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Setting the stage: In Holland do they still pay with cash?

What Chinese consumers want today, is much more connected to global changes in lifestyles and shaped by Chinese technology innovation than in the past. And brands in their localisation journey shouldn’t forget that. Through my ethnographic consumer research studies in 2018 I learnt two key insights.


Key insight 1: The changing perception of Chinese consumers towards foreign countries; China is innovating more (e.g. mobile payments) than many foreign countries.


A big part of my work is listening to Chinese consumers, meeting them in their house, joining them in their daily activities and identifying underlying needs and values in changing consumer behaviour. In Shenzhen I was hanging out with a couple of Chinese post 90s. We talked about their lives and talked about Holland as well. Then during our conversation, one of the guys asked me: “In Holland do they still pay with cash?” Can you imagine being asked that question? When it comes to integrating technology in everyday lives, China is by far further along than the Netherlands or any other country for that matter. Mobile payments aren’t a novelty in China, while paying with cash is practically unheard-of, even with street performers and taxi drivers. When you are in China and need to pay something, they always ask: “Alipay or WeChat pay?” Alipay and WeChat pay are China’s two mobile payment giants. I told the guy that in Holland people still pay with cash, but mostly use a debit card. He didn’t even know what a debit card was.


Key insights 2: Chinese post 80s and 90s aren’t that different from there Western counterparts. In facet they have more in common with each other than their respective parents. 


I “dived” in the healthy lifestyle trend in China later that year.  It got my attention, since gyms have been popping up like mushrooms. Personal trainers are frequently used to improve personal health. No expense is spared. The younger generation living in China’s big metropolitan areas value fitness much more than their parents. With stressful work they increasingly see a healthy lifestyle as a marker for success. Post 80s and 90s Chinese are spending big bucks on gym memberships and healthy lifestyles. It has only been a few years ago when Chinese women were caught up in the online skinny trend by holding up sheets of A4 paper to their waist to show their thinness. Nowadays Chinese women like healthier body figures, from having muscles to a more curvy body. Before this was definitely a no go. For my research I talked to Chinese women, an owner of a fitness centre, restaurant managers, fitness trainers and did many observations. After analysing the data, I confirmed the insight that emerged one year earlier in 2017: Chinese post 80s and 90s aren’t that different from their Western counterparts. In fact they have more in common with each other than their respective parents. For Chinese women, yoga and running are among the activities rising in popularity, but Cross Fit and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) are also very popular. Something not that different from most Western countries.

Cultural context matters in China and in other parts of the world

Cultural context matters, though. However, this does not merely mean using local social media apps, working with Chinese influencers or making sure that consumers can pay with their mobile phones. Those are just the ‘easy’ stuff. The more you understand your consumer audience and their cultural context – digging deeper than accepted stereotypes and generalisations – the more cultural relevant your brand messaging or value proposition is to them, and that is not different in China than in other parts of the world.