Chinese women may enjoy new freedoms in the home and at work, but they face conflicting ideals that marketers can help to reconcile.
Over the past 10 years, Chinese women have experienced a thrilling liberation of lifestyle choices. Fashion, once zealously monochromatic, now explodes with colour. Professional horizons have opened up and it's becoming more common for women to take control of major household decisions. New opportunities, however, mask a precarious balance that 'modern women' must maintain between competing societal and personal demands. Savvy marketers can position their brands as a means to resolve conflicts that linger in the heart and, in doing so, enhance consumer loyalty and justify a higher price premium.
CONFLICT AND BALANCE Today's Chinese woman is torn between the expectations of society and the aspiration for individualism. She is caught between three seemingly incompatible paradigms, two of them imposed by a regimented social structure and the third by the individual herself.
SOCIETY'S ARCHETYPES Confucianism, despite the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, is still the closest thing China has to cultural DNA. For more than 2,000 years, Chinese women have been taught that their ultimate role is to be a kind wife and gentle mother. All ambitions must be channelled into 'protecting' the family and bearing sons. In China's dynastic, patriarchical social structure, girls were handmaidens to boys.
Things changed dramatically when the Communist Party came to power. Overt femininity became a crime, but women were still freer than at any point in history. Mao rallied the nation to industrialise and women were exhorted to hold up half the sky. They were valued as economic entities, able to help forge a communist paradise. Post-1949, laws on divorce, inheritance and education – all traditionally biased against women – crum bled. In the new era, sexuality was ruthlessly repressed and aesthetic sensibilities snuffed out. But, more positively, women were for the first time allowed to pursue professional and political careers.
During the past 50 years, Chinese women have been confronted with two distinct role models: the 'warrior achiever' and the 'loving mother'. Women, understandably confused, have swung between the two, because both remain relevant.
INDIVIDUALISM CREEPS IN Both archetypes demand subordination of self-interest to society. The loving mother serves the clan, while the warrior pleases the Party. However, the collective straightjacket has recently been loosened due to a) globalisation, b) international media influences, c) party-endorsed capitalism that thrives on entrepreneurial self-expression, and d) the legions of Little Empresses growing up in single-child households. Individualism has emerged and Nike, to cite only one example, has latched on to these trends in a recent fitness campaign, exhorting women to 'do sports and forget the rules'.
Today's Chinese woman is caught between three conflicting ideals: loving mother, warrior and self-actualised princess. The ideal of 'having it all' is a glorious-but-impossible dream. Marketers can help reconcile these conflicts by taking pains to:
LET HER SUCCEED… GRACEFULLY Put the woman on top but not by sacrificing feminine charm. She must never emasculate her partner (or colleagues) with uncouth directness or an iron fist. The Diamond Trading Company airs copy that equates diamonds with clued-in savvy; however, an understated and feminine 'sparkle' also shines through. The diamond is not a 'power tool'. Procter & Gamble's Rejoice shampoo, a brand that has succeeded in capturing a 20 per cent market share, is all about uninhibited self-assurance, albeit one wrapped in gentle beauty (soft and silky hair). RECOGNISE THE IMPORTANCE OF 'LIFE STAGES' Few have what it takes to become a complete and well-rounded modern woman. Therefore, different ideals dominate at different times. The fresh college graduate is intoxicated with self discovery, so Siemens markets its Minnie mobile phone to the girl who wants to 'go anywhere and do everything'. After marriage, however, the Confucian that resides in every Chinese woman compels selfless acceptance of responsibility. She should morph into a modern saint – the noble protector of the family, especially of her child's future. Jin Sheng Insurance's recent television commercial, for example, depicts an elegant-yet-unemployed mother accepting menial jobs so that she can afford to send her daughter to college.
PROVIDE A STAMP OF APPROVAL Self-driven individualism is a creeping phenomenon that has been imported from the West. As a result, most of a woman's self-worth is derived from third-party endorsement. Therefore, irrespective of what socio-economic segment is targeted, a product must elicit praise. Unilever's Fengcao, a rural market washing powder, delivers both 'clothes that look like new' (effective stain removal) and community admiration (sanctioning her 'performance' as a mother). P&G's Sunlight powder advertising extracts the beaming satisfaction of a wife's toughest critic – the mother-in-law. DTC's copy shows a sparkling diamond shining into the eyes of admirers.
REASSURE HER OF HIS LOVE Marriage, too, is largely a social institution. While romance is aspirational, a truly successful union springs from and perpetuates a materially protected future, not a fluttering heart. Taiwan's First Bank actually suggests that its retail services bind a man and woman together. Since passion is not the core of courtship, women are naturally insecure about the feelings of their partners and the future prospects for their family. Therefore, position your product as a demonstration that he would go anywhere or do anything for her. Valentine's Day, now firmly established in China, is more 'proof' of commitment than an expression of love. (Translation: the price of the gift is more important than what's written in the card.) Unilever's Hazeline ginseng shampoo enhances the beauty of her long hair but, even more important, is positioned as a way for women to keep their men.
ABET HER ESCAPE Being a modern woman is a calorie-burning occupation. Around every corner, there's another role to fill and tightrope to cross. So alleviate her stress. The Lipton tea break should go beyond relaxation. It should soothe and liberate her from the demands of others. An excursion to the mall is a primal release, not a bargain-hunting expedition. A woman's apartment is a both a place to live and a shelter from outside pressure. The convenience of a Little Swan dishwasher should take her away from taxing tedium.
To build brand equity, and hence justify a price premium, know your target. Understand her fundamental motivations of behaviour and preferences. Help her dream the impossible dream of being a perfect modern woman.
This article was written by Tom Doctoroff, J. Walter Thompson's Northeast Asia Director; CEO, Greater China.