Special Report & Video

What Chinese Mothers Want From Your Brand

Misreading Cultural Tensions Surrounding This Demographic Can Have Real Consequences for Advertisers

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Three generations of a Muslim family that migrated to Linxia, Gansu province for work. The woman dressed in pink is a 'go-getting mother' who has sacrificed to find better opportunities for her family and children, says O&M's Kunal Sinha.
Three generations of a Muslim family that migrated to Linxia, Gansu province for work. The woman dressed in pink is a 'go-getting mother' who has sacrificed to find better opportunities for her family and children, says O&M's Kunal Sinha. Credit: Kunal Sinha
SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- There are an estimated 320 million working mothers in China, more than the entire population of the U.S. Mothers are a driving force of domestic consumption in China.

But Chinese mothers exhibit striking differences by age, background and geography, and therefore do not respond to marketing messages in the same way, according to a recent study by Ogilvy & Mather's Discover consumer insights and trends group in Greater China.

The agency visited 165 homes in seven cities -- Shenyang, Wuhan, Chongqing, Xi'an, Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen -- between June and September 2009, asking mothers about their hopes and aspirations. It also asked 15 mothers to keep diaries of their daily routines for a week. With CTR Research, another WPP company, the agency also conducted a quantitative study among 1,569 mothers with children up to age 15. (View a video about Ogilvy & Mather's "Mum's the Word" survey on Youku.com.)

"Brands should help mothers solve real life problems. Selling becomes easier and more effective when that happens first," said Shenan Chuang, Beijing-based chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather Group in China.

Kunal Sinha
Kunal Sinha
"What we found was that many mothers in China feel marginalized by their representation in society and the marketing discourse," Ms. Chuang said, but many brands fall short of connecting with them.

"The superwoman stereotype of one that perfectly balances a career while raising a child is an oversimplification of the diversity in mothers' lifestyles, aspirations and ambitions for themselves and their children," said Kunal Sinha, Shanghai-based executive director of O&M's Discovery arm in Greater China.

At the same time, he added, Chinese moms aren't helpless either and don't need to be rescued by brands, despite how they might be represented in contemporary advertising.

"Fundamentally, Chinese mothers see themselves as being in control of the product. She is the hero, not the brand. That's the key insight that can make the difference for our clients and brands that are looking to reach this coveted consumer group," Mr. Sinha said.

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O&M's study identified three broad categories of mothers, based on their personal goals, financial independence, self-image, beliefs and expectations for their children:

1. Go-getting mothers (29.4%)
They try to prove themselves in a male-dominated professional environment, and subsequently have to balance their careers with the responsibility of being a mother. They rely on outside help, such as ayis or housekeepers. They want their achievements to be acknowedged by their husbands, in-laws and society.

2. Easygoing mothers (34.9%)
They take a naturalistic approach to their child's development, with the primary focus being health and happiness. They spend money on their child's personal welfare, from which they too derive happiness.

3. Dedicated mothers (35.7%)
This group places the child at the center of all their endeavors, and feels they are judged by their child's successes or failures. They instill strict routines to try to control their children, whose only freedom comes from choosing their own clothes and food, when eating out.

-- "Happiness is to have a degree and a job," said the mother of a 13-year-old boy in Xi'an. Like many others, she has a pragmatic view of education, pushing her child to excel academically even at the expense of his leisure time. While fathers were traditionally seen as the main source of education at home, today mothers have even taken on this role.

Mothers look to outside "authoritative" sources for assistance such as professional bodies, online groups, friends and colleagues. While information is widely available for mothers of babies or small children, there is far less support available to mothers of school-going children or teenagers. Brands can add real value by creating on- or offline communities to connect mothers with similar questions and concerns.

Home and work overlap
-- It's not a simple case of "career woman" vs. "homemakers." Despite the bipolar archetypes projected by the media, most women occupy a grey area, with career women fulfilling homemaker responsibilities, and homemakers making money. Brands need to portray this reality in their narratives.

There is as much room for a Fisher Price or Nestle day care in offices, as there is an opportunity for an Amway distributor in every household.

-- Mothers are net-savvy, using the internet as a resource to assert their freedom, and expressing themselves through collective action.

This 'dedicated mother' runs a hardware store in Xiaguan in Yunnan province. She keeps her toddler close by while she manages the store.
This 'dedicated mother' runs a hardware store in Xiaguan in Yunnan province. She keeps her toddler close by while she manages the store. Credit: Kunal Sinha
For example, Li JiaoJiao, is the mother of a two-year-old and founder of the QQ group, ChongQing Mummies, which helps members earn savings, try new brands and support causes. This trend of online communities is growing in momentum; the challenge for marketers is to access the 20% of digital influencers who hold sway over the remaining 80%.

