But what truly sets China’s Gen Z apart from previous generations, and poses the greatest threat for multinationals from Sony to Christian Dior and Nike is their growing nationalism, fuelled by Beijing’s desire to flex the country’s rising global clout. It’s put governments and companies on an increasingly delicate footing, lest they find themselves at the centre of a storm of criticism.
Young, proud Chinese drove the backlash against Hennes & Mauritz AB and Nike after the companies denounced the use of cotton from the contentious Xinjiang region due to accusations of human rights violations against its Uighur minority. H&M, in particular, has become a cautionary tale with its business in China yet to recover.
The gap left behind paved the way for local rivals like Anta Sports and Li Ning – who support Xinjiang cotton – to surpass them in sales by introducing products targeting local consumers, including apparel emblazoned with Chinese characters and sneakers inspired by the Forbidden City. By the end of January 2022, Anta and Li Ning dominated 28 per cent of sneaker sales, 12 percentage points higher than before the Xinjiang outcry.
It’s a shift echoed across other consumer segments, with local drink maker Genki Forest to cosmetic brand Perfect Diary gaining market share and customer loyalty in sectors that used to be dominated by international names.
Local brands’ “key focus is maintaining their brand position relevant to the Chinese consumers, while global brands must balance not only the trends in China, but also globally to ensure it does not become different things in different countries,” said Kenny Yao, a director at AlixPartners Shanghai, a consulting firm that advises clients on developing businesses in China.
A new generation
Unlike their parents, China’s Gen Z tends to be less impressed by products simply because they’re foreign.
Western trends dominated the market once China started to open up to foreign investment in the late 1970s. It sparked an influx of brands from McDonald’s to Toshiba, Adidas and Starbucks Corp. That helped fuel China’s rise into the world’s second-biggest economy.
Sarah Lin, a 22-year-old student in Beijing, said her parents still get excited by items that only have foreign-language labels because they assume it’s a premium product. But during the time she studied abroad, she realised many brands considered high end in China are mass-market names at home. Now, she prefers to research products and is happy to buy domestic names due to their improving quality and designs that appeal to her.
“In the past, people would think those who wear Li Ning can’t afford Nike, but foreign brands are not as mysterious to me as to my parents,” said Lin. “I don’t want to pay any premium for a brand’s origin, I’ll only pay for its designs and value for money.”
Meeting the needs of more discerning customers is also proving a challenge for some foreign brands. Each year, companies from LVMH to Zara roll out collections of handbags to sweaters to mark the Lunar New Year, but their styles — usually emblazoned with traditional folk art and lots of red and gold — are often made fun of by young Chinese consumers who want to express their individual style rather than buy mass-produced fashion that treats them as a monolith.
“The greatest misperception of China is that modernisation means Westernisation.That’s been the gamble for all brands.”
Zak Dychtwald, founder of trend research company Young China Group
Other firms have been more targeted in appealing to Gen Z. Prada SpA’s recent Lunar New Year collection involved a competition for under-30s artists to have their work judged and chosen for a project. Toothpaste brand Crest used a multi-day immersive event that had users solving a murder mystery as part of a new-product launch.
A growing sense of cultural pride has developed alongside a maturation of Chinese brands. And while the shift to buying local isn’t unique to China, few places in the world have the extensive government support and state media apparatus to push the idea on to consumers so comprehensively.
The revival of hanfu — a traditional, flowing style of clothing characterised by a robe worn over a skirt – is a case in point. Initially a small-scale movement in the mid-2000s, it’s grown into a market worth 10 billion yuan a year and is drawing investor interest. Designer Shisanyu raised over 100 million yuan in an April last year, led by Loyal Valley Capital and Bilibili, while Sequoia-backed retailer Shierguangnian has emerged as a top seller.
Like their peers worldwide, China’s Gen Z grew up online and the country’s use of social-commerce has become an increasingly important tool for brands. The sales channel, which allows users to buy products through social media platforms and interact directly with live streamers, is expected to grow into a more than $US1.6 trillion ($2.3 trillion) business by 2025. That’s about half of total e-commerce sales and up from one-fifth in 2019, according to China Renaissance.
It’s proved to be a fertile source of revenue for domestic brands. Florasis, a Chinese cosmetics brand founded in 2017, has become the country’s biggest, supported by livestreamers who demonstrate products and engage with users.
But Western firms, not as accustomed to the method of selling, have had more mixed results. An hour-long livestream by Louis Vuitton in 2020 drew viewers, but also complaints that the setting was too low-end for the luxury label.
Both domestic and foreign firms are also grappling with mounting short-term headwinds as China’s pursuit of COVID Zero leaves it stuck in a cycle of lockdowns and reopenings that are taking a growing economic and social toll. The youth jobless rate hit a record in April and Gen Z has the most conservative view on increasing spending this year, according to an OC&C report in December.
Still, Gen Z’s increasing power means their preferences will reshape the consumer sector for decades to come.
“Foreign brands need to be aware that, compared with older generations, China’s young shoppers are even more demanding,” said Veronica Wang, partner at OC&C Strategy Consultants. They “can no longer enter the market arrogantly, saying ‘hey this is our cool product, take it’. They need to try understanding better what Chinese consumers want and like, embracing Chinese culture and being more open-minded to adjust themselves to fit in the local market.”
Wang highlighted South Korean eye-wear brand Gentle Monster as an overseas label able to gain ground with younger Chinese consumers through constant product innovation and themed stores, which speak to Gen Z’s desire for a memorable experience. Foreign companies will also need to empower their teams in China, who can better read local consumption patterns and make rolling out new products more efficient.
“The greatest misperception of China is that modernisation means Westernisation,” said trend researcher Dychtwald. “That’s been the gamble for all brands.”