It's a myth that the Chinese are less creative - here's why Pascal Coppens - February 16, 2018

China Tianjin Library

Chinese New Year arrived and brings something new. Advertisements that are flooding social media show a similar trend: they burst with emotional storytelling instead of product features. Take for example the campaign from Alibaba where they portray how they support thousands of small companies, and how this is of critical importance to each person, because everyone counts: The power of small. If this isn’t powerful storytelling and ambition, nothing is. This forms a fundamental switch from imitation (making of a copy) to aemulatio (to gain superior consideration and honour to the original). 

This Chinese New Year is a turning point: Chinese companies take the last hurdle to challenge Western brands, and the Chinese consumer is now opening up for emotional consumption from Chinese brands.

China is the factory of the world, a reality nobody doubts anymore. Clothes, electronics, apparels, the majority of it is labelled ‘Made in China”. At the start of this trend in 1990 the world was in denial, but 30 years later we accept this as a fact. Since quite some time we are told that China is transforming from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’. Just like 30 years ago this is met by significant disbelief and doubt. Again, sceptics are whispering that Chinese will never be as creative as we are. But is this true?

Creative China, what does it actually mean? The Chinese government discourages creativity: President Xi Jinping chooses stability above creativity. However, even if the Chinese government would suddenly stimulate creativity, could China ever truly form a creative threat? Indeed, China’s educational system relies on memorizing, its art on imitating old masters, and their brand names sound strange and evoke very little emotionality. The Venture Capitalist Jim Breyer reassured us last November at the technology conference Web Summit by saying: “(Compared to china) there is still a level of genius and creativity in Silicon Valley that persists, and will always persist”

Keen to stay one step ahead of China?

Silicon Valley holds different values, which makes it quite unique. But claiming that China is less creative, almost borders on self-deception. Creativity is not something typical Western; Chinese entrepreneurs have figured out creativity can be most lucrative, whilst the Chinese government cannot clamp down on it, as the market and consumer demand for innovation became a dominant force. We cannot turn the clock back to 1990 without unleashing a revolution in China – something the central government wants to avoid at all cost.

The best references are the new business models and services of the likes of Tencent and Alibaba taking over the creative lead from Facebook and E-bay. Also the way Chinese companies invest in the most strategic partners, often companies in distress, such as Volvo, Carrefour or Snapchat demonstrates how much they can think outside the box. Furthermore, one can experience extreme customer centricity in certain markets such as travel, sharing economy or fintech, where China is becoming the norm for the rest of the world.

Today, China has more consumers that have satisfied people’s basic needs than Europe or America: a house, good food, nice clothes, healthcare, mobility, education, a smartphone and foreign travel. Now, they are ready for more. They aim to further develop their identities, where the need for creative experience is more up-to-date than ever. When we mention creativity, we tend to forget that China has gone through 2000 long profound cultural evolution, and prefer to remember a decade of ‘cultural revolution’. Ever more Chinese are searching for authenticity and meaning. Western brands such as Gucci or L’Oreal know exactly how to address that need, making China their largest market to date.

These four creative trends will soon turn the world upside down – or China in the middle.

1. Cultural depth. 

Chinese companies are creating brands with a strong story and authenticity. The best sector to understand this trend is the beauty products industry. Chinese brands dig into the Chinese heritage to tell a story that resonates universally. Within the make-up industry they go back to colours originating from their past embedded in Chinese astrology or tradition. With perfumes they search for fragrances we never heard of in the West, based on natural herbs used within the Chinese medicine. A well-kept secret is that some of the best perfume laboratories in the world are based in China. Chinese have a good nose for creating new scents.

2. National Pride. 

In Shanghai one can visit the yearly Shanghai Fashion Week, where hundreds of Chinese boutique brands are on display. If you wouldn’t know, one would never have guessed these brands are Chinese: Superb finishes, unique concepts, and clear modern design lines. One designer has studied in New York, another one worked in Paris. Artistic creators are searching for recognition and do not tolerate any longer that their creations are hijacked by European brands. Yet, Chinese consumers are still hooked on Western designs, and push Chinese designers abroad. In the meantime, Chinese millennials are seeking more and more personal experiences and uniqueness whilst shopping. In the coming years, these new designers and consumers will meet on their self-discovery journey and make China a trendsetter – not merely in fashion, but in every creative industry.

3. Creative Technologies. 

Fashion Tech is the latest trend in China. It all started with wearables, which just like any electronics are ‘Made in China’. Is a smartphone, fitbit or digital watch fashion or technology? Both worlds are merging. This gives China a new opportunity to challenge Western brands by creating appealing use cases for the electronics. A blood pressure sensor in our watch or heat adaptor in our jacket is considered a gadget today, but in China is poised to become standard.  Chinese consumers will soon start to prioritize on comfort and ease of use instead of the brand.  If my Nikes don’t count my steps, I might as well buy a Li-Ning that has my personalized design, 3-D printed and delivered within a few hours at unbeatable price. This is where Chinese creativity and genius shall prevail. 

4. Mixed Creative Teams. 

All world-famous advertisement agencies have been in China for about 15 years now to cater to their many Western and fewer Chinese clients. Back then, without exception, all creative directors and management were either European or American.  Today that is very different. More and more mixed teams of Chinese and foreign creatives complement each other and learn from each other. These local creative directors often have years of experience abroad and speak fluently English. More so, they understand Chinese brands much better. As for Chinese multinationals like Huawei or Lenovo, they have been working since long with the best agencies to commission their creations. At each iteration more and more Chinese designers are part of the mix. The gap between Chinese and Western creation is closing.

This evolution is visible in every possible consumer market – from shampoos to cars, from bank to telecommunication products. The creative story becomes more consistent, universal and told much simpler. I feel that within five years we will become emotionally connected with the new Chinese brands. This trend is visible already with brands such as DJI (drones), Mobike (Bike-sharing) or Huawei (smartphones). 

The single biggest mistake we can make when doing business with China is by assuming Chinese are less creative, inventive or genius. If you want to succeed in China, you have to bring something more than creativity – a better technology, a strong brand, a long expertise or a Western market to trade with. If you have neither of those, the odds are turned against you. 

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Pascal Coppens

China’s upcoming leadership in global innovation is moving forward with astonishing speed. While the world is seeking to adapt to a New Normal,  China’s New Normal has been a...

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