'You can, you up': Words of warning for marketers courting China's Millennials

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Participants in a Beijing youth-marketing conference laid down a challenge to older agencies

BEIJING — "You can, you up," a curious Chinglish catchphrase uttered frequently by Millennials in China, carries a warning for older marketers targeting the youth segment, according to participants at a youth-marketing conference here this week.

The phrase means, "If you think you can do it, then you should go ahead — level up and do it." It's often hurled at people who criticize others but who are not much better themselves.

The mingling of Chinese and English into a contracted form of slang, such as the above, reflects changes happening in Chinese society as well as the daily lives and attitudes of Chinese young people.

The conference, hosted by Renren and titled "Youth can, youth up," highlighted a trend of more and more young entrepreneurs in China deriving their startup ideas from their own insights and those of their peers after finding themselves dissatisfied with what the market had to offer. Notably, these entrepreneurs, born in the post-'80s or even post-'90s generations, know their target audiences inside-out. 

Their businesses, founded on observation of young people's lifestyle preferences, include Juju (a social-networking and video-sharing service themed around anime, manga, cartoons and game fandom in China), 17Chang (a mobile app for reserving private karaoke rooms) and Elephant (a figuratively named condom brand rivalling Durex). 

17Chang founder Zhou Wenbing's entrepreneurial motivation was different from that of the previous generation, he said. "My father was 18 or 19 years old when my grandfather died," Zhou said. "If he didn't work hard, he will not have anything to eat. So basically entrepreneurship to him was the most basic of life's safeguards, driven by a sort of uneasiness and anxiety. He did whatever made money at that time, almost with no moral integrity.

Thanks to the hard work of previous generations, young people in China are now wealthy in comparison, and do not have to worry over basic needs. "We can enjoy the pleasure of life as much as possible, and from experiencing life, we find our value," said Zhou. The entrepreneurial drive of China's young people is usually based on pursuit of personal value through like-minded people and a common language.

And this common language is what some older marketers are not getting, said Clark Xiao, researcher at Foresight Consulting, speaking in a panel discussion (pictured below). 

To generate ideas that will appeal to youths, play with them, he advocated. Specifically, play with the language they speak. Xiao cited an example from a brainstorming session for a new slogan to promote tourism for Yunnan province. The rhyming-couplet style of the original slogan (a phrase that means "Colorful Yunnan, Tourism Heaven") was a yawn-inducing turnoff for people born after the 1990s, he said.

"It was such a bore, so three students from Renmin University thought of a crisp, haiku-style slogan (roughly translated to 'A walk in Yunnan, I am mad for') that got all the young people present in the room excited, but the post-'50s tourism board director in a huff because it was something he couldn't come up with."

This playful and unconstrained creativity from the Millennial generation in China stems from that generation's large amount of cultural consumption, be it sub-cultures or countercultures, pointed out Zafka Zhang, chief strategy officer of China Youthology, a research firm.

"The kind of creativity that we are after is born in the context of modern consumption," he said.

One lesson, according to Rasheed Zhao, Kellogg's China digital director, is to "delegate creativity to the young ones," because only they know how to speak to their peers. "I think that young people themselves epitomize creativity," Zhao said. "I will not look forward to ideas from a 90-year-old man."

Belief in this dynamic has led to the emergence of an "open innovation" system, also known as creative outsourcing, that can be abused if brands are not wary.

"Advertising agencies and brands sometimes have to admit that they have their own defects, and in fact, allow young people to kick our asses," Zhang added. "However, the problem arises if brands don't know who they are and what they want, but simply desire to take 'something' from young people to fill their idea gaps. If this is the case, it's called usurping, not cooperation."

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.


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