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Marketers Play on Nostalgia to Reach China's Post-1980s Generation

Chevrolet, H-P and Yongjiu Forever Bicycles Tap Into Trend, Says Oracle Added Value's Jerry Clode

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Jerry   Clode
Jerry Clode

Growing nostalgia shared by China's post-1980s generation provides the opportunity for brands to leverage retro marketing to strongly engage these newly affluent consumers.

The popularity of nostalgic themes was highlighted late last year in a heavily downloaded online series called "The Old Boys." Broadcast in webisodes, the series follows two friends' dream of performing Michael Jackson's song "Billie Jean" at their high school. Later, in the present day, the two friends have become more pessimistic due to intense economic realities. After hearing the news of Michael Jackson's passing, the duo decide to reunite and compete in a local "American Idol"-style reality show. Despite cynicism from cold judges, they persist to deliver a final tribute to their childhood hero.

Online responses to the series were dominated by posts about how the content made adults "cry at their keyboards." Subsequently, popular social-media sites such as Kaixin were inundated with content and imagery about shared childhood and high-school memories.

'The Old Boys' recall Michael Jackson
'The Old Boys' recall Michael Jackson

While retro-themed marketing has been a mainstay in Western markets, drawing on nostalgia in China has only recently become possible. Because of political calamity during the 1970s, looking back has not always been a comfortable process for people here.

The economic stability defining the 1980s has created a generation of Chinese who have grown up without interruption. Childhoods have been characterized by high levels of consumption of technology due to their privileged status of only children. As China's first TV generation, this group has a collective memory based on similar toys, cartoons, school curriculum and popular culture.

The wild popularity of Michael Bay's "Transformers" films provided a powerful reminder of the collective of the post-1980s generation. Consumers accessorized their vehicles with "Transformers" characters and stickers. Fans in Nanjing created an online sensation when they stripped a Citroen to rebuild their own Hornet character.

Brands have subsequently used "Transformers" as part of their communications, sparking a mass consumption of all things retro. Hewlett-Packard created an online competition based on "Be Your Own Transformer." A local bank, China Construction, issued its own "Transformers" credit card to draw in aspiring white-collar workers. General Motors also leveraged the film's robot characters to communicate the thrill of driving for first-time vehicle buyers.

More broadly, childhood nostalgia has combined with increasing national pride to create renewed popularity for classic, and sidelined, Chinese brands. Huili, a mass-market footwear brand in the 1980s, has recently revitalized itself as a provider of fashion items for the urban leading edge. And former state-owned bicycle company Yongjiu Forever, led by 24-year-old CEO Wang Shan, has created an "old school" brand story and product ranch to attract the modern inner-city commuter. International brands such as Adidas have also referenced the 1980s national tracksuit design into their local collections.

The emerging passion for retro among the post-1980s generation has also affected older groups. Discussion and images of the 1970s posted by middle-aged netizens have become popular. The images usually celebrate the experience of youth sent down to rural areas in the later period of the Cultural Revolution. This emerging form of expression provides a fun and creative way for consumers to make sense of their disrupted childhoods, offering some psychological comfort.

While a potentially tricky area for foreign brands, the strength of emotions linked to a brand as part of a consumer's personal journey provides a powerful and resonant touch-point for local consumers.

Chevrolet aims for nostalgia
Chevrolet aims for nostalgia

A Chevrolet print and online campaign is succeeding at linking emotion to its brand by talking directly about memories and personal journeys. A guitarist who wants to share the songs of yesteryear with new generations plays for people on trains, referencing a more innocent and pure time. Another journey features three friends who raise money to open their own retro goods shop; the focus is on their determination to bring back the enjoyment of classic items of 1980s.

Compared to the West, retro in China appears to be more personal. It's a psychological safety net and an anchor in an environment of constant flux and pressure. For brands looking to identify with the locally relevant journeys and dreams, nostalgia provides a great conversation point for increasingly self confident, but reflective, consumers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Clode is a Shanghai-based associate director at Oracle Added Value, a WPP company offering brand development and marketing insight services to marketers.
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