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Targeting Hip Young Consumers Who Want to Stand Out but Need to Blend in

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SHANGHAI ( -- Urban Chinese teens download hip-hop tunes to trendy Nokia cell phones, guzzle icy Cokes after shooting hoops in Nike shoes and munch fries at McDonald's after school. Does that mean they're just like young consumers anywhere in the world?
Photo: AP
McDonald's fare has become a staple for many Chinese youth and its golden arches a symbol of the growing presence of Western marketers throughout the economy.
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150 marketers
Definitely not, according to speakers at the China Youth Marketing Forum, held May 25-26 at the Westin hotel in Shanghai. The forum, sponsored by Kid Power Xchange, a division of International Quality and Productivity Center and Viacom's MTV Networks Asia and Nickelodeon divisions, drew about 150 marketers who explored the values and spending habits of Chinese children and young adults.

Although the current generation of children is the most globalized in that country's history, Chinese youth are not becoming Western. "You don't scrub away 5,000 years of Confucian values with a couple of ads for McDonald's and Pepsi," said Shanghai-based Tom Doctoroff, area director for Northeast Asia and CEO for China at WPP Group's JWT.

This generation has more choices than at any other time in China's history, but its members are not entirely comfortable with those choices yet. "They want to express themselves, but only in a safe, socially acceptable context," he said.

20 million university students
On the other hand, the market isn't static. There are 20 million university students in China right now, explained another speaker, Li Yifei, Shanghai-based managing director of MTV China. "They want to be cool. Many of them have dyed hair and piercings, some even like bungee jumping. But they are still worried about doing well in school and pleasing their parents. You have to be a good kid to be a trendsetter in China, even in fashion and other lifestyle areas."

They present a promising and lucrative market, as Chinese between the ages of 8 and 24 have annual incomes worth $40 billion, according to Eguo Interactive Media. In the mainland's five largest cities, half the total family income is spent on goods for children. Monthly consumption by all children younger than 12 exceeds $422 million, according to China Mainland Marketing Research, and

Photo: AP
The Chinese fashion industry is booming. Here, a model shows off the latest makeup products at a March design show in Beijing.
in Beijing alone the figure has reached $169 million.

Successful advertising for youth brands carefully navigates the respect young consumers feel for their family, peer groups and country with their cautious desire to express individuality. To straddle this internal conflict, especially in the largest cities, marketers should avoid images of extreme individuality and rebellion that would appeal to American children, attendees were told.

"China is undergoing a rapid transformation from collectivism to individualism. We need to strike the balance between standing out and blending in," said Ilan Sobel, Coca-Cola's Shanghai-based general manager of strategic marketing and innovation for China.

Music, fashion, sports and tech
Marketers such as Coca-Cola Co., McDonald's Corp. and the National Basketball Association, which represents an enormously popular sport in China, achieve this balance by focusing on four major passion points: music, fashion, sports and technology, such as mobile phones, games and Internet cafes.

Coke, for example, has combined its partnerships with a popular girl band in China called S.H.E.; athletes like Liu Xiang; and the current video game hit in China, "World of Warcraft" ("WOW") to hit two or three passion points at the same time.

A current TV campaign features Mr. Liu and two other male celebrities trying to win the hearts of

Photo: AP
Western youth hairstyles -- from punk to purple streaks -- are popular in China. Two young men pause for lunch at a rock music festival in Beijing.
S.H.E.'s three band members. Later this summer, packaging on plastic Coke bottles will feature the female musicians dressed in gladiator-type "WOW" outfits. And the U.S. beverage giant has decorated thousands of cyber cafes around China with promotional stands and posters with "WOW" and Coke branding that have driven Coke sales in the cafes by as much as 30%.

World's biggest online gaming market
The cafes are particularly important, Mr. Sobel said, "because China will probably be the world's biggest online gaming market in the world by next year. This is an exploding passion point."

Music, particularly American-style hip-hop, has also emerged as a powerful form of self-expression, and one which advertisers are eagerly grafting into market platforms.

Hip-hop's development stage in China is very similar to where it was at in the U.S. in the early 1980s. Its success in China partly stems from the fact that it has earned tacit approval from the government, thanks to the genre's lack of an anti-establishment attitude, unlike that of punk or grunge, said Duane Kennedy, president of L.A.-based Ubiquitous Entertainment, who recently relocated to Shanghai to start monetizing hip-hop in China through marketing alliances.

Photo: AP
Gilbert Arenas of the NBA's Washington Wizards (foreground) coaches a Chinese basketball team in last year's Adidas Superstar camp in Shanghai.
Besides interpreting the values of teens vs. their counterparts in Western countries, a major challenge facing youth marketers in China is understanding the differences between rural and urban consumers. China is widely carved up by marketing execs into five "tiers."

Tier demographics
The distinctions are not geographical, but based on the population size of Chinese cities, as well as the sophistication and income level of their inhabitants. Tier one includes Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, followed by large cities, small cities, towns and finally, in the fifth tier, rural villages.

In the past, marketers such as Coke would run a polished, edgy spot in the top one or two tiers and an earthier ad in the bottom tiers.

These days, said some forum speakers, that approach is fading: "They are not at the same level of self-expression yet, but the third and fourth tier markets are coming up quickly through their exposure to TV, the Internet and other forms of mass media," said P.T. Black, Shanghai-based partner of the research consultancy Jigsaw International.

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