Understanding macro tensions in China

Understanding the tension of fast vs slow sheds light on how consumer needs are changing, as well as how brand strategies should correspondingly adapt.
China's fast development speed
Panos Dimitropoulos

Cultural Intelligence and Future Foresight Lead, China

*As we approach the year’s end, Kantar China will publish a series of Thoughts Leadership articles from The Kantar BrandZ™ Top 100 Most Valuable Chinese Brands 2021 report. We sincerely hope by sharing these insightful articles, we can help clients to build stronger brands in 2022. This article is based on the 'NATURALNESS, TECH & HERITAGE' in page 62-63  of the report with editing.

The Chinese contemporary condition is influenced by a set of macro tensions, none of which is more characteristic than that of pace, fast versus slow. Understanding this tension sheds light on how consumer needs are changing, as well as how brand strategies should correspondingly adapt.

Fast is the epitome of contemporary Chinese progress. The phenomenal speed of China’s economic growth over the past four decades has set the nation on an unprecedented pace. In this realm, China has much to be proud of: One recent manifestation of China’s mastery of speed was the efficiency with which it built emergency hospitals during the pandemic crisis.

China’s extremely advanced infrastructure around ecommerce is also tied to China’s fast pace of living. This fast pace can be seen as a symbol of aspirational progress, the booming of the middle-class, and an associated idea of premium-ness. In China, speed is inherently tied to lifestyle betterment and rising socioeconomic status. At the same time, fast-forward change has been creating a state of constant adrenaline boosts, in which intensity of expectations is sometimes paired with a lack of clarity. 

This is especially true for younger generations that have grown up in a state of constant flux, perceiving continuous change as normality. In a culture of constant progression and frenetic urban living, many Chinese youth have faced aggressive competition since a young age. For some Chinese people, individualistic and materialistic success has become the ultimate goal. Meeting this goal can become a futile, never-ending cycle, especially if people hold unrealistic expectations on how fast they ought to be rising. This kind of impatience is especially felt in working environments, where younger employees may become impatient with how long they have to stay at a given position. Even when people reach the top, they may find that their striving has left them with a need for constant stimulation and excitement.

As a result, Chinese people are gradually realising the downsides of living at an abnormally fast pace for prolonged periods of time. Thus, an ideology of slow is on the rise. Initial conversations among youth have justifiably associated slowness with the kind of reactionary, negative anxiety indicated in a plethora of current buzzwords, including: sang (embracing giving up); tang ping (passiveness, being less competitive and exerting the bare minimum effort in life); and neijuan (involution, regression). 

However, the broader ideology of slowness has deeper, more positive meanings embedded with ancient cultural associations, and holding meaningful future potential. Chinese historical and cultural tradition favours moderation and long-term strategy and planning. As Confucius says, “The faster one tried to finish, the longer it seemed to take him.” Planning is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, as shaped by Confucianism, and exercised by different social strata’s as well as by classic government strategies defined by units of years or even decades (e.g. five-year plans, two centenary goals, health 2030).

In this way, slow reflects a meaningful embrace of Chinese pride based on deep appreciation of traditional doctrines and ideals. Calm temperaments, moderation, frugality, a quest for inner cultivation and purity, and the balance between materialism and spirituality: all of these have been exemplified by older generations and their slower ways of living but are also increasingly valued by younger generations. Such rediscovered doctrines can be found in emergent cultural phenomena such as the popularity of art exhibitions and bookstores, yoga and meditation, acts of charity, environmental and social care, and the pursuit of work-life balance. 

Furthermore, slowing down is viewed as an antidote to the kind of stress and mental health issues that have become an increasing pain point in modern life. Consumers’ deep reengagement with naturalness is directly related to this desire for healing slowness; both are seen as an antidote to technologically infused speed. This return to slow naturalness can take the more drastic form of moving back to countryside. But it can also mean weekend trips to natural sanctuaries; or simply creating everyday moments of escape using more naturally authentic and organic products.

While on the surface slowness can be seen as reactionary apathy, the ideology of slow should more properly be regarded as an initial step toward a more mature, refined, and discerning state of living. There are multiple angles and elements that brands can pursue either side of the speed duality. Brands should still try to master the right kinds of fast; for example, the popularity of pop-up stores and social media content capitalise on the idea of exciting ephemerality, with brands constantly curating new and surprising experiences to refresh their brand image. But brands should also consider the downsides of speed, especially in an era of social commerce. 

In the long run, for instance, moving huge volumes of low-price, flashy products on livestreams can backfire, if consumers come to think a brand is prioritising speed and “shininess” over quality and durability. Consumers increasingly identify authenticity and honesty as key ideals; they strive for quality and meaning across different occasions and parts of their lives. They expect brands to go above and beyond just selling products, toward providing meaningful contributions to society. As such, slower but wiser strategies based on quality can be more effective in securing lasting consumer loyalty. At Kantar, we are firm believers in quality growth as the most sustainable brand strategy. Quality brands start with a socially meaningful purpose that cascades down to brand values, positioning, tactics, expressions, and activities. 

Tapping into emergent and culturally meaningful ideas not only helps satisfy consumer needs, but also inspires them to make the world a better place. Brands that resolve the macro tensions of today such as the desire for both fast progress and naturally paced lifestyles will find themselves on the leading edge of Chinese commerce. Panos Dimitropoulos is a senior director of cultural intelligence and future forecasting, a cuttingedge consulting methodology at the intersection of consumers, emerging culture, and brands.


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