China is famous worldwide for its unique consumer trends. From ‘Face-Kinis’, to the ‘Belly Button Challenge’, to weird and wacky fashion fads, Chinese consumer culture is always throwing up new ideas and products which can prove puzzling to the outside observer. But what can these unusual trends teach us about China’s rapidly evolving consumer dynamics? – It turns out a lot! Read on to learn more…
“The Belly Button Challenge” – fan shou mo duqi – 反手摸肚脐
One of the biggest fads on Chinese social media this year has been the Belly Button Challenge. Chinese social media users are dared to reach behind their backs and touch their belly buttons to determine if they had the “ideal” figure and don’t need to lose weight by some questionable logic. In less than two months, the craze had received almost 300 million views on Weibo. Although the challenged is based on no scientific evidence and accused of encouraging unhealthy body image and eating disorders, it continues to attract social media hits from women aspiring to be baifumei (白富美) – pale-skinned, rich, and beautiful.
The fad has been followed by the “Collarbone Challenge” (锁骨放硬币 – suo gu fang ying bi). In an equally peculiar vain, women measure their slimness by stacking coins within the gap of their collarbone. China’s obsession with beauty carried on with the “Taylor Swift Leg Challenge” (Taylor Swift：你的腿可以横跨几个人- ni de tui ke yi heng kua ji ge ren). Inspired by Swift’s long legs, Chinese women posted pictures of themselves stretching their legs across as many people as possible to show off the longness of their own pins.
The appeal of these campaigns lies in their simple and accessible “do-it-yourself” nature, and all of them showcase the power and influence of Weibo as a viral marketing tool.
Crush Crush Tribe – nie nie zu – 捏捏族
First emerging in the summer of 2009, this strange phenomenon quickly spread from China’s mega cities to second and third tier cities. The Crush Crush Tribe are typically white collar workers who, in an effort to release stress from busy urban lives, go to shops and take out their frustration by secretly crushing and stomping on food products. Popular groceries include dried noodles, soda drinks, and cookies.
The phenomenon has proved a popular topic on social media. There is an account dedicated to the “art” of crushing on the popular QQ messaging service, providing a central discussion point for tribe members. The page discusses the psychological benefits of crushing products, with users describing the satisfaction they feel as they destroy items. Many “crushers” tout the craze as a valuable form of catharsis and stress release.
Most attribute the Crush Crush Tribe’s origins to the increasingly pressurised professional and social lives of modern urban China. Many “crushers” identify as Diaosi; white collar workers with dim professional or romantic prospects. For example, one member of the QQ account explains his passion for crushing dried supermarket noodles as driven by solitude, claiming: “It’s not instant noodles that I’m crushing, it is loneliness”. However, the Crush Crush Tribe’s actions have been deemed an irresponsible fad by many; not least shop keepers, who claim the trend is “immoral” and reflective of a “sheep-like” mentality amongst Chinese consumers.
Since peaking in 2009,the Crush Crush Tribe’s ranks have depleted considerably in recent years, with “crushers” splintering off in favour of other kooky forms of tension relief. Amongst them are the “Rip Rip Tribe” (拆拆族) who split open packages of socks and underwear, and the “Switch-Switch Tribe” (调包族) who take out their frustrations by mixing and matching different products in similar sized packages. Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of evidence of continuing frustration of shoppers’ mischief within supermarkets aisles across China.
“Face-Kinis” – liǎnjīní – 脸基尼
Coming to a beach near you! Since their invention in Qingdao in 2006, the slightly creepy design of Face-Kinis (脸基尼) has attracted attention around the world. The latex masks cover the wearer’s entire face and neck, aside from small holes for the nose, mouth and eyes, withthe added bonus of protecting wearers against jelly-fish stings..More than 30,000 of the masks sold in 2014.
The popularity of Face-Kinis is consistent with the traditional idea that dark skin is unattractive in China. Those with a dark complexion are often associated with poor rural laborers who work long days in the sun, whilst pale skin is seen as a mark of high social class and refined culture. The Face-Kini is just one of a long line of weapons available to Chinese consumers including the ever-popular sun umbrella – tai yang san 太阳伞.
Face-Kinis are worn by Chinese women beach-goers of all ages. Even men occasionally don the mask. However the typical Face-Kini wearer is a mature woman – a powerful consumer demographic which marketers often overlook, or find difficult to successfully access. By 2050, it is estimated that one third of China’s citizens will be over 60, over twice the current proportion, so it’s clear that businesses that are able to successfully understand and tap into this demographic will reap significant rewards.
