Like a school of fish

There are fundamental differences in the way young adults China and Germany between the ages of 18 and 24 years use media, perceive brands and view advertising. Frank Quiring, Stephan Urlings and Wutao Wen at rheingold institut have explored the situation in depth interviews.

China is the marketplace of tomorrow, and Western firms are pushing their way in to this dynamic and lucrative market. The aim here is to position brands effectively and make the best use of Chinese economic growth. We wanted to identify the errors in communication that should be avoided, and any cultural misunderstandings that have proven themselves to be real killers.

In order to gain fundamental insights into the differences between Germany and China, rheingold institut conducted a depth-psychological study of its own among young adults in China and Germany on topics of media usage, brand perceptions and advertising.

Mediennutzung in China

Yin and yang meet dialectics

The differences between young adults in China and Germany are striking – this is where yin and yang meet dialectics, community meets individualism and harmony meets confrontation. These differences can also be found in media usage and views of advertising: brands have quite different roles to play. Any firm that seeks success for its products in China must be aware of these differences and tailor their marketing strategy with them in mind.

Here are the most important theses:
  • Among young Chinese, what is important is membership in a collective and an identity as international citizens of the world.
  • For the Chinese, brands are not about demarcation, but about acceptance in the collective.
  • Young Germans use brands mainly for support and orientation and seek to express their individuality.
  • While the German consumer uses brands for self-stabilisation, his or her young Chinese counterpart feels secure at heart without a brand.
  • For young Germans, brands are more of a house; for the Chinese, they are more of a window.
  • The smartphone is extremely important to young people in both countries – but the Germans are the only ones who grow tired of it now and then.
  • Chinese advertising tends to convey a kitschy world of optimism and harmony – conflicts are taboo.

Chinese culture is built on the archetypal principle of yin and yang: opposites that are always considered in the context of one another and are dependent on one another. What this means is that for all the individual differences and deviations, their unity is always emphasized at the same time (Taoism, Confucianism). This forms the basis for China’s collective culture, where the individual is viewed as a part of a community without which he or she cannot live. The top priority is harmonious balance.

„We are like fish swimming in a school. All swim in the same direction. I swim a little deeper. That is how I know that I’m a little different, but I want to swim with the others.“

A phenomenon often experienced as exhausting in Germany is a beloved lifestyle in China: Re Nao, hot and loud, are dense groupings that are cultivated and practised in temple festivals, family celebrations and many other activities.

A tremendous drive to develop can be seen among young people in China at the same time. They are hungry for new experiences, for education, for knowledge, for travel. Recognition by the group has a high priority here. The aim is to become part of a modern, educated global community – while satisfying Asian traditional values at the same time.

Even if the young Chinese are dressed in clothes of the West, often accompanied by distinctive accessories such as hats or bags, the interviews reveal that they do not seek to set themselves apart in a Western sense. The aim is to be accepted by everyone.

Young Germans tick dialectically

The intellectual history of Western culture dates back to the principle of dialectics (Plato). It is not about harmonious balance, but about independent opinions, their representatives debating and developing through them. The main objective is personal development and freedom.

Our culture, meanwhile, is so individualised that that one can speak of a crisis of the individual. This is evidenced in a variety of rheingold studies spanning all sectors. The things that bind us together are eroding, and there is a great need for support and orientation. The situation for the soul of young German respondents is like a house that has fallen into disrepair but in the past was propped up by stable pillars of religion, social values and norms – a task now left more and more to the media, brands and advertising.

While the German consumer uses media, brands and advertising for self-stabilisation, his or her young Chinese counterpart feels secure at heart without these pillars. Their protective, sturdy house is the collective. Brands tend to perform the function of windows through which they derive inspiration from foreign worlds and can set their sights on new development potential. One reason that the pursuit of optimism among young Chinese is channelled into consumption is that other fields, such as society and politics, are heavily regimented. Consumption is free and unlimited, and for the Chinese, brands hold the promise of progress and development.

For the Chinese, it’s about acceptance

As in Germany, major, well-known brands are important in China as well. There is, for example, Coca-Cola as a promise of the fountain of youth, or the award of divine omnipotence by an Apple smartphone, on which worlds can be moved with the swipe of a fingertip.

