Marketing to China’s middle-class: Selling modernity, considering tradition

April 6, 2012gilOne Comment, , , , , , , , , , ,

Note: Gil Hizi is Ministry of Tofu’s contributor. He is also the chief editor of website Thinking Chinese.

The marketing of brands in China often faces tensions between modernity and tradition, foreign and local orientations or individualistic materialism and longstanding cultural values. Whether we are discussing foreign companies or local enterprises, in order to prosper in China, brands attempt to offer a product that symbolizes new values, while not alienating itself from the local society.

The Chinese middle class is a major consumption force that companies regard as a compass for their marketing navigation. Young generations are also an important target crowd due to their permissive consumption habits and their role in designing the future urban landscape.

(Read: McDonald’s repackages itself and branches out in China to lure Chinese young middle-class)

Yet target crowds of marketing campaigns are not exactly social groups that can be isolated and assessed statistically. In recent years, there are never-ending debates between social scientists about the size of the Chinese middle class, for example. Surveys show that when measuring the middle class based on familiar international standards of profession, income, consumption habits and self-definition, more Chinese are considered as middle class according to their consumption habits than based on their profession or income. While the criterion of ‘self definition’ (whether one considers him or herself as middle class) indicates that almost half of Chinese society can be considered as members of this group, in reality, in 2004 less than 10% of the Chinese society corresponded to the standards of ‘middle class’ according to income and profession combined.

This brings us to the socio-emotional and cognitive identification of a huge portion of Chinese society with middle class lifestyle and culture, even without actually consisting it. In such conditions, wise consumptions habits and brands that reflect social status are crucial for many local consumers, since superficial products can emphasize one’s identification with the middle class. In his article from 2005, Wang Jing uses the term ‘urban imagination’ to describe the affinity of many Chinese for certain social groups and how this identification designs their consumption patterns.

“Fashion House for Bobos”

The term ‘Bobo’ – Bourgeois Bohemians (布波族 ‘bubo zu’ in Chinese) became widespread in China earlier in the last decade. Wang illustrates how this term was empty of solid social substance, since the Chinese society hardly consists of people who can truly fit into the ‘bobo’ definition. Yet as a marketing tool, ‘bubo zu’ was incorporated successfully in commercial campaigns and attracted many potential customers. Among the various ingredients of marketing, particularly in China, ‘imaginary lifestyle’ is an important spice. Certainly, some people might find these marketing themes pretentious and estranged, but when managed wisely they evidently bring about impressive revenues.

“You Don’t Understand the Post-90s,” marketing campaign by Li Ning Company Limited, which sells sportswear, toward the post-90s generation.

‘Linglei’ (‘a different kind’, ‘alternative’) is a newer expression that signifies young individualistic fashion. While the typical ‘linglei’ “representatives” are often cocky individuals with a colorful hair and a unique appearance, many common-looking Chinese are also intrigued by the ‘linglei’ fashion. This can be seen as another ‘imaginary concept’ that symbolizes certain lifestyles and values, more than a concrete social group. Even the terms ‘Post-80s’ or ‘Post-90s’ (Chinese born in the 1980s or 1990s) which clearly do represent existing groups, are excessively used in commercial campaigns and are coupled with certain values and behavioral patters that intensify the stereotypes attached to these groups. An interesting future study would be to see how the commercial sphere contributes to the perceived social distinctions between different age and social groups.

Another ‘attractive’ aspect introduced by marketing campaigns is the element of a foreign or Western culture. In his study of the popularity of McDonalds in China, Yan Yunxiang found out that customers considered the ‘scientific cooking methods’, ‘the motifs of American culture’ (in the design, service, etc) and hygiene as important advantages of the chain. Even though the Chinese culture is known for its culinary variety, standardized-industrial food has an appeal to many youngsters who wish to feel ‘closer’ to foreign cultures. Although the fast-food substance itself is hardly the most nutritious meal available in the market, the ambience and values are key factors that invite customers to ‘participate’ in a ‘foreign lifestyle’.

