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Winning the battle for China’s new middle class

By Max Magni and Felix Poh

A huge wave of increasingly affluent consumers will constitute China’s urban majority by 2020. To serve them, multinationals must adapt—or be left behind.

The rapid emergence of a prosperous, more individualistic, and more sophisticated class of consumers in China is creating unprecedented opportunities and challenges for companies serving them. The opportunity is clear: in less than a decade, more than three-fourths of China’s urban households will approach middle-class status on a purchasing-power-parity basis (for details, see “Mapping China’s middle class”).

But the market is rapidly bifurcating between a still large (but less affluent) mass market and a new, even bigger group of upper-middle-class consumers—one that’s so large and significant we’ve referred to it in the past as the “new mainstream.”1 The people in this more affluent segment tend to live in China’s higher-tier cities and coastal areas, enjoy household incomes between 106,000 and 229,000 renminbi ($16,000 to $34,000) a year, and have opinions strikingly different from those of their mass-market middle-class counterparts.2

As China’s new upper middle class swells to include more than half of the country’s urban households by 2020—up from just 14 percent in 2012—it will strain many of today’s business models. Companies that have long catered to consumers trying to meet basic needs at affordable prices will face a shrinking market and risk losing millions of customers looking to trade up.

Simultaneously serving a familiar but declining mass market and an uncertain but promising new upper-middle-class one will require novel approaches. This article is a report from the front lines: how consumer-goods companies can craft brands that appeal to the rising middle class, develop “dual strategies” and transition plans for the evolving landscape, and build the marketing muscle to compete in an increasingly complex environment.

1. Aspirational brands

Until recently, Chinese consumers were generally too new to the market to focus on anything beyond the basic functional attributes of most products. These shoppers were also historically quite pragmatic, particularly in making purchase decisions in prosaic product categories where emotional connections aren’t strong. So for every Dove Chocolate or Starbucks that prospered by learning to create strong emotional ties as “occasion” products—emphasizing attributes such as “chocolate indulgence” or “the coffee break experience”— other equally recognizable brands struggled. China’s consumers simply weren’t ready for them.

How times have changed. As recently as 2010, functional benefits dominated the list of key buying factors for just about all of the 40 consumer-goods categories we studied. Just two years later, emotional benefits had become a top-five key buying factor in these same categories—and in many cases the top one or two. In the shampoo category, for example, upper-middle-class shoppers are 50 percent more likely than their mass-market counterparts to regard emotional factors as an important purchase consideration.

Consider the experience of SCA, a Swedish manufacturer of personal-care and forest products. The company uses traditional consumer roadshows to demonstrate the basic, functional benefits of its facial tissues to a broad base of Chinese consumers. But SCA also wants to position the products as affordable luxuries to which upper-middle-class consumers should aspire (the company already follows a similar approach in the wealthier Hong Kong market). “Our target is the white-collar young professional woman,” notes Stephan Dyckerhoff, president of SCA’s North Asia Hygiene Products division. “We want her to show off our product in much the same way she might show off using an iPhone.”

To achieve such big aspirations, the company looks for unique ways to strengthen the emotional connection between consumers and its products. One approach involves karaoke lounges, where SCA distributes special small packs of tissues to create a positive association between the product and activities customers enjoy. Such clever approaches to execution will probably be differentiators in a crowded market. Similarly, other leading companies are working hard on in-store execution and word-of-mouth effects (including social-media platforms where more and more consumers exchange ideas) to help ensure that China’s increasingly affluent consumers notice their products.3

2. Dual strategies

Aspirational brands, already relevant for China’s new upper middle class, will become even more important as it grows. “The new upper-middle-class opportunity is where the future is,” says Alan Jope, the head of Unilever’s businesses in north Asia. “It’s huge across categories and even more important than the luxury class of consumers.”

Yet as Unilever and other leading companies size up the new consumer, they also recognize the power that China’s consumer mass market still wields. “Consumers in coastal China may be getting wealthier and trading up,” notes Michael Yeung, the president of Wrigley Asia Pacific, “but China’s interior and lower-tier cities will continue to be a vast market for us.”

A few forward-looking companies are responding with dual strategies: a mass-market business designed for volume alongside an upper-middle-class one for profits. In practical terms, such a strategy often plays out along geographic lines: large regions divided into smaller clusters, each, perhaps, with its own product portfolio, pricing, marketing approach, and execution plan. The most sophisticated players establish clear profit-and-loss responsibilities for regions and recognize that the “shape” of that P&L—the relative importance of volume, value, cost control, and margins—will inevitably vary.

A major snack manufacturer uses such a strategy to create relatively cheap entry-level mass-market products while reserving higher-margin offerings for customers who trade up. To minimize product cannibalization, the company limits the distribution of entry-level products to lower-tier cities with average incomes below a certain threshold—and even there, only in more traditional “mom and pop” stores.4 This approach helps keep the company’s low-end products off the shelves of modern retailers that carry its premium ones. The company doesn’t stop at distribution: to combat gray-market sales, its employees routinely visit retail outlets, inspecting the shelves and using scan codes to determine where products originated and where they belong. Distributors that violate the rules are first warned, then cut loose if they don’t comply.

Meanwhile, the company reserves its more expensive offerings for wealthier cities in coastal areas, carefully marketing and packaging products to attract more sophisticated, aspirational shoppers who view higher-priced snacks as a way to reward themselves. This approach has helped the company to increase its revenues in China by more than 15 percent annually over the past three years. Volume growth leads the way in the country’s interior, while the richer coastal cities drive profitability.

Bayer Consumer Care has adopted a similar approach. The company recently undertook an initiative to widen its sales and distribution coverage in China’s smaller cities. But it also added sales representatives in 28 core municipalities in top-tier ones, where the company hopes to raise its game with new upper-middle-class consumers.

