both.

Obviously for brands that wish to tap into the desire for self-expression it is important to do so within certain parameters in order to avoid being associated with negative associations of selfish individualism or anti-social behavior. Therefore, for any brand wishing to engage with Chinese consumers, a knowledge of these social constructs is an essential starting point.  Anovax often sees this as a problem when advertising executions from Western markets are tested in China. It is one thing to communicate free expression amongst a teenage markets, but another to raise societal or governmental concerns about the intended message.  One area we have seen problems is the use of celebrities in advertising with many popular celebrity identities from the West seen as unacceptable; and, even local Chinese celebrities who once had clean images can become a problem when moral issues arise. This is another balancing act that companies in China often come up against and find almost impossible to manage - a form of backlash that starts at family or community levels but is soon picked up by the government.

A lot of the discussion around this point about balance comes from the high incidence of “Little Emperors” or single children born under China’s strict one child policy.  In urban societies where parental wealth has been achieved parents have been known to indulge these children and “put up with” so called non-conformist behaviour not expected from Chinese children.  The Chinese government is well aware of this problem, as is the wider social media community, and there are countless stories of uncaring and even horrific behaviour from this supposedly “lost generation”.  The government has been encouraging a new focus on Confucian values in schools in recent years and it is clear this is having an effect as people now increasingly see their attitudes and behaviour measured in a wider community sense.

Even young people themselves will play back concerns about communications that may push the envelope on individualism in the context of their lives as children in a neo-Confucian China.  Anovax once worked with a global candy bar manufacturer testing a global strategy showing children being rebellious and naughty.  The initial response from Chinese children was high levels of liking and identification with the behaviour of these Western children.  However when probed on likelihood they might behave that way, it was clear that it was unlikely.  What was driving this perception was not parental disapproval, but something far more internalized – a general sense that your place in society would be questioned.  Clearly these values are strongly accultured in China.  

To say that all this is complex would be an understatement for brands looking to be leading edge and “out there”.  But those brands that can achieve this magic balance will always do well with China’s teens and young adult’s market.