Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Brand Divorce

In 2013 3.5 million Chinese couples filed for a divorce - an increase of 12.3% over the previous year. The Chinese marriage is in a crisis and more and more Chinese are choosing to part ways with their partners and live on their own. Of course many more, particularly educated women (often referred to as shengnu - leftover women or victorious women - depending on the character for "sheng" and your point of view) are choosing not to cast their lot with anyone at all. Similar statistics are hard to come by for the number of Chinese consumers who divorce the brands they have been using, often after years of relationship. However it is clear that the consumers' predilections in personal lives are also reflected in their purchase behavior and brand choice. Chinese purchase behavior is characterized by promiscuity and flirtatiousness, and often resistant to settling down in a faithful and long lasting relationship. What are the root causes of this Chinese detachment and is there a commonality between what is causing the Chinese to shed their bonds with their partners and with their brands? 

Why do so many Chinese marriages end up in a divorce? And do similar reasons prompt them to cast aside the brands they were once in love with? Research shows that there are four main reasons which prompt the Chinese couples to part ways. 

First and foremost it is an erosion of trust. It could be a lack of trust in the spouse's fidelity, or financial conduct or the single-mindedness of the devotion. The brand marriage is also rocked by a lack of trust. Chinese consumers are prompt in divorcing a brand which they feel cannot be trusted - whether it is in terms of safety, quality or honesty. Of special note here is the aspect of safety, where many consumers feel let down by brands which offered products which could harm the health of the consumers and their families.

The second cause of marital discord and subsequent break-up is financial differences. Who should pay the mortgage or the maintenance, where and how should the savings be invested and who should command the household finances. Brand marriage is also rocked by financial differences. Chinese consumers decide to divorce the brand if they feel it is charging them too much and isn't really giving them a good value for their money. Value assurance is perpetual challenge for brands and they need to continuously monitor their perceived worth in the consumer mind.

Marriages also crumble and the couple become distant when their interests and needs start diverging. Brand marriages also crumble when the consumers' interests and needs change and the brands are not able to adapt to the changing needs. Consumer needs are evolving and becoming more sophisticated. Brands need to sharpen and contemporize their proposition to keep up with these changes.

Finally marriages flounder when the love starts to disappear and the relationship becomes a functional dependency and loses the emotional bond which brought the couple together. Couples keep their relationships vibrant and fresh by tender touches, emotional gestures and meaningful communication. Brands in China also need to learn to sustain the romance and keep the marriage healthy and long lasting. 

Managing consumer brand relationships becomes so much easier when we try to understand them with the metaphor of human relationships. Is your relationship with your consumers a healthy and stable marriage or is it a marriage-on-the-rocks?

Written by Ashok Sethi
Ashok is the Managing Director for GfK Custom Research in China

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