3. Disciplined transition timing

Timing is a crucial element of effective dual strategies. Companies must recognize the nature of shifts under way in different geographies and move fast to stay ahead of competitors. But they can’t move so quickly that their mass-market business is destabilized. All that takes discipline.

Consider the timing discipline of a global consumer-goods manufacturer pursuing a dual strategy. The company’s executives started by dividing consumers into about 40 geographic microclusters based on their income levels and preferences, as well as the activities of competitors. Next, teams representing each of the company’s major product categories looked at the microclusters with an eye toward grouping them into archetypes based on the stages of their evolution: solidly mass market, beginning the transition, or rapidly uptrading. The company then reviewed these recommendations and, to sharpen its thinking, used differences the teams had identified— for example, one microcluster was rapidly uptrading in shampoos but not yet in soaps.

The company’s activities in microclusters that remained solidly mass market went largely unchanged. Microclusters in the second category (beginning the transition) were included in a marketing plan to introduce more upmarket brands and products over a 12- to 24-month horizon. For the rapid uptraders, the company ramped up the pace: a 6- to 9-month window for new brands and stock-keeping units, as well as new promotional messages to help drive up average prices. To avoid being wrong-footed by rivals, the company created competitive-intelligence teams that travel through the country to collect insights and work with the sales force to coordinate the appropriate response. When a rival’s new product or strategy appears to affect the transition plan, the company can quickly change the pace of the shift to shut out competitors quickly and avoid losing market share.

This company’s ability to adapt quickly has been instrumental in the strategy’s success. The results have been impressive: 12 to 15 percent volume growth and a 15 to 20 percent boost in revenues in each of the past three years, along with a clear increase in earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) as investments to establish the strategy begin to pay off.

As this example clearly shows, timing and geography often intersect when companies make strategic choices. Consider the balancing act of a multinational personal-care company with its body-care-products business. Recognizing that tastes are different in northern China—a relatively low-income region with a large mass market—the company focuses heavily on sales of its more traditional bar-soap products to match local preferences there. Meanwhile, the company is gearing up its marketing efforts to begin converting those customers to higher-margin liquid soap as they transition into the new upper middle class. By contrast, mass-market consumers in southern China already prefer liquid soap. As these customers become more affluent, the company works to persuade them to upgrade from cheaper, local brands.

4. State-of-the-art marketing

Successfully implementing sophisticated, time-based dual strategies requires serious marketing muscle. Multiple touch points are not only important but also, in many cases, increasingly digital. The key is to use them creatively to balance the tension between reaching a large mass audience and appealing to the greater individuality of the new middle class.

Consider Nike, long familiar for its TV advertising in China and for its ubiquitous urban billboards showing famous athletes. More recently, the company launched its first marketing campaign on WeChat, a popular Chinese mobile-messaging platform. The campaign, billed as a sports-subscription service, allowed users to “follow” the company and receive daily updates about an upcoming Nike sports festival. To encourage participation, the company aggressively placed QR codes5 on taxis, outdoor posters, and other noticeable spots. WeChat’s broad reach—it has 200 million users—helped Nike to keep in touch with the mainstream, while opportunities for user participation helped heighten the sense of individuality for upscale consumers.

Pulling off such campaigns calls for sophisticated customer insights, which are becoming ever more important as the upper middle class grows and its tastes evolve. One global food and beverage maker has responded by creating “insights centers” in six regions of China to stay ahead of changing customer preferences and behavior. Similarly, in P&G’s Beijing Innovation Center, the company built a small hutong neighborhood—a set of narrow, traditional Chinese lanes formed by the walls of siheyuan, or traditional courtyard homes. Researchers in P&G’s simulated hutong observe consumers as they brush their teeth or change diapers, standing ready to propose immediate changes to product prototypes, much as researchers do in the simulated baby playrooms at the company’s Cincinnati, Ohio, headquarters. In the same Beijing facility, P&G stocks simulated supermarket shelves with its own products and those of competitors to better understand how consumers shop.

There’s another increasingly important source of insights: social media. In 2006 L’Oréal, for example, launched the social platform Rose Beauty by Lancôme, an online community where women in China could exchange beauty tips and seek expert advice. The community now has close to a million members, many of them active—in 2011, two-thirds of site visitors returned more than once a day, and nearly half of the discussion topics the company posted had more than five comments from users. The platform is not only an important promotional tool but also a valuable source of information for L’Oréal, allowing the company to better understand the expectations of Chinese women and to tailor its product-development efforts accordingly. Such smart applications of social media are just one example of how technology and data sources are becoming increasingly important in the world’s largest market (see sidebar, “Tech-enabled customer engagement”).

But technology will never eliminate the need for creativity, which remains central to smart marketing in China and sometimes generates lucky breaks. SCA recently invited Chinese consumers to come up with their own clever uses for an empty box of facial tissues to drive home associations between its products and resource sustainability. The winner received a trip to the company’s private forest in Sweden, where SCA grows trees in a sustainable way to be used as raw material in its products. What started as a marketing experiment soon drew the attention of a Chinese TV station, which flew reporters to Sweden along with the contest winner. The station ultimately aired a two-hour documentary on the experience, an outcome that exceeded even the company’s most optimistic expectations for the campaign.


China’s new middle class is becoming more important more quickly than most companies could have anticipated. Multinationals that haven’t begun preparing to serve increasingly affluent and demanding shoppers should start now—or risk watching their businesses deteriorate as the market shifts beneath them.

About the author(s)

Max Magni is a principal in McKinsey’s Hong Kong office, and Felix Poh is an associate principal in the Shanghai office.

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