In Germany, small, lesser-known brands also offer an important way to underscore one’s own individuality. Because the Chinese do not want to stand out as individuals, they love the major international brands. With an Apple product, for example, they can be the proud owners of a status symbol while remaining part of a broad brand collective.

This principle even manifests itself in people who become a brand. Chinese fashion model Liu Wen (刘雯) has more than ten million followers on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and is one of a handful of Chinese catwalk models for shows at Burberry, Chanel or Jean Paul Gaultier. And yet her fans refer to her as Biao Jie (cousin) because, for all her fame, she still possesses Chinese modesty and a familial kind of accessibility.

Young Chinese love to dress up and accessorise in ways that resemble the idols they adore. It is important for these idols to be well-known stars, preferably with countless followers, such as Angelababy a model, actress and singer. This way, a person can show, on the one hand, how modern and progressive one is, while on the other still feeling a part of a large group.

Alibaba’s online platform,, assigns the brands sold there to a brand framework of its own: more than just a brand strategy, it also responds to the Chinese shopper’s wish to feel well looked after as part of a collective: if you shop at Tmall, you are embedded within this large framework.

Television as a familiar touchpoint

Media use is also embedded in a desire for anchorage within a collective and the craving for development. Print plays a very minor role (as in Germany); TV is heavily censored in China and is perceived as an embellished yet protective touchpoint.

Television is associated with childhood memories; many young Chinese mostly watch TV together with their parents and siblings; it stands for warm, family values. To be accepted, TV spots absolutely have to project this tonality.

The kitschy world of Chinese advertising

Advertising in China often looks comes across as a sensationalistically overdone, beautiful new world that to the Western eye sometimes seems kitschy. This is an expression of the cultural background: the mission of advertising is to inspire dreams, convey optimism and place the viewer in new worlds. At the same time, however, the world must remain harmonious. This is why commercials often seem quite smooth and unfractured.

Conflict-laden (dialectical) advertising of the kind valued in Germany hardly works at all in China. IKEA underwent a social ‘shit storm’ in October in the wake of a TV spot that staged a conflict between parents and their daughter. Germans find scenarios such as these inspiring, as they reflect the familiar principle of dialectics. The effect on young Chinese viewers is virtually disturbing.

The Chinese develop a Western point of view through their desire for harmony

China’s tendency towards harmony can even become a problem at a professional level. This has been the experience of Western agencies that have hired Chinese employees to help develop pertinent communication concepts for the Chinese market. In their interactions with the new employer, however, the Chinese employees remained true to their longing for harmony. They thus adapted their own point of view in ways that resulted in typically Western advertising – advertising that was not well received in China.

Collective shopping frenzy

In China, conflict and isolation are avoided as a matter of principle. The best example is the ‘11.11’ shopping festival that transforms relatively individualistic online shopping with China’s largest eCommerce company, Alibaba, into a collective discount-adventure day. During the glamorous countdown gala, Chinese and international A-list celebrities encourage the audience to shop.

The highlight of the event is the unveiling of the sales figure, which the state medium hails as a ‘success of social coordination’. Alibaba has successfully used the ‘11.11’ event to unify lonely shoppers.

Germans more ambivalent about smartphones than their Chinese counterparts

The smartphone has the greatest importance for both nationalities and is used in similar ways in both countries: to connect with others via social networks, for infotainment and as a practical everyday companion. Young Germans, however, do not view the smartphone in the same kind of spirit of unmitigated euphoria and dynamic growth seen in China and are much more ambivalent instead.

Complaints about the smartphone are always heard if usage gains the upper hand and one is at risk of losing him- or herself – prompting some to deliberately forego use of their mobile phone or certain social networks.

A central feature in China is constant networking with ones friends: the collective on a small scale. The mobile phone is the protected space one inhabits along with one’s friends.

Yet it offers a certain autonomy at the same time: because unlike television, there is relatively little censorship, platforms such as ‘Weibo’ offer a forum in which people can express their own opinions and share in global development. A perfect combination for the mentality of young Chinese people.

Source: planung&analyse, 24 April 2018

The rheingold expert

Stephan Urlings

Stephan Urlings

Stephan Urlings, psychologist, is Managing Partner and Head of International Research. His work focuses on market and impact analyzes in the fields of consumer electronics, online media, energy and finance. Tel .: +49 221-912 777-18 E-Mail:

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