-- Mothers have to balance several things with the overall aim of keeping harmony in the home. Traditionally, men were expected to handle the external affairs of the family with a wife's support at home so he could be successful in his career. Today this balance has shifted. Mothers are increasingly playing catch up and seeking career fulfillment.

This creates areas of potential conflict, with mothers looking for spaces to air their concerns and seeking sounding boards for advice. Mothers who experience difficulty in managing conflicts go to experts for help. This is why talk shows or expert blogs that deal with family issues are so popular.

This is an area of influence that brands haven't tapped into. Brands can hire experts to talk about managing domestic conflicts, put lectures online with branded content, or create a mini-site that has a consultant answer questions from mothers.

Socializing is important for mom and kids
-- Mothers seek personal space away from the family to make the most of limited time to socialize with friends and reconnect with society. For one mother, this is a weekly badminton club. But for many mothers, recreation time is often limited to the house -- watching TV or a DVD, reading, as well as surfing the internet even though they would prefer to get together with friends in person and actually go to the cinema.

Brands can connect better if they provide moms with opportunities to socialize freely beyond work and home. Sports brands, hotels, airlines, media brands and even apparel brands are just a club away from deepening their bond with consumers. Companies should also think in terms of what they could create to entertain and engage both the child and the mother, giving moms the space they desire.

For mothers, the most meaningful and fun activities are ones that can enrich their child's experiences and broaden their vision. O&M's research suggests that the happiest time for families is when they go on vacation together, especially when children are between 4 and 6 years old. Beyond traveling, favorite activities include educational toys, creative learning programs and socializing with friends.

The pragmatic nature of mothers in China holds a valuable insight for brands that target children or mothers or both. While portraying child-like fun, it is important to demonstrate the value of this fun beyond pure recreation to broaden children's horizons.

Finances are handled on a local level
-- Women may control family finances, but on the whole there is a lack of planning and overall knowledge. Any planning tends to take place on a yearly basis rather than month-by-month, with one spouse's earnings often being put into savings.

Microfinance usually takes place via intricate personal networks reliant on trust. That's contrary to the belief of financial institutions that big is better. In reality, small and personal win out.

If financial institutions want to attract more borrowers, they would be wise to position themselves as small rather than large and impersonal. Banks should also consider becoming more involved in community activities. Mothers would also welcome financial seminars teaching practical money management skills.

Food safety still a concern
-- The health scares that have dominated the headlines have led mothers to question the safety of brands aimed at children. Mothers now look to external web-based sources and peers to validate a brand's claims. But further education is needed to help consumers.

For example, we met mothers in Shenyang who spent considerable sums of money on myopia prevention and treatments without any scientific evidence that they were effective.

-- China's beauty and well-being market will reach an estimated $55.7 to $58.6 billion this year. Mothers are becoming increasingly concerned with their appearance, which the study suggests can be motivated not only by a desire to get approval from their husband but also from their children.

A family in Lanzhou, in Gansu province. This 'easygoing mother' works from home, running a small tailoring shop called Yang Dezhi.
A family in Lanzhou, in Gansu province. This 'easygoing mother' works from home, running a small tailoring shop called Yang Dezhi. Credit: Kunal Sinha
One mother of a 12-year-old in Wuhan commented that after her child commented on her appearance, she wanted to save "face" for her son and "try hard to stay young, confident and knowledgeable."

Beauty brands can look at connection opportunities beyond romance, because many mothers dress up for their kids.

-- Mothers believe investing in new clothes affects how they are viewed in society and at work. By contrast, cosmetics are seen more as a discretionary purchase, that may even damage their skin in the long term. Hence, a number of mothers prefer to spend money on skin creams or visits to beauty salons.

A potential area for development could be beauty products that offer spa quality treatments at home and explanation of the benefits of cosmetics, while tackling misconceptions within the market.

Tier one moms more concerned about competition
-- Forty-nine percent of mothers in China's first tier cities, compared with 31% in tier two, see having a child as a duty to carry on the family name, and make the child's academic success a priority. Another 32% said a child is fundamental to the stability of the family.

In tier two cities, mothers prioritized the child's health over education, and spent 7% more than tier-one mothers on health services and products.

Tier one mothers see the wider world as increasingly competitive, requiring academic credentials and emotional intelligence to get a good job.

V is a major source of information for over 80% of tier one and two mothers. Newspapers are read more by those in tier two, however, while mothers in first-tier cities rely more heavily on the internet and below the line communication channels.

Both groups feared being detached from society after a child was born, motivating 23% of tier one and 16% of tier two mothers to go back to work.

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