The new challenge of China's emerging affluent class: juggling it all

By Published on .

Shoppers at Shanghai's K11 art mall.
Shoppers at Shanghai's K11 art mall. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

With incomes rising and lifestyle choices expanding, the motivations of China's emerging affluent class—primarily consumers in their 30s and 40s—are evolving rapidly. Compared to 10 years ago, they are driven by the challenges of balancing multi-dimensional roles, rather than merely achieving basic professional success.

What does that mean? For one, China's upper middle class invests in "experiences" to provide a broad worldview. From sharpening expertise in health and wellness to exploring different cultures and cultivating a broad range of personal hobbies, projecting a multi-faceted identity defines success. Wide horizons are a weapon on the battlefield of life.

There's a tension there: "I want to do more and be more but I struggle to balance it all." This anxiety is a modern-day manifestation of the ancient Confucian "doctrine of the mean"—or zhong yong—which espouses maintaining balance and harmony.

Both men and women have trouble achieving harmony between competing roles, interests and identities. Speaking in generalities, men want to be providers for the extended family, professional role models and masters of taste and manner. Women hope to be protective mothers, accomplished professionals and "new generation individualists."

Marketers that offer brands and experiences that resolve this conflict of the heart will earn loyalty. Here are five ways to do this.

First, elevate my career beyond "success" so I can give more to my family.

Brands now encourage professionals to define strengthened familial bonds as a dimension of conventional achievement. Jiangling Motors provided a platform for dads to demonstrate their "soft side" to their children. Huawei's premium Mate mobile fuses productivity enhancement – superior data processing, presentation display – and emotional bonding. In one ad, a doctor uses the phone's high-resolution camera to teach empathy. He shows his daughter a picture of a cancer-stricken child holding her teddy bear.

Second, help me juggle it all by maximizing my efficiency.

HLA, the mass-premium apparel retailer, melds sophistication with convenience. From "a thousand merchandise planners who analyze global fashion trends" to "selection of the best summer blue from more than 100 shades" and "using artificial intelligence to optimize silhouette cuts," HLA does the heavy lifting. JD.com, an ecommerce platform, created a "mid-year shopping festival" for people with many passions – work, dancing, music, athletics – to "take a break from your hectic life."

Third, broaden my worldview to become a more fully-rounded person.

Ant Financial, the Alibaba-affiliated investment fund worth more than Goldman Sachs, challenges investors to "unbox your life." Digital content whets appetites for new discovery: "The world is vast, ready for exploration. But where can you afford to go?" Timberland aligns functional and emotional benefits by encouraging people to "step out of your comfort zone." Suning, China's largest appliance retailer, urges ordinary Chinese to be "responsible citizens of the world" by raising awareness of wildlife protection. When customers receive a package and cut through the box, the wrapper turns red, evoking imagery of bleeding animals.

Fourth, enhance my wellness as the foundation for maintaining my momentum.

In China, the benefits of new healthy lifestyles—maintaining a daily fitness routine, balanced nutrition, yoga—are means to an end. They result in an "aura," a noticeable glow that energizes careers, strengthens relationships and fuels self-possession. Westin has become the category leader in promoting healthy, active lifestyles. Advertising links a strong body to focus at work. The hotel organizes offsite group yoga lessons and sponsors marathons.

Nike's Shanghai-based "Speed Lab" targets marathon runners with techniques to maximize speed. Athletes are used as "life ambassadors" who give advice to casual runners. WeChat postings reinforce the connection between wellness and advancement. An example: "Faster speed makes me more confident. I face my career and life challenges more easily."

Fifth, lift the burden of those I love to give me peace of mind.

Tmall.com, Alibaba's business-to-consumer ecommerce behemoth, launched a Chinese New Year campaign to teach older individuals about technology ("how to use Bluetooth") and the online world ("how to get news on my phone"). China Merchants Bank launched a premium Visa card for overseas Chinese students. The core target, however, is concerned parents. Services include access to counselors, global travel and health protection and "one step" emergency financial support.

To connect with consumers (and command a price premium), it's critical for marketers to grasp what is changing in Chinese culture. And as the consumer class has grown more confident, their desires have grown more nuanced. As a brand, how do you show you understand the tensions that come with wanting to "have it all"?

Most Popular