For all their big egos, ambitions and internationalization, new-generation Chinese consumers are not becoming individualistic in the Western sense. The middle class, those who can afford non-essential items, is torn between two impulses: projection of status, aggressive self-expression and experimentation with new modes of style versus a fear of sticking out too obviously or challenging existing hierarchies and social restrictions.
Age and location are, of course, key variants. Younger people in top-tier cities who are open to and accepting of Western style (think tattoos, piercings and business casual) are more willing to accept less conservative expression of identity. And it is possible to "push the curve," to encourage Chinese to experiment with more audacious new fashion, although this must be done gingerly, without crossing an invisible line of overt rebellion.
Broadly speaking, Western-style individualism is like Eve’s apple – succulent, enticing, desired. Biting into it, however, risks social exclusion. This conflict between standing out and fitting in is reflected in design and product preference across a wide range of categories. As a result, there are a few basic rules that should be followed.
Be elegantly grand. "Face," the currency of forward advancement, is fundamental in Chinese society. Big is in. Two door cars sell less well than four door sedans and lobby foyers are designed to impress, not charm. But, increasingly, size must be lightened with streamlined refinement. Gold-trimmed rococo interiors, 10 years ago the mark of continental sophistication, are off-putting. "Shanghai chic" – long lines, simple shapes and uncluttered rooms – is the taste of the upwardly mobile.
Avoid signaling aggressive intent. Chinese society – competitive to its core, morally relativistic and disoriented by a first-generation capitalist ethos – is saddled with a massive trust deficit, both individually and institutionally. Trust facilitation is, therefore, the first step in establishing collaboration. Any signals of bold ambition – hot red sports cars, ready-to-pounce kinetic design – will be instantly rejected. Mercedes-Benz, the ultimate bling machine, is more appropriate "for my boss, not me." Vivienne Westwood, a rebellious fashion brand, will not achieve critical mass in the PRC. The same goes for Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, niche luxury labels more popular among mistresses than wives. Seattle grunge – ripped jeans and coarse fabric – never caught on and Fredrick’s of Hollywood, an advocate of leather and whips, isn’t likely to. On the other hand, hip hop boasts urban playfulness and rhythmic funkiness. It will be cool for years.
Sparkle, don’t glare. China chic is monochromatic with a flash of color, a gaze punctuated by a wink. Mont Blanc is a masterpiece of sotte voce dazzle. During focus groups, respondents speak of graceful craftsmanship and smooth writing. Talking one-on-one, however, it’s the six-pointed white star that mesmerizes: A man can grab attention just by slipping the pen in his pocket.
Ensure instant brand recognition. Brand selection is a tool for "showing you know." Successful brands therefore possess distinctive visual cues – consider Louis Vuitton’s LV logo, Bottega Veneta’s distinctive leather cross-weave and Coach’s uniquely shaped strap. However, visual symbols must be prominent, not gaudy. Gucci’s in-your-face "double G" belt buckle is popular only among the newest nouveau rich; more sophisticated types prefer the eye-catching understatement of Tiffany’s pale blue and classic silver jewelry.
Project substance. Brands should help a go-getter stand out without suggesting superficiality. This can be done by integrating a streamlined, high-tech beauty in design templates, as is the case with most Apple products. Innovation streams also convey substance beneath the sparkle. Every automobile nameplate must roll out several models per year. Mobile phones should showcase cutting-edge features, even if some of them are only for image building purposes. Nokia’s jewel-encrusted Vertu phone, for example, generated limited sales but loads of powerful PR. Pioneering concepts signal hefty R&D budgets and justify price premiums.
The Chinese saying "the leading goose gets shot down" is as true today as it was yesterday. As such, people are drawn to product designs that enable them to simultaneously stand out and fit in. Although the balance is expressed differently depending on category dynamics and segment-specific motivations, maintaining this balance is a must.