by Jiaqi Luo
In China, where the influencer landscape is much more crowded than the western one, novelty-seeking millennials and Gen Z are getting bored of the current standardisation of influencer content. Having seen enough porcelain-skinned, thin, pretty ladies recommending them products in a bubbly voice, the last thing young Chinese are looking for is yet another influencer cliché.
A recent Chinese pop saying, “quan shi taolu,” meaning it is all cliché, summarizes the millennial disdain for over-standardised marketing. Part of the global influencer fatigue movement, Chinese youngsters are tired of the generic social content that shows conventionally beautiful people posting conventionally beautiful things. The term “taolu,” roughly translated as “scheme,” is how they describe this formulaic, cookie-cutter kind of marketing that brands push to show on their screens. Of course, it’s true that genuine Chinese influencers still exert a strong influence over a massive audience, and the mainstream influencer industry is far from going extinct. But as modern Chinese consumers’ disdain for “taolu” efforts escalates, it is time for brands to shift the focus from marketing science back to art.
It’s all very well pushing out a business logarithm of ‘budget A should give views B and sales C’, but the real world of China business now requires creativity over mere marketing-by-numbers.
Lately, a new breed of “influencers” that used to work behind-the-scenes is evolving on China’s social media. A creative clan – illustrators, artists, designers, photographers and the like, are grabbing millennials’ attention on a quality perspective. In January this year, the stunning visuals of BBC’s sci-fi series “Doctor Who” made the illustrator Ruanruan Fei a social star. The series’ posters, depicting iconic Chinese architectures in a stylised way received netizens praise of being the example of the “Chinese aesthetic done right.” Later in April, a group of China Daily’s Europe magazine covers amassed over 180,000 likes on Weibo. The need to see more Chinese tastemakers, rather than imposter-style influencers, is growing.
BBC’s Doctor Who posters, by Illustrator RuanRuan Fei. Image: Sohu.com
China Daily’s cover illustrations trended on Weibo. Image: Weibo
Brands that are China-smart and have their DNA deeply connected to cultural understanding have started collaborating with local creatives. Prada, one of the earliest luxury brands to recognise Chinese creative potential, collaborated with film director Yang Fu Dong in 2010 and artist Cao Fei in 2018 on the brand’s editorial content. In 2019, collaborations with Chinese creatives blossomed: H&M teamed up with Angle Chen on its first Chinese designer capsule collection; both Converse and Levi’s collaborated with designer Feng Chen Wang on special collections; in hospitality, Conrad Hotels worked with artist Juju Wang, More Tong, and designer Dido Liu on the brand’s “Designed for Inspiration” campaign.
As young China’s demand for homegrown tastemakers keeps rising, it is time for brands to look at the nation’s new generation of creatives for collaborative ideas. Here are four picks from this year:
1. Zhu Jing Yi: all-millennial calligraphy artist
With nearly 800,000 followers on Weibo, Zhu Jing Yi is arguably China’s most-followed calligraphy artist. As a self-proclaimed “digital-age artist,” Zhu has stretched Chinese calligraphy, a medium traditionally reserved for formal writing, to an all-millennial direction. Instead of writing ancient Chinese poetry, he writes, in classical cursive characters, ironic, wry phrases like “no desire in this life, except the desire for money” and “only losing weight could solve my sorrow.” It is lost in translation but the original word choice is powerful and poetic.
Chinese post-80, post-90 millennials rave about his light-hearted cynicism, and many of them buy his work to hold up in their apartments as a personal statement. In September 2019, Zhu has collaborated with JD’s “China Beauty” shopping fest, using his calligraphy to accentuate the project’s Chinese identity.
Zhu Jing Yi has collaborated with JD Beauty on the platform’s “China Beauty” sales event. Image: @JD Beauty’s Weibo.
2. Wang Chen Rui: “Keith Haring”-ish Pop Artist
Wang Cheng Rui’s pop painting in a Chongqing mall pop-up. Image: berarat
Artist Wang Cheng Rui, known for his Keith Haring homage graffiti, is skilled at painting walls for pop-up mall events. His graffiti is ultra-modern, fun to look at, and visually bright enough to stop every phone camera. As more malls in China are holding pop-ups to gamify shopping, young Chinese will continue to raise their expectation of a brand’s physical coolness. On this front, artists like Wang provide the perfect solution. Wang has already collaborated with Coca Cola, Converse, and China’s hotel chain OYO on graffiti projects.
Wang Chen Rui painting for the “World of Coca-Cola” exhibition in Chengdu. Image: Sohu
3. Jamy Yang: China’s design pioneer
Remarked as “China’s most influential designer” by Forbes, Jamy Yang represents the very best of contemporary Chinese design. As an industrial designer, Yang blends a soulful Chinese aesthetic with a clean design that is commercially viable on a global scale.
His presence as a forward-thinking Chinese designer is also crucial because, unlike in the world of technology or fashion, “made in China” still suffers a deep inferiority complex in the world of design. Having collaborated with many renowned design brands, Yang hasn’t branched out in the field of luxury and fashion. But his capacity to make culturally thoughtful objects is a unique asset that luxury brands should not ignore.
Jamy Yang’s “New Handcrafts” design blends traditional Suzhou embroidery with a modern silhouette. Image: CDC.com
4. Victo Ngai: Master of the Chinese Aesthetic
Apple’s Year of the Rooster billboard Image source: @VictoNgai website.
Victo Ngai, a Guangzhou-born, Hong Kong-raised and New York-based illustrator, rose to Chinese internet fame because of her Chinese New Year posters for Apple. In China, Ngai is known as one of the most influential artists who tackles the “Chinese aesthetic” the right way. (Featured image above)
Her illustration shows traditional Chinese elements in a joyful, modern style, which is a sharp contrast with the gloomy, retrograde feel that Chinese youngsters often find in the “Chinese aesthetic” incorrectly authored by western luxury brands.
Build trust and show respect
For a long time, the luxury world has looked at China as a centre of consumers, rather than creators. Today, as China cements its place as world’s largest luxury market and media headlines of “Chinese consumers” flood the Internet, Chinese creatives seem to still be relatively invisible to the wider luxury world.
Why hasn’t luxury and fashion worked with more Chinese creatives? Perhaps luxury and fashion houses, mostly rooted in a western cultural tenet, think a western creative could better convey their image. Perhaps it is China’s education that has been slow in unlocking the potential in creative minds that could compete globally. Perhaps it is the cultural gap. Or prejudice. Whatever the reason, it is high time for brands to reconsider the cultural paradigm shift.
Especially at a time when trust in international brands isn’t at its highest, to connect deeply with their number one market – China’s next-gen consumers – brands must look towards local creatives and clever tastemakers if they stand any chance of standing out.