Being a woman in China is full of contradictions. On one hand, China’s one-child policy has meant that, for several decades, women have not had to compete with brothers for resources or attention – their parents’ hopes and investments have been concentrated solely on them. This has led to them being more highly educated than ever before. Almost 53% of the top-scoring students across China’s 31 provincial-level regions are female, and there would likely be more female university graduates than male if universities didn’t blatantly favour male applicants.
Better education has led to more career success and spending power – and this shows. Chinese women now contribute some 41% to China’s GDP, a higher percentage than women in many other regions, including Australia and the USA.
On the other hand, women in China still have to contend with societal pressures to shoulder the majority of domestic responsibilities, get married and have children – in fact, these pressures have only increased since China relaxed its one-child policy, in efforts to combat a falling birth rate and an ageing population. These attitudes have contributed to China’s widening gender gap: ranked 57th (of 139 countries) in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index in 2008, China was 103rd (of 149 countries) in 2019. In terms of “health and survival”, it ranked last.
As one 29-year-old Chinese woman succinctly put it: “Things have changed a lot for Chinese women in my generation. In some ways better and in some ways worse, [but] overall it’s just more complicated.”
So what does all this mean for brands marketing to Chinese women? In this blog post, we look at some of the challenges facing Chinese women, and how brands might address this in their marketing.
Sheng nu, or “leftover women”, is a derogatory term popularised by the Chinese government to describe unmarried women in their late 20s and 30s. These young, urban, well-educated, career-focused single women – of which there are around 7 million in China – are some of the greatest contributors to their country’s growth, yet they still face relentless pressure to get married from their families and society at large.
As author Roseann Lake wrote in her book Leftover in China: “[O]n paper, these women are pushing toward the upper echelon of the self-actualization pyramid. But as unmarried women, they teeter toward the bottom half of what is socially acceptable in China.”
The stigma of being a “leftover woman” is such that parents will even go to so-called “marriage markets” and advertise their daughter’s assets on signs (“Born in 1985, studied in the UK, she’s short, has a Shanghai residence permit, owns her own apartment”) in order to try to find them a suitable husband.
Yet it is not surprising that many of these women choose to be single. After their and their parents’ investment of time and money into their education, many of them don’t want to simply give up a promising career for a family. Their focus on their careers also mean they earn enough that they don’t need to rely on a husband to be the breadwinner and “take care of them”.
As Dai Xuan, the 30-year-old editor of a luxury magazine in Shanghai, told NPR: “Before, in China, you married to survive. Now I’m living well by myself, so I have higher expectations in marriage.”
There’s also the catch-22 of being expected to “marry up”, despite living in cities where the average man is less educated and less wealthy than they are. Many are also reluctant to assume the subservient role in the relationship, which many men expect due to the still prevailing traditional view of gender roles. As one woman – a lawyer – relates in the documentary Leftover Women, people tend to think of women with degrees, “This woman must be very tough, not obedient. Maybe very bossy. Maybe she wouldn’t follow the orders of a husband.”
Yet there are signs that more progressive views are starting to take hold in China. One is the popularity of reality show Sisters Who Make Waves – a take on the popular idol competition genre that aims to create new girl group or boy bands, but featuring female celebrities between 30 and 52 years old. Despite launching with little fanfare on 12 June, the first episode of the weekly series has already drawn more than 420 million views, and has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube. On notoriously hard-to-please user ratings site Douban, Sisters has an overall score of 8.5 after 48,000 votes.
The popularity of Sisters shows Chinese women are hungry for content showing empowered women over 25 in a positive light. It shows viewers are responding to the show’s push against negative “leftover women” stereotypes, with the contestants on the show imbuing assertiveness and confidence, and demanding respect for their experience. As actress Nina Jang responded when asked by producers to introduce herself: “Do I still need to introduce myself? All my efforts in the past few decades have been in vain then.”
What this means for brands marketing to Chinese women
In 2016, beauty brand SK-II took on the stigma of leftover women head on. They released a short film showing the type of pressure and comments women can face from their parents (“I won’t die in peace unless you are married”, “Don’t be so free-willed”, and “You’re too picky”), and the heartache and pain that comments like these can cause those on the receiving end. It then shows the women delivering strong messages of defiance and self-assuredness to their parents by posting signs in Shanghai’s Marriage Market with statements like, “I don’t want to get married just for the sake of marriage. I won’t live happily that way.”
It’s worth watching the entire 4-minute short film (for English subtitles, turn on the closed captions):
While the campaign was undoubtedly powerful, and clearly hit a nerve (it has racked up nearly 3 million views on YouTube), not all brands necessarily need to (or should) take on the issue of leftover women in such a direct way.
