History was made earlier this month in China when homegrown animated movie Ne Zha became just the sixth film to break $700 million at the box office in a single territory. It also became the second-highest grossing film ever in China behind the nationalistic Rambo-esque Wolf Warrior II.
Whilst there is no disputing that Chinese consumers love cartoons, animated films make up just 6-10% of the box office, versus around 40% in Japan and 10-15% in the US. In addition, the hero isn’t exactly your typical cutesy cartoon that resonates in China, rather a demon with a disturbingly-close resemblance to Chucky the killer doll. The success behind the movie is much deeper than the spectacular animation, and provides insight into what is connecting with Chinese consumers right now.
For a start, the plot is loosely based on Ming Dynasty-era legends and lore, playing to Chinese consumers’ increasing embrace of their heritage and culture, particularly when it is expressed creatively. Yet it is the overarching message that hits a home run with modern Chinese consumers.
Ne Zha is born with the unfortunate destiny that he will wreak destruction on humanity. His father, a lord, refuses to have him killed at birth, and in the end Ne Zha manages to train his inner-demon and saves the very village that despises him. Many parents connect with the theme of providing unconditional support and love to their child, even if they are a little demon. And almost every Chinese person will relate to Ne Zha’s situation: if fate isn’t fear, fight it till the end.
This underlying theme couldn’t be more timely, as China is in the throes of some of its biggest challenges in a generation due to geopolitical issues, the trade war and a slowing economy. Modern China was built on the premise of ‘fighting for the dream’, reflected in milestones such as The Long March. In recent months, there has been a rise in subtle language about the fight China must take on, with increasing usage of the word dòuzhēng (struggle) by Xi Jinping and official state dialogue.
The stoic nature of China’s people fighting their destiny is reflected in some of its most revered heroes. Jack Ma, who officially retired from Alibaba last week on the 20th anniversary of the company, is admired not just for his success, but for making it without inherited wealth, good looks or a high education – fates that many Chinese believe are crucial to succeeding. Similarly, Naomi Wang, a freckled, tanned and “chunky” pop star challenged traditional Chinese beauty standards and is now Fendy Cosmetics KOL. More recently, Zhang Weili, once earning a meagre wage as a cleaner became the first Chinese/Asian champion in UFC history, winning the admiration of large swathes of the Chinese public.
Brands that effectively tap into this theme of challenging your destiny are likely to connect with Chinese consumers at a deep and emotional level. Nike is a textbook example, with their “Don’t look down upon women, women can do as well as men” campaign, showing the attitude of five outstanding female athletes to encourage brave women not to care what others say, and not to pay attention to the judgment from a society, but to pursue their own goals or dreams. Large consumer segments are increasingly challenging expectations of China’s traditional society, and brands who thoughtfully and sensitively play to this are likely to have an edge.
As China’s market becomes ever-more crowded, nimble competitors are increasingly becoming fast and efficient at mimicking your products and services. The brands that hit a nerve with Chinese consumers and connect at an emotional level are most likely to succeed. Talk to China Skinny about how your brand can be best placed to strike that chord.
On a related note for our readers in Shanghai this week, we’d suggest signing up for the CHina CHat conference September 19-20. China Skinny’s Mark Tanner joins the esteemed lineup on Friday to discuss what brands need to do to win in China. If you’re at the conference, please come and say hello. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.