China's Gray Consumers Are a Golden Opportunity

JWT's Tom Doctoroff Offers 5 Ways for Brands to Reach 300 Million-Plus Older Citizens

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Tom Doctoroff
Tom Doctoroff
Over the next 15 years, China's so-called gray market of consumers aged 50-plus will become the most potent spending demographic on the planet.

By 2025, there will be more than 500 million "mature" Chinese consumers, or almost 36% of the Chinese population. Today, the country has 300 million Chinese over age 50, making up 21% of the population. In 15 years, per capita spending power for this demographic will exceed $4,100.

To date, this potential bonanza has been ignored by most marketers. Only 10% of products and services bought by senior citizens are actually targeted to them, according to the National Seniors Bureau.

Marketers must realize that as incomes rise, China will become more modern and more international, but not more western. Goods must be positioned in accordance with cultural and attitudinal imperatives.

The 50-plus generation suffers from a sense of displacement. Have endured a civil war in China, World War II, Mao's Liberation, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, they matured during a politically and economically insecure era in which "success" or "acknowledgment" was contingent on sacrifice, both on familial and national levels.

They were conditioned to have faith that absolute loyalty to authority -- by son to father, younger to older, ruled to ruler -- was the gravitational force that would pull China out of 150 years of chaos.

Their worldview is characterized by Confucian faith that age is tantamount to wisdom and that obedience and respect from the younger generation is the fruit of their long, hard struggle.

At the same time, they must confront the forces unleashed over the past 30 years by economic reform and greater political openness. Greater mobility has increased the physical distance between parents and adult children. An epic inter-generational values gap has emerged in which traditional collectivism co-exists uncomfortably with new-fangled ego affirmation.

These factors have left older Chinese anxious, self-protective and insecure about their relevance.

But hope springs eternal. The mature market is also beguiled by the promise of new friends, burgeoning fitness, travel options, online self-expression and a revolutionary concept that "fun" need not be guilty pleasure.

Brands must become guiding lights into this new world of opportunity. Here's how:

1. Justify the treat
We should provide permission to bite into forbidden fruits by positioning old-fashioned values as the source of future happiness or self-indulgence as a reward for enduring deprivation.

Older Chinese are ruthless savers, so AIA skillfully asserts that, after years of hardship, freedom from worry is a worthy financial goal. Burberry offers "real quality never goes out of fashion," and Dove's celebration of "real beauty" can be focused into mature-targeted campaign platforms.

2. Make olden golden
Brands must explicitly acknowledge the wisdom of 50-plus consumers and generate admiration of "elder masters." Shide, a local wine brand, elegantly links the clarity of white alcohol with the "acumen of ancient sages." In a droll HSBC ad, a silver-haired father wields a credit card to restore family harmony while paying for an expensive meal. In airing senior-relevant copy, these brands suggest an unusual, if sub-optimally harnessed, insight into the minds of mature Chinese individuals.

3. Attain 'forever young'
Brands promoting health benefits should move beyond worry-based protection, such as supplementing calcium deficiency, to embrace life-enhancing liberation.

Furthermore, cliches of dancing grandmas and grandpas have passed their sell-by date, as viewers assaulted by relentless commercials for the health tonic Nao Bai Jing will attest. New Balance targets running shoes to elderly who crave "new roads and a new life."

4. Tighten family bonding
Brands can bridge the gap between new and traditional ways of life by lubricating inter-generational communication.

A few products have begun to address the widening generation gap with a bit more nuance. Ericsson reminds sons that real caring is conveyed through ongoing dialog with fathers. China Mobile has gone beyond "connecting people" by opening "lines of love" between mothers and daughters.

In China's culture, the extended clan supersedes the nuclear family, so every little emperor -- the often-spoiled only child of two single children -- has six parents, not two. Savvy brands acknowledge grandparents' contributions to their grandkids' well-being.

5. Build new communities
In an era of sweeping change and social disorientation, brands should be platforms for social bonding. When will DeBeers throw Diamond Anniversary parties for couples whose love lasts forever? Digital technology -- elder chat rooms, blogs and social networking sites have begun to pop up everywhere -- fortifies old and new acquaintances. Few marketers, however, have capitalized on this sociological paradigm shift.

"China pride" can also be a vehicle for drawing together patriotic seniors to help them cheer together for China. China Mobile, perhaps the most ubiquitous Chinese brand, should exploit the spirit of senior citizens to ensure a successful Shanghai World Expo.

As spending power mushrooms, brands must tap into the tension between fear of displacement and excitement for new beginnings.

Tom Doctoroff is JWT's CEO, China and area director, North Asia, based in Shanghai. He has lived in China since early 1998.
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