Instead, brands should be very wary of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Tmall, for example, faced a lot of backlash for their 2018 Women’s Day campaign “Living with Feminine Power”, as apparently their idea of “feminine power” included things like dealing with a blister from a high-heel shoe, and exercising to try to lose weight. Not exactly ground-breaking.
Like Sisters, brands should consider how to show women as confident, empowered beings. Brands must remember that these women are highly educated, independent, intelligent and ambitious – and they want to be reflected that way.
Brands should also not be tokenistic, or feminist simply for the sake of being feminist. In the end, an impactful campaign is one that builds upon your existing brand identity and storytelling. Consider your brand’s story or proposition, and how it relates to women in a positive way – for example, do you have a female founder? Have women played a significant role in the formation of your brand? More so than provocation, sensationalism or virality, resonance and emotional engagement should be the goal.
While parents everywhere struggle with the challenges of child-rearing, motherhood in China can be especially tough. Most couples only have one child, so all their focus gets trained on them, plus China’s huge population means that competition is intense – for everything.
In an illuminating article, sociologist Shen Yang shared what she was up against as a middle-class mother in Shanghai. As a full-time worker, Shen Yang decided to enrol her child in a kindergarten. But, as she discovered, many of the most popular kindergartens in Shanghai prioritised applicants who had first attended a “adult-accompanied infant course”, in which parents were required to participate. Some kindergartens wouldn’t even consider interviewing parents who hadn’t undergone such a course.
Top kindergartens in cities like Shanghai receive so many applications that they can be highly discerning about who they accept: “[The application process] prioritizes families with members who’ve won international or national awards or who’ve made significant, officially recognized contributions to the city of Shanghai — even as it declines to disclose how these achievements are weighted. The application form also asks parents to write down their ‘family educational philosophy’ and list the occupations and educational levels of the child’s grandparents, as well as any awards they may have won, just for good measure.”
The application process for some kindergartens is so competitive, some parents even resort to underhanded techniques to get their child ahead of the pack. Shen Yan spoke of the unusual application process at one kindergarten:
“Talking with other applicant-parents, I learned that, rather than post details for how to apply for an interview online, the kindergarten usually posted them outside the school gate — and only for three days shortly after the Lunar New Year vacation.
“In previous years, some parents would check the gate every day for fear of missing the announcement. According to a post on Qian Fan, in 2017, a parent tore the notice off the wall an hour after it was posted, hoping other parents would miss their chance to sign up. It’s a process that has a way of spotlighting the selfishness and fiercely competitive side of parents desperate to get their children a good education, reaffirm their own social status, and pass that status onto the next generation.”
This “intensive” style of parenting unsurprisingly breeds a lot of stress and anxiety in parents – and because women traditionally tend to take on a larger share of the domestic and child-rearing responsibilities, much of this burden falls on them. They find themselves overwhelmed with choice, and constantly fearful they will make the wrong one.
As Shen Yang writes: “Private school or public school, sending your kid abroad for college or having them dare the gaokao college entrance exam — middle-class Chinese parents have more choices than ever when it comes to educating their kids. But more choices can lead to more anxiety. Parents increasingly believe they need to plan their children’s lives from birth, while children find every choice already made for them. And ultimately, so many of the decisions we make are really just about reproducing the existing social structure.”
What this means for brands marketing to Chinese women
It can be tempting for brands to lean into this anxiety and try to breed a fear mindset – “your child won’t succeed/be socially accepted/be fulfilled without Product X”. Yet brands may find messaging that looks to reduce anxiety and stress might resonant more strongly, as well as breed more loyalty with Chinese mothers.
Consider how your product makes life easier for Chinese mothers dealing with pressures from multiple sides. Remember also that their children’s health and education are absolutely top priorities for them, so anything you can do to enhance these things will go a long way. For example, is your product an online English-language course for children? Your messaging could concentrate on how the course is so fun that kids actually look forward to doing their lessons, or how the online nature of the course means kids can do their lessons independently (without the need for parental supervision or an expensive tutor).
It’s also worth being mindful about what products are typically targeted towards Mum, and which are targeted towards Dad. For example, many advertisers target things like household cleaning and baby products towards women, and target things like vehicles and utilities towards men. But according to Kantar China Insights, purchasing decisions in many of these categories were made jointly by men and women.
They argue that, by failing to engage both genders equally, brands undermine their value, as gender-balanced campaigns tend to perform better than male-skewed ones. Brands could therefore consider how to represent both genders more equitably, thereby acknowledging the key role women play in purchasing decisions for the family, while also helping to “share the load” of household responsibilities.
Marketing to Chinese women
As you can see, being a women in China is fraught with complexities. By simply being attuned to the many challenges facing Chinese women, brands can more easily develop campaigns that will engage and resonate with their target audiences, and avoid falling into the pitfalls of perpetuating stereotypes and negative perceptions.