During this year’s National Day break in China (the first October week), various cities and locations across the country suffered snap lockdowns. On October 31 Shanghai’s Disneyland yet again fell victim to the Zero-Covid policy in China, had to close and immediately test 30,000 visitors – and a couple of friends who had visited Disneyland a day earlier saw their health codes turn yellow, meaning 3+4 quarantine.
During Shanghai’s catastrophic two-month lockdown earlier this year many citizens shared an unexpectedly cathartic realization, that is a mental reconciliation with older people’s quaint, OCD-like habit to ‘囤货 tún huò’, to hoard incomprehensible amounts of food at home. Old folks have always loved storing various packaged foods and beverages in cartons, large bags and even dustbin liners, filling every spare crook and corner and space available at home. What younger folks have now come to understand is a hard but acutely relevant truth: only what’s in your home is yours, and nothing else.
All those packs and cans, those condiments and bottled sauces—and, of course, toilet paper, female hygiene products, wet wipes and dog food—what they represent is a most solid and unshakeable sense of safety. These days, the feeling of a “safe and secure life” solely lies in the individual’s ability to control one’s basic life necessities. The rest is luxury.
Indeed, plenty of people have contracted ‘囤货焦虑症 tún huò jiāo lǜ zhèng’, or ‘Hoarding Anxiety Syndrome’ (HAS), an affliction that compels the individual to buy significantly more than what’s needed for a reasonable time frame, even if supermarket shelves are filled to the brim, even if there is no way one’s family could possibly ever consume all those goods within a statistically validated lifespan. People feel implacably compelled to buy as much as they can, to gain that sense of safety, and a feeling of control over one's immediate and (hopefully) longer-term future.
Hoarding is the self-administered treatment of one’s deepest fears and anxieties.
Another phenomenon that we’ve been observing in recent weeks is a dramatic increase of online searches for therapeutic products and services: standard psychotherapy, meditation, mindfulness, music therapy, aromatherapy, plant-based therapy, forest bathing, pet therapy, and so on. The industry has promptly responded to people’s vocal calls and silent needs for help: now you can find special ‘therapy spaces’, even therapy-focused hotel chains, and younger people in higher-tier cities in China, in particular, are important customers: “I need to de-stress and relax, I want to be able to sleep well again, I need to recover my inner peace, I want to feel accepted again, I don't want to feel crushed by all those economic and even existential uncertainties, I want to free myself of this debilitating anxiety that has taken over my mind and body! If I can’t leave the city, then please give me access to some kind of ‘心灵绿洲 xīn líng lǜ zhōu’, a spiritual oasis, within the city walls…”
From ‘内卷 nèi juàn', involution, to ‘佛系 fó xì', chilling about life, and ‘躺平 tǎng píng, lying flat’, from the city-wide lockdown to panic buying and food hoarding, perceptions of—and the need for—emotional well-being and therapy have changed significantly, compared to earlier generations in China. As Gen Z struggles to navigate increasingly scathing inner conflicts with previously nurtured values and imposed expectations, some are in search for more suitable (and individualistic) way of life, some seek to balance inner needs and external worlds, and learn to do so with limited resources, and others feel and follow the need for a richer spiritual life and personal growth—on their own terms instead of aligning with others’ expectations.
China’s domestic economic uncertainties, combined with imposed 'new life standardizations', some of them harrowing, have upset and fractured people’s previous life concepts. The ‘old order’ has vanished, everyone is being forced to reconsider life, work and consumption, how to manage one’s personal emotional needs and well-being, and how a vague and nebulous future corresponds to one’s sense of self and identity. It is yet another unprecedented existential and psychological ‘upheaval’ for modern China’s younger (and even older) adults, and one that is already showing significant changes in how people evaluate their lifestyles, money and spending patterns.
In a currently forming ‘post-pandemic new era’, an era born out of the Zero-Covid policy and all its assaults on life, people's relationships with brands are also changing dramatically.
For marketers the main question they must ask themselves right now is:
How much do I really understand about Chinese people’s changing needs and aspirations? What role can and should my brand play in their changing lives and lifestyles, how meaningful is my current brand narrative to those who have discarded yesterday’s perceptions and who are now creating brave new worlds for themselves?
A fundamental perceptual and emotional shift in Chinese people’s hearts and minds is currently underway, and one had better go and make the effort to understand that change, to then recalibrate one's product experience, brand narrative and communication strategies.
Chinese literary and slang terms used in this article:
‘囤货 tún huò’, to hoard (food and other life necessities);
‘囤货焦虑症 tún huò jiāo lǜ zhèng’, ‘Hoarding Anxiety Syndrome’ (HAS);
‘内卷 nèi juàn’, or involution (originally an agricultural term), denoting the sense of frustration when even increased efforts are rewarded with ever diminishing returns;
‘心灵绿洲 xīn líng lǜ zhōu’, a spiritual oasis;
‘佛系 fó xì’, chilling about life and everything else;
‘躺平 tǎng píng’, lying flat, doing nothing (to recalibrate one’s thoughts and emotions, and find a new direction that is different from previously described life templates);