China's Surprising Teen Consumers

As a new McKinsey report suggests, creators of consumer products need to understand the unusual mindset of mainland youth

Chinese teens are fashion crazy, instinctively flock to the latest foreign branded consumer electronics offerings churned out by the Motorolas (MOT) and Nokias (NOK) of the world, and spend an obscene amount of time watching TV, surfing the Internet, and immersing themselves in online combat and fantasy games. In short, they are pretty much like kids in Tokyo, London, and New York City, though perhaps with less spending power—right?

Well, not exactly. A survey released by McKinsey & Co. on June 29 suggests Chinese teen spirit is unique in some key respects that complicate the efforts of multinational consumer-goods companies to win their allegiance. One of the more striking observations from the survey of nearly 800 youths aged 12 to 17, in both flashy urban centers such as Beijing and Shanghai and rural towns, is the strong nationalist streak among young teens. Many say they prefer and trust mainland brands over foreign ones. Another un-teen like characteristic: They generally want to save money.

For example, in this age cohort, salting money away is seen as a key value, along with a heavy sense of familial obligation to support aging parents. In fact, 96% of respondents cite this as a crucial responsibility. And 76% say they have to "save a significant amount of money because it is a virtue." That's actually more than the 64% of their parents who say the same thing. And a whopping 88% of surveyed teens say they trust Chinese brands, while only 65% say the same about foreign brands.


 Figuring out what makes Chinese teens tick is far more than an interesting academic exercise. There is a lot of money up for grabs. McKinsey estimates Chinese teens collectively represent a market of about $36 billion a year. Chinese parents, who tend to dote on their kids, spend $28.75 billion on this group's behalf, and $7.5 billion comes directly out of the pockets of the young.

"Clearly one of the findings is just how big this market is," says Shanghai-based Ian St-Maurice, a consultant at McKinsey & Co. and one of the authors of the report. "If you look at overall consumption, it is a very, very large number. Some of that comes directly out of their pockets, while even more comes from spending by parents directly for their teens and other household spending that is influenced by their teens. You have teens telling parents what kind of televisions to buy, for example."

At the same time, the survey found significant differences in the way big city kids and those from smaller cities and rural backgrounds look at brands and spend their time and money. McKinsey broke its surveyed kids into four groups: trendy teens, poor teens, leisurely teens (who spend most on entertainment and music), and virtuous teens (who spend most on books).


 Trendy teens are most in tune with their counterparts around the world. They are concentrated in the biggest cities and are most brand-conscious and most open to foreign brands. That is a world away from small-town poor teens who prefer Chinese brands. "The trendy youth are very much of the Korean type who are intensely brand conscious and much more trusting of technology. They focus on money, but also focus on their status," says St-Maurice.

"At the other end of the spectrum are poor youth who have a lot less money and live mostly in the lower-tier cities and small towns of China. They are much more trusting of Chinese brands. And even though they are less attractive on a per capita basis, there are actually a lot of them out there in the market. They trust Chinese brands and hence should make for an interesting target for Chinese brands going forward," he added.

Perhaps not surprisingly, small-town teens spend a lot more time reading books, magazines, and newspapers than their counterparts in big developed cities like Beijing and Shanghai: 10.4 hours a week compared to only 4.5 hours. And also not a news flash: Those more-sophisticated city kids go online a lot more, too—5.1 hours a week surfing the Web, compared to just two hours a week in rural communities.


 Still, it's obvious the Net is increasingly a key part of all Chinese teens' lives. "As a medium, the big thing to use now is the Internet and to provide music and gaming for the teens, making their favorite leisure activities available through the Internet," says Mickey Chak, Beijing-based national planning partner at Ogilvy China. "This is not only in coastal cities but also in second- and third-tier cities because of the availability of Internet cafes, even if they have a PC at home."

In fact, Chinese teens and young adults are proving some of the most committed and driven gamers on the planet. And the stupendous growth of the online interactive game market in China continues to astound analysts. The market for fantasy and adventure multiple role-playing games shot up 54%, to $460 million, in 2005, and is on track to reach $2.1 billion by end of the decade, figures research firm IDC. China is expected to surpass tech-happy South Korea next year as Asia's biggest gaming market.

Foreign players are also trying to reach Chinese teens with online marketing initiatives. Procter & Gamble (PG) and Motorola, for example, have sponsored online dancing and lip-synching contests to sell Crest toothpaste and lower-end mobile phones, respectively. Motorola also has set up a large music download site providing ring tones for its hip young music-loving cell phone users.


 Coca Cola (KO) has launched a big marketing push on the Internet, allowing teens to play popular online games like World of Warcraft. The McKinsey survey showed that beverages ranked as the No. 1 product category in which teens affect their parents' buying decisions, followed by food and clothing. Both health-care and consumer electronics products were also in the top 10.

"The Internet is the main medium for these teens to get new information. Also it has much more credibility than TV. That's because often the content is hosted by teens," says Ogilvy's Chak. "It is very credible for teens. And it gives the brand more street credibility, when they have a presence on the Internet, compared to more traditional advertising focus on TV. Teens always prefer to have their voices heard. Internet creates much more dialogue than a one-way medium like TV," he adds.


 Not all youth marketing is done online, of course. Chinese auto maker Chery designed its best-selling QQ minicar to appeal to youthful buyers by offering it in bright colors—and has held nationwide contests where owners paint their own car in wacky ways.

And Nike (NKE) held a contest across China to find young artists for its own marketing campaign. Winning artists have seen their poster art used in Nike shops, online, and on outdoor billboards. "With teens, Nike is giving them the opportunity to co-create with the brand," says Ogilvy's Chak.

Connecting with Chinese teens will take some very clever marketing approaches, ones that recognize this group's diversity and values. And with $36 billion in spending up for grabs, plenty of mainland and foreign companies are trying mightily to crack the code of teen buying habits.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE