Why the symbols of Generation Z are different in China
When is a Dyson vacuum a work of art? When it hangs in the house of a young student in Chongqing. This millennium has led the British company to focus on the aesthetics of products beyond the simple cleaning device. In this apartment, the Dyson device has transcended its traditional functionality for a much higher functionality: signifying an ambitious, tech-driven lifestyle.
“I have no idea if it’s good. I don’t use it, ”he laughed, only to reveal a Toshiba vacuum cleaner hidden out of view under the stairs. “I’m cleaning up with this.” In modern life, the symbolic nature of luxury is integral to its value. Interestingly, Chinese Gen Z brands, ancient traditions and everyday items brought together; how they harmonize and hold their meaning is what is new.
Dyson is just one example of a brand that has unlocked the fascinating symbolic universe of this demographic. Yet when it comes to China, brands shouldn’t just be watching What consumers buy but Why, according to Jerry Cloyde of The Solution Consultancy, who discovered Dyson’s example. Decoding this symbolism and understanding its importance becomes an essential gateway to luxury.
“It’s important to understand what consumers gain emotionally or physically from a self-actualization perspective,” Clode explained. “I don’t think luxury brands take this beyond trying to fit into this culturally symbolic world.”
Take for example the proliferation of hip hop in China. It is now a source of inspiration for a multitude of shows, idols and clothing lines, despite the crackdown. The genre is popular with young fans because it offers not only a medium of expression, but also a sense of ritual in each of its four pillars: turntablism, MCing, breakdance, and graffiti. Each show religiously refers to these components.
Another example of this universality is the online interactive platform Bilibili, another outlet for spontaneous content primarily built around beloved Gen Z AGC content. Here, users learn and share content and a passion for traditional Chinese culture, including crafts, poetry, philosophy, and music. He spurred Hanfu’s rebirth through videos such as How I Spend a Year Making Handmade Six Dynasties Clothes, which has millions of views. Harper’s Bazaar China The September issue featured a special edition on Han clothing among its many contemporary global names.
Like Bilibili, the game world also provides a rich array of symbols that brands can engage with. These are often based on fantasy, similar to the spontaneous content of Mecca ACG. In addition, being part of movements like hip hop or gaming is also a way for these young fans to show their “internationalism”. The symbolic universe of these young citizens is often partially constructed from formative sources, such as traditional education, influences from Japan during the teenage years, and a period of globalism in the late teens and twenties.
This trajectory is what sets them apart from their global contemporaries. We all want luxury items. Does this eclectic curation make more sense for these young Chinese, who are often wrongly considered as meaningless over-consumers? Sam Ng, marketing director of digital marketing platform Vfluencer, explains that young buyers buy brands today for “the emotion that brands give off.” He suggests that names like Dyson have captured the hearts of Chinese buyers with their sleek designs and cutting edge technology.
Often, well-designed international technology labels also offer this internationalism. “Chinese consumers buy what the brand means because it makes them feel good,” Ng said. “It’s a symbol to be a well-traveled, forward-thinking man and a style leader among his peers, not just wealth.” He uses the Wen Qing term “文 青” – or cultured youth – to refer to someone who enjoys using high-end electronics, such as “iPhone, Apple AirPods and Dyson” and “carrying Starbucks coffee”. He also cited the recent Olympic debut of skateboarding operated by Vans, which redefined the sport as a symbol of “young, trendy and free”. Its official video campaign posted on Weibo has attracted over 130 million views.
Yet does it go further than that? And, just because a context or movement is popular, does that mean that brands can fit into the storyline and think ‘the job is done? “Not for Clode:” Generation Z hangs out in virtual spaces, where they externally look for symbols as forms of personal fulfillment or personality development. This is also why we see brands taking hold in settings like locations or skins in the game, which doesn’t always work. “
Instead, it points to Starbucks. When presenting its vegan menu in China, the campaign played with communist symbolism (often a jumping off point for Western thought). But it was, in fact, a fresh and nuanced take on the rich Chinese culture. The choice of androgynous superstar Li Yuchun (aka Chris Lee) serves as a context for young consumers to engage in a new form of eating. Considering the “genderless thinking” of the younger generations, Lee offered the perfect launching pad for this ambitious behavior.
Lee also appears in a recent campaign for Chinese shoe retailer Belle, loaded with symbolic DIY in museum decor including winged unicorns, hot air balloons, flying artifacts, and props. The video works hard to speak to young buyers through this curated selection of disparate objects, what Clode calls “postmodernity.”
However, the Chinese thought of Generation Z and the young millennial goes even further. For them, symbols are both a continuum of ideas and history, while being completely present. Take the guest cover of RCA graduate Feng Chen Wang for SuperShe magazine. The streetwear designer’s offering, digitally hand-drawn, is inspired by a book from the 4th century BC. Collage of photography and illustration, what is striking is the way in which the juxtaposition seems to resolve its tensions. The styles blend into each other like the lines in the watercolor technique to which the image refers. In the upper corner, the phoenix, a symbol of male and female beings: something that is both neutral, and a lot of things – all at the same time.
A version of this article first appeared on Jing Daily.