International visitors to China are often fascinated at the diversity of unusual food and drinks available to them. Flavours, textures, and tastes, as well as the development, packaging and promotion of products all take on a unique twist within the Middle Kingdom. Many Western companies have adapted their products to local tastes in China. PepsiCo markets its Lay’s potato crisps in flavours ranging from cucumber to the Sichuan classic ‘Numb & Spicy Hot Pot’ to ‘Hot & Sour Fish Soup’. While Mondelez has adapted the universally popular Oreo cookie to Chinese consumers’ tastes with flavours such as green tea, and ‘Birthday Cake’. Other products deemed peculiar to Western tastes are Quaker’s beetroot and sun-dried tomato flavoured instant porridge. McDonalds’ metallic grey-coloured ‘Black Sesame Soft Serve’ ice cream and matching silver cone is a popular choice amongst Chinese consumers.
Within China, consumer taste buds vary massively, with consumers in different regions preferring a wide spectrum of flavours and different styles of products. For example, Shanghainese are famous for enjoying sweeter food, while consumers in Chongqing are obsessed with all things spicy.
These unique quirks, combined with the complexity of the Chinese market, necessitate that brands interested in marketing to Chinese consumers get serious about ‘localising’ their products to suit Chinese consumers’ tastes and preferences. Consumer-led market research and product trials are a great way to do this.
The “Vampire Craze” has been a growing trend in Chinese youth culture for the past few years, however the popularity of this trend has recently picked up speed with the popularity of American TV drama, ‘Vampire Diaries’.
Within China a small teenage sub-culture of “vampires” has emerged, creating an increasing demand for quirky Gothic products, merchandise and vampire themed activities. This demand has seen the creation of products such as ‘Blood Energy Potion’; drinks which are decanted into, and consumed from plastic IV bags. The goriest version is the “Blood B-Type” drink. Pitched as the world’s first blood substitute beverage, “Blood B-Type” is designed to mimic the nutrients, colour and texture of real blood.
However, these creepy Gothic drinks have not gone unnoticed by the Chinese Government. Last July, China’s Food and Drug Administration (the CFDA) banned the drinks – citing concerns about the product’s safety and their impact on young adults in China. The CDFA claims the drinks, and their provocative marketing strategy “violates social integrity and moral principles”. The ban demonstrates the need for marketers in China to toe the official line.
Despite this ban, aspiring vampires can continue to stock up on their favourite drinks via China’s largest online platform Taobao as well as enjoy their favourite blood beverages in vampire themed cafes across China.
Shamate – 杀马特
Shamate are a subculture of young Chinese rural migrants. Typically with little formal education, stuck in low-skilled jobs and living in overcrowded apartments, Shamate can be considered the polar opposite of xiaoqingxin (小清新) – China’s well-travelled, educated, and privileged youth. The group’s distinctive fashion sense is a mix of Goth, glam and anime fashion, with heavy eye make-up and hair bleached in bright colours a Shamate style staple.
The term is a Chinese transliteration of the word smart, and the insult “Idiot Shamate” (“脑残杀马特”) is a popular put-down bounded around on Chinese social media channels with the purpose of describing anything considered tacky or coarse. Shamate are popularly perceived to be backwards hicks who don’t belong in the city and are therefore seen as fair game for mockery. Popular disgust directed towards Shamate is a reflection of China’s rapid development, and the class strains that this has created. The discrimination facing Shamate is part and parcel of a wider societal and institutional bias against rural migrants in China.
Yet whilst social media is widely used to ridicule the Shamate, it is also a platform from which this urban sub-group can make friends in the unfamiliar cities they move to, express their identity and escape the urban alienation they encounter. The plight of the Shamate is another example of the power of social media in China and the ability of different consumer groups and “tribes” to carve out their identity via the internet.
Canned Fresh Air – guan zhuang yang qi -罐装氧气
It is no secret that alongside China’s rapid economic development, the country has experienced widespread environmental degradation and pollution. This degradation poses a serious threat to China’s growth and stability; costing the country roughly 9% of its gross national income, and causing between 350,000 and 500,000 people to die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution.
In order to minimise their exposure to these dangerous pollution levels, health-conscious Chinese consumers are resorting to extreme, and sometimes weird, strategies. The market for environmental health products is thriving–sales of air purifiers hit ¥3.5 billion ($560 million) in 2013, 80-100% more than 2012. Consumer demand for environmental products only looks set to continue growing.
One of the more unusual of these environmental products which recently hit international headlines is canned fresh air. In 2013 a Chinese millionaire, Chen Guangbiao, launched an initiative to sell cans of fresh air which is bottled in China’s countryside at 5 Yuan a pop (80c). With the proceeds going to charitable causes, the initiative was intended as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the value of environmental protection and the priceless commodity that is clean, unpolluted air. The campaign proved a big hit amongst environmentally anxious Chinese consumers with a claimed 10 million cans sold in just 10 days.