China's Millennial Consumers: What Victoria's Secret Got Wrong, And Nike Got Right

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Includes: LB, NKE
by: Helen Wang

Chinese millennials are a new breed of consumers who will shape the future of commerce. They are very interested in consumption and excited by it. They constantly live-stream fashion shows on their phones and discuss new trends.

Photo credit: Jing Daily

Yet, they are also torn between the old and new. They are conflicted between their national pride and their love for western brands. They are struggling to find their own individuality in a collective culture.

At a recent fashion show in Paris, Victoria's Secret (NYSE:LB) tried to woo Chinese consumers by showcasing dragon-themed lingerie. The supermodel Elsa Hosk appeared on the runway with an elaborate dragon wrapped around on her body, Kendall Jendall wore a pair of phoenix wings made of feather, and Adrian Lima cat-walked in a pair of dragon-embroidered stiletto boots.

But Chinese consumers found these outfits distasteful and tacky. Many commented on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog site, that the dragon themed-outfits were "really ugly" and didn't represent Chinese culture. Some were even offended. An article by Helin Jung, a lifestyle editor for Cosmopolitan, who is an ethnic Chinese, called the show "racist" (the article has since been deleted). "What condescension," she wrote, "for Victoria's Secret to think that by wrapping a model in a dragon, it could connect directly with a new consumer in China."

What went wrong with Victoria's Secret's effort to impress Chinese consumers?

First, it takes more than a superficial understanding of Chinese culture to attract Chinese consumers. The dragon in Chinese tradition represents the majesty of an emperor. The clothing the emperor wore were called a dragon robe. The throne the emperor sat on was called a dragon chair. Even the emperor's body was called a dragon body. The Chinese refer to themselves as descendants of the Dragon. Therefore, the dragon is a sacred symbol and should be revered. Pairing a dragon with revealing lingerie on models' super sexy bodies is completely off-putting, and inappropriate to say the least.

Second, Chinese consumers, particularly those who are interested in lingerie, are the young generation who grew up during China's reform and opening. They have been exposed to all sorts of ideas that the modern world has to offer. They are attracted to the western lifestyle and see the dragon as a representation of the "old world" that they are trying to break away from.

That doesn't mean they don't identify with their own culture. They are at the age of rebellion and reject the old fashioned ways of dressing. They may be nationalistic, but they are torn between the pride of Chinese culture and the sophistication of Western consumerism. The brands that can address this tension will be relevant to Chinese consumers and gain their loyalty.

Nike (NYSE:NKE) has done a stellar job on this. In a 90-second advertisement video, Nike introduces its hallmark slogan "Just Do It" to Chinese fans with a powerful but rebellious message that shakes the core of Chinese conventions.

The video starts with a young boy juggling a soccer ball as he walks out of school. Then, a group of girls dribbling basketballs on the streets, cyclists zipping by, skateboarders and frisbee players soon weaving around spontaneously. The pace picks up as the camera's focus flows to rooftops, where parkour are flipping off walls and swinging by scaffolding. The final scene of roller hockey players, BMX bikers, golfers and runners is climaxed by powerful music, and contrasted by a silent sign of "Just Do It."

The ad seems to be about sports. But it is more than that. It addresses the internal tension that the Chinese are experiencing everyday.

In a society of Confucius tradition, young people are expected to "glorify" their families with academic advancement and financial success. They are constantly under pressure to fulfil family and society's expectations. In addition, Chinese culture is very collective. People tend to do what their peers think is cool and trendy.

The lyrics of the video inspires a defiant attitude toward conventional wisdom. "You don't have to do it for the glory. You don't have to do it to be famous… You don't have to do it to be like others…. You don't have to do it this way or that way." As it turns out, there isn't a right way to do any of it at all. All you need is to "Just Do It." The message evokes strong emotion, and speaks powerfully to Chinese youth. It encourages them to find their own paths, dare to be different, and be their own authentic selves. No wonder some young Chinese buy Nike shoes every two months!

Chinese millennial consumers will be a major force to drive China's consumption growth in the next 10 years. Companies must understand them intimately in order to win their hearts and minds.

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