Updated: Aug 13, 2022
A key target audience in almost every brand’s crosshairs in China today is the post-95/00 Generation (also known as GEN Z). They have personality, they have (some) money – and a Sense of Self that makes things extremely challenging for any brand marketer.
From WE to ME
This 170 million-strong generation is a social and psychological phenomenon new to modern China: From the ‘WE’ identity of preceding generations and their much more homogenously defined national-cultural sense of belonging, this generation’s focus is now almost exclusively on themselves.
China's Gen ME finds a sense of belonging and life meaning in their own ‘bubbles’, and ME is their main thematic expression.
Typical representative and very influential pop-cultural manifestations of this generation-defining phenomenon are programs such as《奇葩说 Qi Pa Shuo》or《脱口秀大会 Rock & Roast》and platforms such as Little Red Book or Bilibili where anyone and everyone can become a self-published, impactful voice with millions of fans and followers. Anyone, from the weirdest weirdo to the most stereotypical social stereotype, can offer their POV, share their personal thoughts and experiences. Audience and applause guaranteed. Everyone shares the same stage, but each individual revels in their own, unique and personal mindset ‘bubble’.
I Am Who I Am!
For Gen ME, 'me' is not just a key Self-Expression theme, it’s an existential state that makes sure that MY voice is being heard and recognized.
Needless to say, how they perceive themselves defines their perceptions of brands, if and why they purchase specific brands.
Some of the Brands that sponsored《奇葩说 Qi Pa Shuo》understood this, and adapted the way they expressed their messages accordingly.
Like the 有范 You Fan App’s slogan (before the App was removed for internal reasons): “有钱有势不如有范 Having a unique style is better than having money and power”. Apart from using a creative word play on its own brand name, this articulation spoke to the minds of the Gen ME.
The previous generation cares mainly about money, status and influence, but Gen ME's focus is on themselves, on their unique styles, their inimitable Self-Expression.
“Who I Am” is what matters, not what I have to show off to others.
Identity: Now Available in Stratified Dimensions
When earlier Chinese generations considered other people’s perceptions and a brand’s empowerment to show off, to reflect (real or pretended) social status and ‘membership’ with a certain group, today’s Gen ME couldn’t care less about those dimensions.
Gen ME has undergone a process called ”圈层化” or stratification: they have become stratified into myriads of ‘layers’ and ‘bubbles’. Not into demographic layers, but different identity-defining mindsets and perceptions, stratified into individual tensions, needs and aspirations.
It’s a new marketplace, a new consumer type that brands must recognize, decode and find new ways of connecting with.
You Can’t Segment Stratified Mindsets
It’s perhaps understandable why many marketers have jettisoned traditional consumer research: when self-focused ‘needs’ drive motivation and choice, any attempt to compartmentalize a myriad of individual Gen MEs along pre-articulated labels and categories is a meaningless task.
Many brands now operate in the hope that big data and AI analysis may shine a light onto the ‘inner workings’ of this generation and decode their ‘hot buttons’, so that rapid-reactive brand campaigns may quickly pinpoint the right consumer with the right mindset at the right time.
That’s the thinking – until, yet again, reality takes pleasure in dismantling wishful thinking and ambitious but irrelevant algorithms.
Brands: (Still) In the Dark
Brand managers admit they’re fumbling in the dark when it comes to understanding target audiences’ real emotions and motivations that underlie behavior and choices. Today’s personalized, targeted Brand campaigns still record way too many misses, sales and profits don’t justify the sustained burning of cash required to engender them.
That’s always been a challenge, but the irony is that Gen ME’s Emotional Needs are more critical to brand success than ever before: With Gen ME, focus has moved away from practical functionality and value, and to higher sensory, emotional and psychological dimension. Brands must target the Sense of Identity
The sense of “I am worth it” does not require better quality or material value, it demands an experience that meets emotional needs and confirms my personal identity.
A Gen ME's 'ME bubble’ can be a confirmation-seeking echo chamber, but it can also be – and often is – an active-positive way of asserting one's personal identity and seeking control in a changing, challenging and uncertain world.
So how does the brand deal with this?
Successful brands understand that they have to:
Cater to a higher-level identity with focus on personal value (“I deserve it”) at its core (and not product value)
Provide emotional confirmation that “I am creating a meaningful Self, I am pursuing a meaningful Life”
The brand must create and deliver a unique brand experience on the dimensions of:
Brand Story: the brand narrative consistently provides emotional confirmation of the Sense of Self and, critically, emotional ‘solutions’ and motivation
Sensory Markers: design, pack, etc.
Behavioral Markers: channels, purchase process, etc.
To achieve this, the brand has to deeply decode its Gen ME target audience members.
I mentioned in "People are Narratives - so are Stories" how standard compartmentalization into archetypes, scopes, metaphors, etc., has very limited value in unlocking real emotional needs, and the fact that Gen ME audiences now exist and thrive in their own stratified individualistic bubbles complicates things further.
Decoding & Unification of Gen ME Themes
We cannot address each individual bubble, but the brand must ‘cross strata (破圈, or pierce through)’ and unify various ME bubbles' themes and preferences to seek broader appeal.
The approach required to decode Gen MEs in an actionable way differs fundamentally from past generalizations or pre-prepared classifications and labels.
Steps include, first of all:
Decode individual strata (圈层): understand key formative elements that constructed the ‘ME strata/bubbles’- those are the so-called Emotional Needs you’re after. Using techniques that unlock the Personal Narratives and the Sense of Identity are most effective here.
Then, the following is critical:
Determine how various Self-focused Identity themes interact with ‘outside’ context, that is the world outside all those individual bubbles and strata.
Decode role of product / brand and related experiences along the formation of the ME bubble – not just present perceptions. For this, various associative and dissociative techniques are most effective.
You need all three layers of insights to then construct a product and brand experience of ‘cross-strata 破圈’ value, and across critical dimensions:
Sensory Dimension – have product sensory & design reflect Gen ME aesthetics and experience requirements.
Behavioral Dimension – match search, purchase and delivery processes with the ‘I Deserve Better’ mindset and being-in-control expectations of Gen ME.
Emotional Dimension – brand story and (consistent!) communication content across different channels are powered by a visceral ‘ME’ theme that connects with Gen ME's key needs for Self-Confirmation.
That way, a brand has the chance to enter those 'ME bubbles' and be admitted into the world of a very special and unique generation in modern Chinese history.