The Chinese character for 'man' depicts 'power in the field'. Angular and bold, the pictogram celebrates testosterone-fuelled masculinity; it also suggests that men, while ruling the roost, were fully responsible for the material well-being of the clan. Confucianism, China's cultural blueprint, is rooted in double-edged patriarchy – men boast power but are also constrained by the yoke of duty. They must set up a household and establish a career, be successful by 30 and bring glory to ancestors.
In dynastic times, the burden was heavy but at least the path to success was meticulously laid out and ultimately within the control of the individual. By mastering a body of Confucian scripture, an ambitious man could pass the palace exams, enter the lofty ranks of the scholar-official class and enjoy power, prestige and wealth.
When Deng Xiaoping embarked on his famous 1992 Southern Tour, he proclaimed, "To get rich is glorious." This pronouncement made the acquisition of wealth man's newest and most worthy pursuit. The definition of success, always divorced from Western individualism, was as narrow and societally-mandated as in dynastic China. A man's responsibility to his family remained absolute. But the means of acquiring wealth – an entrepreneurial, pioneering spirit – became separated, driven as much by serendipity as internal drive. Education was no longer a non-refundable ticket to greatness. In the brave new world, 'high risk, high return' supplanted 'no pain, no gain' as the maxim de rigueur.
Building a great nation
As a result, contemporary Chinese men are fraught with lingering anxiety and nebulous loss of control. Deng talked of the need to "cross the river by feeling the stones," meaning that there was no roadmap to chart China's future economic growth. Marketers have an opportunity to touch the hearts of men by developing products and communications that demonstrate the continued imperative of building a great nation, and by extension an individual's career, even without such a map. Here are six specific ways of achieving this objective:
The Chinese man is unsure of the road ahead. Status, therefore, is a crutch, a means of demonstrating the capacity to forge a successful future. Yanger apparel, a mid-priced brand, presents the 'Yanger Man' as a savvy bidder at an upscale auction. Virgin Atlantic positions its aromatherapy services as the quintessence of personalisation, effectively transforming a plane seat into a throne. Hai Wang Jin Zun tonic even draws a parallel between the strength of the drinker and the power of an emperor. Every communication should – preferably with a bit of grace – reinforce a man's self-perception as a high-potential stallion.
Give him tools
Capitalistic success is mostly determined by external variables, so an individual must seize fluid opportunities. Every product should be an enabler, a tool to extend his reach. Technology is not only a productivity enhancer but also a weapon, a means of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Siemens' GPRS-enabled mobile phone is more about 'closing the deal' than 'anytime, anywhere internet access.' Motorola's business phones are 'the choice of winning CEOs.' Even Rejoice shampoo, a brand built around 'the confidence that flows from soft and shiny hair,' artfully connects 'no dandruff' with 'impressing the boss,' one whose endorsement can be wielded on the business battlefield.
Release his aggression
Confucianism is anti-individualistic and so, too, is its modern incarnation, Chinese communism. Regimented benchmarks of achievement imposed by a rigid social structure do not foster self-actualisation. Instead, they breed repression. A man, consequently, relishes the release of pent-up frustration. Victory should be larger than life. Challenge should be heroic. ADSL (internet access) advertising compares the surfer's 'unleashed power' to a gladiator's superhuman strength. Gentle patriotism can quickly morph into bold, ego-affirming nationalism, which can compensate for some men's fragile identity. Coca-Cola's World Cup advertising featured football star Li Tie, who spreads China's glory around the world. China Unicom paid almost US$5m for basketball superstar Yao Ming's endorsement. The advertising is crude but it still manages to draw a parallel between the heroic 'national treasure' and Unicom's shining future.
Help him pass 'the girl test' Confucius said a man must provide for the family. To impress a girl, he needs to demonstrate an ability to bring home the bacon. (Diamond engagement rings are a projection of material self-sufficiency. The Diamond Trading Company claims an 83 percent penetration in Shanghai, compared with 65 percent in Japan.) An ordinary guy struggles under the weight of responsibility; his wife or girlfriend rarely cedes an opportunity to remind him of his lot. So put him back on top by making him feel in charge. The Schick man doesn't just 'win' the girl; he 'conquers' her. The China Eastern flight attendant, unlike her American counterpart, gives the passenger an impression that his personal comfort, not his safety, comes first. Siemens has built its youth franchise on the premise of 'being clever enough to catch her off guard.'
The disoriented modern man craves retreat; friendship is the ultimate sanctuary. Bonds that have stood the test of time – ideally dating back to childhood – fuel the warmth of many alcohol campaigns, such as Rheineck beer and He Jiu liquor. Tiger beer and Sedrin lager, Fujian province's leading brand, tackle friendship from another angle. Both recognise most 'newer' friendships are about building a functional business network. They are 'trust enablers,' transforming skittish acquaintance into robust camaraderie.
Make him an expert
Finally, if he feels anxious about his ability to learn the professional ropes, help him compensate by becoming a pro outside the office. From the lady-killer who has the body of Brad Pitt (Big Impression weight loss tea) to the sailor who has tamed the sea (Suntory beer), local and international brands forge loyalty by paying tribute to the well-rounded, multidimensional man. From the chef to scratch golfer, from the literature aficionado to the racquetball champ, salute the man with more on his mind than the pettiness of corporate political intrigue.
In conclusion, Chinese men are caught between narrowly defined (monetary and professional) success and a broadly individualistic path to get there. The clash between means and ends leads to a diffused anxiety. To be successful in China, marketers must find a way of becoming a man's partner on the bumpy journey to greatness.
This article was written by Tom Doctoroff, J. Walter Thompson's Northeast Asia Director; CEO, Greater China.