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The Race for China’s Youth Market

gap-china476A corporate strategy article by Thunderbird students Emma Brown, Caroline Caverly, Julie Goodman, Kelly Post and Angela Wong

Last year, when an apparel giant opened four stores in China and failed to gain a significant portion of the retail sales, multinational retail stores took note. The Gap, an apparel line successful in more than 3,000 locations worldwide, had everything going for them. So, what went wrong?

The Gap’s biggest mistake was the cookie cutter approach it took to establishing its presence in the world’s largest youth market. The Gap sought to target the increasing middle-income consumers in the rapidly growing Chinese market, but failed to capture the attention of their most important customers, the Chinese youth.

In China, the Gap is perceived as middle class apparel selling for a luxury price.  Status and luxury are important goals for China’s consumers, especially for the youth. However, a premium price for a middle class product is a cost youths are not willing to bear.  Moreover, The Gap chose to open stand-alone stores rather than locating in mall areas, forcing customers to go out of their way to make a special trip just to visit the store. The majority of Chinese consumers purchase apparel at a mall because they can use it as a single destination for shopping, eating, and entertainment. The Gap failed to realize that China’s middle class youth consumer is very different from an American consumer.

The Gap is not the only apparel company unraveling in the Chinese market.  American Apparel also has had issues targeting the youth market.  While in the U.S., American Apparel advertises its style as “sexy,” Chinese female consumers prefer “cute” clothing.  With all of these differences between the Western and Asian markets, how can a multinational company succeed in China?

While many companies are struggling in China, some have found a path to success.  Enovate, a consulting company based in Shanghai, uses its strengths of networking and social media to successfully navigate the complexities of China’s youth.

Why is China’s youth market so challenging?

While the youth market is a difficult target, the Chinese youth market poses additional challenges for companies attempting to enter China.  An important segment, Chinese youths have both the desire and means to spend. Disposable income is growing for younger and urban households, and the younger Chinese tend to spend more than save.[1] With rising income levels, the youth are able to afford more diverse and discerning tastes in their purchases.

What sets China apart from other nations is the one-child policy and its effects on the Chinese youth market. Since the implementation of the policy in the 1980s, which has resulted in 90 million only-children, the Chinese youth market is unique. The result of the policy is that a single child is now the focus of two parents and four grandparents, often leading to over-indulgence and high-pressure. These one-child policy children are regularly referred to as “little emperors” and are very persuasive in how their parents spend their money. In comparison, youth in the U.S. tend to have siblings whose parents balance the demands of each child. With so much familial attention and pressure focused on cultivating these only-children, the Chinese youth are interested in expressing their identity through personal choice.  This desire to separate and differentiate makes the youth market a broad and diverse demographic.

Many companies looking to enter the Chinese market have yet to develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to successfully target the Chinese youth.  Companies still believe that younger Chinese consumers are particularly influenced by Western trends in music, fashion, celebrities and sports.  According to Passport GMID, “Chinese brands are slowly picking up market share, and even respect, amongst the fashion-conscious set, but foreign [Western] brands are still king in this marketplace and especially amongst the younger age groups.”[2] However, this old tactic of pushing Western brands without understanding the Chinese consumer is likely to fail.

Although popular culture is reported to be heavily influenced by Hollywood, regional and local influences are not to be ignored.  Neighboring countries’ celebrities are also popular in China, evidenced by celebrity endorsements by Rain (Korea) and Ayumi Hamasaki (Japan).  Strong foreign trends come from Japanese and, more recently, Korean pop culture, and resonate with many of the Asian youths.  In addition to looking towards their neighbors, the Chinese youth also are impacted by Chinese pop culture. Popular Chinese celebrities are Faye Wong (Beijing), Andy Lau (Hong Kong), and Jay Chou (Taiwan).  Additionally, half of box-office sales in China are for domestically produced motion pictures.[3]

Furthermore, China has regional differences, affecting preferences for local and foreign influences.  For example, Shanghai tends to adopt more Japanese and Western aesthetics whereas Beijing is influenced by its indigenous arts and music culture.[4] Clearly, companies entering China must not underestimate the power of regional and local influences in the diverse youth market when introducing Western brands and culture.

Businesses also need to understand which mediums work best in targeting this unique group of consumers. TV ad bombardment simply will not work.  Instead, businesses should focus on internet advertisement as Chinese youth spend an average of 34 hours online each week compared to roughly11 hours spent online by youth in other nations.[5] Furthermore, Chinese youth are now spending more time at the mall than ever before, making them perfect targets for brand marketing.  However, this group not only cares about brands, they care about fitting in, personal expression, and increasingly more about social responsibility.

The complexities of the youth market, the specificity of the Chinese youth, and the high level of brand saturation necessitate that foreign businesses research and strategize how to enter China and succeed.

So who is doing it right?

Eno, founded in 2006 by former Nike executives and named one of China’s top ten most innovative companies in 2010, uses young designers and musicians to develop youth market apparel. Headquartered in trend-setting Shanghai, employees are able to follow the trends and understand the complexities of the Chinese youth market.  Comprised of both Chinese and Western management, Eno’s team has a competitive advantage as market trends for China’s youth show that there is increasing interest in Western apparel styles.

Eno’s strength stems from building a relationship with its target clientele.  By hosting local concerts and art events, Eno interacts with youths, encounters new ideas and gains market insight. Additionally, Eno’s success is amplified due to the company’s word of mouth and blogging marketing techniques.  John Solomon, CEO of Eno, commented, “Ultimately, you are going to go with a recommendation from someone you know verses a total stranger. It is a little exaggerated in China because due to the lack of transparency and openness the system relies on these relationships to get things done.”[6] With frequently interactions, Eno is able to respond to desires and build a relationship with the Chinese youth.  Currently, Eno has expanded beyond Shanghai and sells its apparel throughout China.

The company’s success has spurred their spinoff consulting firm, Enovate, focusing on insights and trends to help multinational businesses enter and connect with China’s youth. Founded in 2008, Enovate provides businesses with up-to-date consumer information gleaned from data on market insights and analysis on the Chinese youth market. Enovate is able to do this by leveraging its “network,” consisting of four main channels. These channels are their private social network, their “trend spotters,” their research partners in the Pan-Asian area, and their expert network.[7] This unique format for navigating the ins-and-outs of the Chinese youth market allows Enovate to advise businesses on the best ways to connect with China’s youth.

What does the future hold?

While companies like Enovate are assisting multinationals with their entrance into the Chinese market, there still lie some challenges ahead. Before companies attempt to enter and target China’s youth market, multinationals must understand that cookie cutter methods that worked in their home countries will not work. China’s youth market, with all of its challenges, is highly fickle with its diverse interests. A multinational must be prepared to adapt to the ever-changing environment and interests of this unique youth culture if they plan on successfully penetrating this market.

Although initially, The Gap may appear to have failed in China, they have not given up quite so easily. In March 2011, The Gap announced that it would expand its stores in China but has stressed that this time they are poised to win.[8] The Gap is expanding to online shopping mall Taobao, where 48,000 items are purchased per minute. This new approach shows that companies must be willing to modify their business models to better understand and target the Chinese youth.  If done correctly, multinational companies stand a chance in China.  And now, businesses do not have to tackle this challenge alone, they can rely on innovative consulting firms such as Enovate.


[1] Passport GMID.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Accenture Global Research on Millenials’ use of Technology 2010

[6] Interview with John Solomon, CEO of Enovate. July 26, 2011.

[7] www.enovatechina.com

[8] South China Morning Post