Cultural Practice Lead,
Brands have an opportunity to bridge the gap and add harmony
Chinese culture is like a very large and deep river that—in the way all cultures evolve—flows towards the future. A river that has two streams; one runs in the depths and is very slow and one runs on the surface and is very fast.
The former represents older generations that have deeper knowledge of the cultural tradition, are bound by its ideologies and values, and in general are more spiritual, ethical, and warm-hearted. They are more patient and calmer but slow to adapt. The latter stream represents younger generations that are more detached from tradition and its values and are, in general, more materialistic, shallow, ambitious, and “addicted” to change. Having spent all their lives in a state of constant progress, they are all about instant gratification, the search for the Chinese Dream and extreme experiences.
In most cultures, the generation gap is caused by cultural evolution, technological progress and the new parameters that these set, in terms of experiencing and consuming everyday life. This is a healthy sign that creates necessary tensions upon which culture drafts its passage into the future, harmoniously evolving its traditional values and re-appropriating its beliefs to fit contemporary conditions. Evolution in this case is an unconscious end-result of this tension between generations. It is resolved through a middle ground where old ideas, beliefs, and behaviors are fused with new ones creating a cultural continuity of the past into the future.
In China, such harmonious continuity of culture is threatened; instead of cultural continuity we are talking about cultural change. The generation gap has acquired gigantic proportions and is a normal side effect of the very abnormal and abrupt change that has taken place in the last decades. Never before in history has such an old, deeply philosophical, potent, and self-reliant culture, closed for many years, suddenly opened up to new ideas and influences and adopted them so fast and so passionately. Change that normally takes many generations’ time, in China takes place within one or two. This creates a huge gap in continuity, as the ideas of the past cannot be bridged with the radical ones of the present.
This can be a frustrating and emotionally charged situation. I remember many instances, while talking with old Chinese artists, when their usual calm and tranquil expression changed into anger as they started discussing new artists and their radical way of thinking, doing, and talking about art, devoid of any traces of respect or acknowledgment of tradition, methods, and principles. And of course, the old artists are more right than wrong. The old generations are trying to understand the new world and how it changes, even incorporate new methods and technology into their practices. The new generations wish to completely cut off tradition and disrupt the status quo. And while this is the nature of the new, eternal ideals and values that are the foundational pillars of the Chinese cultural DNA need to be persevered, embraced, and re-appropriated.
From a branding perspective this phenomenon presents a unique opportunity. Brands can successfully and meaningfully tap into the generation gap phenomenon in ways that relate to both old and new. One way of doing this is by actually making 'generation bridges' a brand's social mission and cultural purpose; a strategy whereby the brand’s philosophy, internal mechanisms and external expressions stand for facilitating a harmonious cultural continuity where the ideals of the old meet with the practices and energy of the new. Brand actions here would range from internal mechanisms where employees represent both generations, to campaigns that portray old and new living together in harmony, to activities and events bringing old and new together under a common platform upon which they can merge their philosophies and practices.
Another branding opportunity would be to tap into relevant contemporary cultural production, sponsoring and facilitating its output. There are many instances in culture where the new and old merge creating great value and meaning. In fashion, crafts and architectural iconographies, patterns and motifs as well as techniques of the past are inspiring new forms of contemporary expressions creating a sense of cultural vibrancy and continuity that comes as a result of old and new. Even films and videogames are using traditional iconography, heroes and legends to construct their narrative. In advertising and graphic design many great examples portray traditional iconography with contemporary, usually animated, aesthetics.
Yet another way that brands can address this is through technology. Scientific and technological progress have always been sources of fascination for Chinese people and a sign of a thriving culture. The old generation is fascinated by understanding the new technology and many brands have tapped into this idea using comical scenarios where the old try to use the technology of the new. A deeper and more meaningful way of addressing this is by seeing old ideals and philosophies through the prism of new technology. In this way, old and new are simultaneously educated about practices and values that each other represent.
A great example has been Herborist, the personal care brand that reimagines the Yin-Yang by picturing it in neon colors, suggesting a new form of balance between the nature of the old and the technology of the new. Herborist collects the best of traditional Chinese medicine ingredients and, with new technology, distills their essence to meet contemporary skincare needs. Technology can act as an amplifier that enables old generations to better hear and comprehend the newer generation and, at the same time, educate newer generations on old values and ideals that can be modernized and readopted to the new conditions.
To sail the river of Chinese cultural change, brands need to chart a course that touches both streams but finds a middle route that is both relevant to old and new and distinctive to the brand.