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The Chinese Consumer’s Sense of Identity vis-à-vis Brand Communication

I. Identity

Identity is the internalized narrative of personal experiences, a continuously evolving account that seeks order from mayhem, consistency, and plausibility. The individual’s relentless construction of ‘My Narrative’ is critical in balancing emotional tensions and in powering my path forward into the future.

Cultural and media contextual elements play an impactful role, of course, as the individual seeks to mesh his or her personal narrative with the world s/he lives in. Focus, however, remains on the Sense of Self: emotional tensions that must be balanced, personal needs and aspirations that seek fulfillment.

In China, whenever there is a felt dissonance between the Self and the external world (e.g., disagreement with authorities or media), the external mask solidifies to play along. Having said that, Chinese citizen do seek to balance personal, cultural, and national narrative & identity layers (and more so than Westerners): to reduce unnecessary friction that may impact relationships, the feeling of security, and indeed one’s Sense of Identity.

II. Is Narrative the same as Story?

Marketers often mistake story for narrative, and vice versa: a story conveys specifically

designed information, mostly in anecdotal or reporting format.

Narrative, in contrast, defines meaning.

This is of critical importance – powerful, sustainable brand equity can only be achieved by a brand narrative that:

  • provides a unique angle on a given (brand) theme, and

  • speaks to and enhances the recipient’s personal narrative;

In other words, a brand narrative must provide meaning which, importantly, syncs with the recipient’s sense of identity.

III. Brand Meaning and the Sense of Self

Stories are nothing more than stylized communication elements, distributed across various media channels. They are surface manifestations that grow out of a brand’s fundamental narrative – like plants nourished by and sprouting out of fertile (meaningful) soil. Stories smoothen the syncing process between brand communication and recipient, but they must feed off the underlying narrative meaning.

This is a main reason why brand communication in the form of expensive and slickly packaged stories may have great entertainment value but still fails to touch and motivate consumers – because such communication lacks the deeper meaning that syncs with the brand's target audiences’ personal narratives and sense of identity.

IV. Unlocking the Consumer’s Identity vis-à-vis Brand Role

Decoding people’s personal narratives requires the exploration of their formative experiences, and how s/he has created a coherent ‘truth’ from those, that is his or her sense of identity.

The most effective approach for this is Narrative Psychology which, since the late ‘90s, has evolved into an almost peerless tool for decoding people’s innermost tensions, needs and aspirations.

Over the years, we have further developed techniques to uncover the role that specific brands and products play in people’s lives – in particular, during the constant evolution of their personal identity-forming narratives. This has become a most critical source of intelligence for the brand manager, because it allows them to:

  • identify sync points between brand experience and personal narrative;

  • validate the individual’s real motivation for the brand / product;

  • identify how to better align brand experience with his/her sense of identity;

You guessed it: we can determine how to more effectively address and even further enhance target audiences’ sense of identity via brand communication: via the frames we apply in positioning and communication, the visual elements we use, the specific stories we tell, and how all those elements feed from a compelling brand narrative.

V. Today’s Caveat for (non-Chinese) Brands: the Political Climate

Unfortunately, and yet implacably, the larger political climate defines the powerful ‘National Narrative’ Layer more forcefully these days, and that layer has become more impactful on the individual in China today, compared to pre-pandemic times.

Let's face it: this will continue to impact Chinese attitudes to foreign brands, making it harder for many brands to find emotional sync points between brand and personal narratives – albeit not impossible.

The other unfortunate aspect is the country’s tightening constraints on the market research industry, which includes indigenous researchers becoming increasingly bound by internal constraints as to their ability and willingness to explore Chinese consumers' mindsets, emotions and attitudes on behalf of non-Chinese brands. This is why, among other reasons, today most of our team members in mainland China hail from Taiwan or other countries and who speak native-fluent Chinese, who are fully immersed in the Chinese psyche, thought and culture – and who are not personally bound by such constraints, whether in attitude or force majeure.

Overall, it has become more difficult to gain access to Chinese consumers’ hearts and minds, in particular when it comes to exploring their genuine needs and motivations.

While the goal remains the same, that is making your brand narrative sync with your Chinese target audience’s personal narrative and sense of identity, today it all boils down to who you work with, and what sort of approaches you apply.

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