U.S.A California Beef Noodle King Restaurant

Local Chinese fast-food chains also comprehend these dynamics (Chinese fast-food chains are to a large extent a response to the popularity of McDonalds and KFC) and try either to imitate the foreign products or preserve a foreign ‘cover’ while offering a local essence. Such a marketing manipulation exists for example in the fast-food chain ‘California Beef Noodles’ (also described in Yan’s article), which offers a foreign dining style, carries a name that indicates that its food is American, but in reality actually sells Chinese noodle soup.

The above cases show how marketing is opening Chinese consumers’ appetite for modern values and foreign lifestyles. It seems that these marketing patterns are leading Chinese consumers away from what is considered an ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ Chinese culture. The reality is more complex. Most products and brands are a hybrid outcome of Westernization and local tendencies. A clear example for this is the commercialization of products that are associated with Chinese tradition such as medical herbs or local art crafts.

The interior of a McDonald’s restaurant in China

However, even in brands and products that are 100% foreign, the local element is not completely discounted. Chinese customers might believe that their McDonalds experience is identical to the one in North America, but in fact McDonalds in China has become a hangout place where people drink coffee, surf the internet and talk with friends for many hours. The hard seats that challenge the buttocks in the American branches of McDonalds (in order to prevent long sitting of customers) were replaced in China by comfortable chairs, not to mention the new designs of many Chinese branches that make the place look more like a lounge bar/café than the kingdom of uncle Ronald.


“Let’s Get Together at McDonald’s,” the banner says. 

In a study conducted in Shanghai, Eckhardt and Houston found out that youngsters in Shanghai regard McDonalds as a favorable spot for romantic dates. Such couples enjoyed the relax atmosphere and the fact that McDonalds does not highlight social hierarchy and even promotes equality between the sexes (the fact that alcohol is served and smoking is prohibited contributes to the perception). This example demonstrates how the outcome of an encounter between American fast-food and Chinese culture is a product that is not simply a copy of to the foreign origin (in the manner in which it is marketed and consumed), nor does it completely adapt to longstanding local values.

A menu at a Pizza Hut restaurant in China.

Pizza Hut is another example for this hybridization of customs. In China, the chain is everything but a fast-food restaurant. The menus are colorful, the design is elegant and pizza is only one of dozens of warm meals offered (including Asian style dishes). Pizza Hut is hardly a ‘Chinese’ restaurant, but it does take into considerations local demands, such as the long sitting and customers’ demand for a variable menu, to name a few. At the same time, Chinese customers enjoy a ‘foreign’ experience, perhaps unaware that this chain also corresponds to some longstanding local customs.

In some occasions, such as family celebrations, people choose to dine in a more traditional atmosphere (Eckhardt and Houstonshow that when extended families go out for a meal, they normally prefer the ambience and menus offered by traditional restaurants rather than ‘standardized’ fast-food). While new products are sometimes rejected, in most cases successful modern brands manage to respond to the different layers of consumption demands. Marketing campaigns consider both modernity and tradition and performs manipulation on how to introduce, ‘wrap’ and ‘serve’ different brands, according to their target crowd. Tradition is making space for new values and social trends, but at the same time the encounter between modern brands and local culture produces new meanings, which whether we consider them to be ‘typical Chinese’ or not, are in fact essential features of Chinese culture today.

This article was assisted by the following sources:

  • Wang, J. 2005. “Bourgeois Bohemians in China? Neo-Tribes and the Urban Imaginary.” China Quarterly, 183:532-548.
  • Li, C. 2004. “Zhongchan jieceng Zhongguo shehui zhide guanzhu de renqun” (“The middle class: a Chinese social group worthy of our attention”) in Ru, X., Lu, X. and Li, P. (eds.), Zhongguo shehui xingshifenxi yu yuce (Analysis and Forecast onChina’s Social Development).Beijing: Sheke wenxian chuban she.
  • Yan, Y. 2000. “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing”, in Deborah S. Davis (ed.), The Consumer Revolution in Urban China: 201-225.Berkeley:University ofCalifornia Press.
  • Giana M. Eckhardt, Michael J. Houston. 2002. Cultural Paradoxes Reflected in Brand Meaning: McDonald’s inShanghai,China. Journal of International Marketing.

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1 comment to “Marketing to China’s middle-class: Selling modernity, considering tradition”

  1. Guy In China | April 7, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    McDonalds is great for 2 things – late nights after drinking, and a reliable public restroom.

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