This is a part of a series on creative branding in China. Read more from the series here.

Just as many international brands felt like they were finally finding their groove in China, they were forced to confront a new reality overnight. The pandemic dramatically disrupted the rhythm of the economy and everyday life — and it left business leaders searching for fresh local market insights. Before we knew it, a slew of “2021 China trends” articles started to appear.

If you’re new to China market trends, how do you tell the difference between fads and trends? In a nutshell, trends are long-term patterns that have perhaps been years or even generations in the making, even changing directions back and forth over time. It’s too soon to be sure which of the changes that came about as a result of the pandemic are permanent. But there are several long-term patterns that began long before the pandemic that business leaders and brand owners in China should explore.

The Orangeblowfish has been based in China’s most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai, since 2012 and we believe that there are three essential areas all brands – especially international brands – need to focus to remain relevant and be successful in China: (a) Traditional versus Modern; (b) Online versus Offline and (c) Pleasing versus Leading.

Trend #1: Traditional versus Modern

Every international business and brand leader in China knows that East versus West is an inescapable dilemma for brands. But it’s not just a geopolitical question. It’s also a matter of design. The East stands for tradition: intricate and colorful and incorporates elements of Chinese history and culture. While the West is synonymous with modernism: flat and minimalistic and emphasizes practicality and functionality. Once upon a time, many Chinese looked to Western brands, and the culture and design that came with them, with admiration – especially young people. But that is changing as China’s youth draw aesthetic inspiration from their own cultural heritage. The growing confidence and pride in traditional Chinese art and culture is related to the country’s growing influence on the global stage. For those born in the 90s and after, the world’s second largest economy (and fastest-growing) is all they have ever known.

This swing to the East is known as Guochao (国潮), or the National Wave. Guochao has created great opportunities for local Chinese brands, which were previously upstaged by international brands. However, the real question for international brands in China is, “How to adapt to the local culture without losing what made the brand distinctive in China, in the first place?” The answer is not as difficult as it seems -- if you know how to find the right balance.

The truth is that traditional Chinese design and modern Western design are not that dissimilar. There are many examples of East Asian influence in European art, from the Chinoiserie that introduced China to the 18th Century French art scene to Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which inspired Western artists to experiment with flat, unshaded blocks of color and asymmetry of layout. Such features from Asian art that have now become associated with modern art in the West.

Because modern Western design drew inspiration from East Asian culture, these elements are compatible, even complementary. When brands blend the two styles, not only does it work -- it sparks with both Chinese and international audiences. When The Orangeblowfish was engaged to brand LinkedIn’s headquarters in Shanghai, we balanced between modern and traditional designs. It looks simple – but one of the more challenging parts of the brief included finding points of integration extracted from LinkedIn’s corporate culture and integrated with the Chinese culture. Drawing inspiration from Shanghai People’s Park, we created a Where’s Waldo-like depiction of People’s Park in the Song Dynasty, complete with LinkedIn brandmarks hidden throughout. One of the most iconic features in the LinkedIn Shanghai office is a distinctly Chinese pattern forming the social network’s well-known square brandmark – the LinkedIn In Bug. Except this installation incorporates a circle within the square as a tribute to the Chinese philosophy of I Ching. Such visual messages can be powerful, conveying that the brand is truly and deeply “linked-in” to people’s world, appreciates their cultural and is committed to the China market. Here's a short video that showcases our work.

Trend #2: Online versus Offline

When it comes to e-commerce, East indisputably leads West. As early as 2017, more than 80 percent of Chinese said they were comfortable leaving home with no cash, because they were confident in the widespread use of  mobile phone payment platforms. Online shopping, electronic payment and home delivery -- systems that were relatively well-developed in China before the pandemic -- have received an added boost, bringing in more businesses that did not previously have digital storefronts online. The pandemic may no longer be keeping everyone indoors, but young Chinese people worn out by the fast pace of city life are embracing comfort culture. They can have anything they imagine delivered right to their doorstep while enjoying some downtime in the process. The shopping malls may not look as busy as before, but businesses are still ringing up sales via their online stores.

But brands need to be careful not to lose their balance by overlooking opportunities to engage Chinese people offline. Human beings have a need for physical touch, which predates touchscreens. Handshakes may have evolved into elbow bumps (or, may we suggest, traditional Chinese fist-in-palm salutes), at least for the time being. But the desire to connect, to feel, to touch is in humans’ basic natures.

What China is now encountering is not a revolution in e-commerce but a reimagination of retail. Rather than viewing online and offline stores as competing experiences, brands can transform their brick-and-mortar locations from just points of sale to spaces for interactive brand experiences to occur. Nowhere is this more important than in the luxury and lifestyle segments, where a significant amount of a brand’s value exists outside of the product itself. For example, when Budweiser needed to stage a post-pandemic comeback, it created a multi-sensory brand experience at its venue partner in Shanghai, Found 158. The success of Budweiser’s “Drop 158 Festival” involved the meticulous planning of an online to offline strategy inclusive of a brand-new video game where the game was designed around a futuristic Budweiser red planet that was sound-reactive to the beat of the live music, as well as a new drinking ritual called “Drop the Bud”, co-created by The Orangeblowfish and Chris Lowder, from Proof & Co. The event reminded Shanghai’s cosmopolitan young people of the dazzling night lives they left behind during lockdown. And the video game experience reminded them of what Budweiser, music and games have in common: it’s just better when you share the experience with friends.

Trend #3: Pleasing versus Leading

The final trend is not unique to China but to all brand owners. It’s the difference between giving customers what they want (“pleasing”) and surprising the market with something it never expected (“leading”). But this dilemma is especially relevant in China today, where people are becoming increasingly sophisticated consumers. They want to see a brand’s beliefs, values and perspectives in the products they choose and the brand they endorse. So it’s not just brands that are striving to make their voice heard among Chinese people; Chinese people are also striving to make their voice heard among brands.

The balancing act is finding truth about a brand that is relevant to the audience. It has to be something that is new and pleasantly surprising while also being easy for customers to accept and adapt to their lives. Pleasing versus leading shouldn’t be a tug of war between brands and customers. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “A canal will form when water comes.” When brands truly understand their customers, it is possible to supply what they want -- even if they don’t demand it, yet. That is just what happened when L’Oreal Group acquired YUSEAI Cosmetics, a Chinese skincare brand, in 2004. What makes the brand stand out is its use of traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients in its products. The therapeutic healing power of these herbs is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Introducing their medicinal properties to a category dominated by international brands gave Chinese people what they wanted while also opening up a new world of skincare products.  


These pendulum swings between traditional and modern, offline and online, pleasing and leading didn’t start during the pandemic. But the pandemic pushed them to new extremes. So even though creative branding in China has always been a balancing act, it now requires international business and brand leaders to become masters of harnessing these back-and-forth movements. In a volatile time like the present, the goal of these slow, steady, Tai Chi-like exercises is to avoid wild swings. The success of creative branding in China, is receiving inspiration from trends that have formed over long periods of time and channeling it into new ideas.

Photo credit: YUESAI photos and videos provided by YUESAI Cosmetics.