Winning Designs in China: Standing Out to Fit In

Western-style individualism is like Eve's apple -- succulent, enticing, desired. Biting into it, however, risks banishment to the Land of Outcasts.
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The Chinese consumer is becoming increasingly modern and internationalized. However, while "egos" and ambitions are huge, the "new generation" is not becoming "individualistic" in the Western sense -- i.e., the peoples never define themselves independent of society. The middle class, those who can afford non-essential items, is torn between two impulses. The first is projection of status which leads to a desire to be noticed (in public contexts), aggressive self-expression and experimentation with new modes of style and design. The second, in vivid contrast to the projection, is protection, a fear of sticking out too obviously or challenging existing hierarchies and social restrictions. The Chinese saying -- "the leading goose gets shot down" -- is as true today as it was yesterday. People want to "advance," be acknowledged by society as "special" but they can not afford to be too ahead of the crowd. Western-style individualism is like Eve's apple -- succulent, enticing, desired. Biting into it, however, risks banishment to the Land of Outcasts.

Across a broad swathe of categories, the conflict between standing out and fitting in manifests itself in design and product preference. As a result, there are a few basic rules that should be followed. But we must recognize two caveats. First, willingness to accept less conservative expression of identity is greater: a) within younger age groups who are more accepting of "Western" style (e.g., tattoos, piercing, "business casual") than older cohorts and b) across primary cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen) than second, third and forth-tier cities. Second, it is possible to "push the curve," to encourage Chinese to experiment with more audacious new fashion. However, this must be done gingerly, incrementally, without crossing an invisible line of overt "rebellion." Brashly grabbing attention -- a la American Idol's Adam Lambert -- is a no-no, irrespective of age, education or economic background.

Here are a few design principles that ensure "standing out while fitting in."

Make it "elegantly grand." Status counts. "Face," the currency of forward advancement, is fundamental in Chinese society. Big is in. Two door cars sell less well than four door sedans due to both practical ("large enough for my family") and aspirational reasons ("they will notice me"). Back-seat leg room must be ample enough so back-seat VIPs. Lobby foyers and other public spaces are designed to impress, not charm. Size counts. But, increasingly, mass with gravitational pull must be lightened with streamlined refinement. Giorgio Armani, applauded for "classy understatement," does gangbuster business. Gold-trimmed rococo interiors, ten years ago the mark of continental sophistication, are off-putting. Instead, "Shanghai chic" -- large spaces, long lines, simple shapes and uncluttered rooms -- is the taste of the upwardly mobile.

Avoid signaling aggressive intent.
The business landscape is a battlefield. But the Chinese know the best offense is a savvy defense. Chinese society -- competitive to its core, morally relativistic and disoriented by a first-generation capitalist ethos -- is saddled with a massive trust deficit, both individually and institutionally. Trust facilitation is, therefore, the first step in establishing collaboration. Any signals of bold ambition -- hot red sports cars, ready-to-pounce kinetic design -- will be instantly rejected. Mercedes Benz, the ultimate bling machine, is more appropriate "for my boss, not me." Vivienne Westwood, a rebellious fashion brand, will not achieve critical mass in the PRC. The same goes for Versace and Dolce & Gabbana, niche luxury labels more popular amongst wealthy men's mistresses, not their wives. Seattle "grunge," ripped jeans and course fabric, never caught on. Fredrick's of Hollywood, an advocate of leather and whips, will always be anathema within the Middle Kingdom. Body art, too, can be a dangerous game. Tattoos must be understated, inconspicuously applied on ankles or shoulders. (Large dragons sprawled across chests suggest triad affiliation.) On the other hand, "hip hop" boasts urban playfulness and rhythmic funkiness. It will be cool for years. .

Sparkle, Don't Glare. If you want to capture attention, whisper. China chic is monochromatic with a flash of color, a gaze punctuated by a wink. Mont Blanc, perhaps the most successful men's luxury brand, is a masterpiece of sotte voce dazzle. During focus groups, respondents speak of graceful craftsmanship and smooth writing. In one-on-one discussions, however, it's the six-pointed white star that mesmerizes. It enables a man to grab attention just by slipping a pen in his pocket. Diamonds have surged in popularity at the expense of gold. The former sparkles. The latter glares. Ford's aggressive Fiesta commercial positions the car as "born bold, born sexy" but softens the advertising with "safe" costumes and a gentle, seductive kiss of the oval logo.

Ensure instant brand recognition. According to Rahda Chadha and Paul Husband, authors of The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia's Love Affair with Luxury, "The 'logofication' of bags was the single most important factor in spreading luxury-mania in Asia." This is because brand selection is a tool for "showing you know." Andrew Wu, head of LVMH China says, "The Chinese believe there's no point in paying a lot of money for a brand if no one knows what you own." Visual identity is, therefore, a critical element of design appeal. Successful brands possess distinctive visual cues. Consider Louis Vuitton's "LV" logo, Bottega Veneta's distinctive leather cross-weave, Coach's uniquely-shaped strap and Chloe's add-on locket. China's most successful fashion icons are instantly recognizable. Importantly, however, visual symbols must be prominent but not gaudy. Gucci's shiny, in-your-face "double G" belt buckle is popular only amongst the newest nouveau rich; more sophisticated types, particularly in coastal cities, prefer the "eye-catching understatement" of Tiffany's mesmerizing pale blue and distinctive silver jewelry or Cartier's classic watchface accented by a narrow strip of gold.

Project substance. Brands should help a go-getter stand out without suggesting superficiality. "Substance cues" are, therefore, key in generating product appeal. This can be done by integrating a "streamlined, high-tech beauty" in design templates. Apple's iPhone, iPod and iMac sublimely fused substance and style. Touch-sensitive display screens and minimalist, matted-silver casing hit the high C of Chinese aspiration. Anta "Core" series of mass market running shoes boasts shock absorbers for "ultimate balance." High-tech credentials are signaled via signature elements (transparent circles) on the sole. Innovation streams -- i.e., a cascade of new designs -- also convey substance beneath the sparkle. Every automobile nameplate must roll out several models per year. Mobile phones should showcase cutting-edge features, even if some of them are only for image building purposes. Nokia's jewel-encrusted Vertu phone, for example, generated limited sales but loads of powerful PR. The same goes for Gucci's mahjong set. Pioneering concepts signal hefty R&D budgets -- product "intelligence" -- and justify price premiums.

In conclusion, Chinese consumers are drawn to product designs that enable individuals to simultaneously stand out and fit in. Although the balance must be expressed differently depending on category dynamics and segment-specific motivations, maintaining this balance is a must. We have outlined five principles to help: elegant grandness; ambitious, but non-aggressive, design; sparkle vs. glare; instant brand recognition; and inner-substance.

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