No Baijiu for These Kids

Chinese Youth Seek Luxury Brands That Represent Wealth, Societal Status and Individuality, Says Enovate's John Solomon

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A group of Chinese drinking Sedren beer, a local brand owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev
A group of Chinese drinking Sedren beer, a local brand owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev Credit: John Solomon

SHANGHAI ( -- Bottles of Snow Beer are tipped, poured and toasted with the traditional "cheers" in China -- "Ganbei!" -- until the next round is ordered from the young waitress on the other side of the smoky nightclub. Chivas and green tea are shared and consumed like water, and salacious beer advertisements plaster the walls, enticing the crowd to drink and be sexy.

Popular American hip-hop music blasts from the speakers, and a DJ orchestrates the crowd of young Chinese to dance. Some are dancing provocatively, others are snapping pictures with their camera phones, but most are buzzed to the point where their traditional beliefs are tossed aside like the leftover pile of Zhongnanhai cigarettes underneath the tables.

Enovate's John Solomon
Enovate's John Solomon
Although usually a scene from Shanghai or Beijing, on this night, it's a nightclub in Panjin, a third-tier city north of Beijing in Liaoning Province.

The experience left me with a new understanding of the modern youth Chinese drinker. Drinking is a custom that links traditional Chinese history to modern times. Baijiu, Huangjiu, and Hongjiu have transformed into Beer, Vodka, and Wine as the preferred drinks for Chinese youth.

As opposed to their western counterparts or their parents' generation, drinking among Chinese youth in China is not about getting drunk. It's about making friends, being part of an enhanced status and social atmosphere, and expressing a unique and alternative personality. Alcohol marketers are starting to recognize this and market to their audiences accordingly.

Snow Beer, for example, is inescapable in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in China's northern areas. The world's largest brewer by volume and the market share leader in China, Snow's business model of high production and market saturation means they must sell large quantities of beer at low prices to recover slim margins.

Fortunately, this aligns well with the Chinese youth drinking practice of pin jiu, which loosely translates to "drink together," but is more similar to peer pressure. Johnson Zhu, a 25-year-old Yueyang resident, describes pin jiu as "brotherhood and friendship. It means I have good relationships with the people I can pin jiu with. I won't pin jiu with someone that I don't know."

In tiny restaurants, or large nightclub VIP rooms, Chinese youth drink to make new friends, impress members of the opposite sex, or as a form of drinking competition. Pin jiu is an act of first impression for young Chinese and it often leads to future friendships or relationships. In a survey conducted with over 200 members of China's 80's generation, beer was indicated as the drink of choice based on price and the sense of pin jiu it provides to those who drink it.

Luxury liquors, imported wines, and premium beers represent a large and growing sector of China's alcohol market. Most spirits advertisers target young affluent consumers to drive future sales. The strategy is paying off, since many Chinese youth at bars and nightclubs are attracted to these luxury brands as they represent wealth and societal status.

Along with the drinks themselves, certain bars and clubs also symbolize a new social atmosphere for young Chinese socialites. In tier-one and -two cities, high-end wine stores, luxury wine bars, and premium vodka and whiskey are readily available and profitable for marketers and retailers.

These premium beverages represent an idyllic drink of choice for young Chinese.

Ads for Carlsberg Chill promote the brand's sense of fun and individuality
Ads for Carlsberg Chill promote the brand's sense of fun and individuality
"Absolut Vodka's fashionable and international bottle design makes it a popular gift for young Chinese to give to one another," says 22-year-old Shanghai resident Leon Ni.

Brand recognition was also indicated in our youth research as the strongest purchasing influence for alcohol brands.

Chinese youth also look for brands that reflect their personality. Japan's Suntory has introduced a fruit-flavored beer named Mix that is marketed with loud, colorful ads aimed at young women.

One Chinese woman described Mix's taste as "less bitter and [with a] happy feeling".

Another example is Carlsburg's Chill beer brand, created for the Chinese market and positioned as the flag-bearer for that country's alternative 80's generation by sponsoring fun events like local rock concerts. Jagermeister is also attempting to crack China's youth market through alternative events like international and local rock shows.

Today's Chinese youth are seeking ways to meet new friends, enter a new social sphere, and express their individuality. Brand recognition and creating social atmosphere are ways foreign and local brands can compete for the eyes and ears of young Chinese socialites.

John Solomon is co-founder and director of Enovate, an insights and design firm based in Shanghai that develops creative solutions for brands looking to target the Chinese youth market.

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