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Chinese Consumers Show All-Critical Resilience on the Road to Recovery

April 16, 2020
By Rachel Catanach

“May you live in interesting times” is purportedly an old Chinese curse used ironically to indicate times of trouble. For me – and I suspect for many comms professionals – the COVID-19 pandemic potentially represents the most “interesting” project of a lifetime – both personally and professionally.

From a Hong Kong perspective, it was interesting to see how rapidly people in early February united in the fight against the virus, coming off the back of six months of civil unrest. The muscle memory from SARS 17 years earlier was quickly activated, with the masks coming out en masse almost instantly and the rules of social distancing etiquette dusted off with barely a blink of the eye.

Today, schools are still out but most businesses are endeavoring to find some mode of normality – either at their workplace or WFH. Brands are on to the next phase with questions like: When do we return to the market? And what tonality and channel is appropriate? There is recognition that full economic recovery is not likely in the near-term, but a cautious optimism that rebuilding may now be possible. There is also a realization that there will be setbacks as the virus takes hold for a second wave. But Hong Kongers are known for resilience and this pragmatic fighting spirit is probably why its COVID-19 numbers are still relatively low, despite the city’s density. Long may it last.

Globally, the road to recovery will not be a straight line so resilience will be critical. And it’s not just physical resilience but emotional as well. Nurturing this mental resilience will place a significant demand on leaders to paint a realistic picture while continuing to inspire hope. New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern is winning plaudits globally for her ability to reassure New Zealanders while making it clear what needs to be done to fight the virus. Another leader gaining praise for her courageous decisions is London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, who declared a state of emergency in late February – earlier than her counterparts on the East Coast. This decision, which was politically unpopular at the time, is being heralded now as the reason for San Francisco’s flattening curve.

Employers should take note of these leaders’ strategies – as well as China’s “road to recovery” transition approach – as they start to consider back to work options. They should plan not only for ways to minimize health and safety risks for their employees but also provide them with realistic perspectives of the future, while recognizing that so many unknowns continue to exist. It will be a tough balancing act but those who do it best will be well-placed to reopen, reposition and reimagine in whatever recovery scenario they find themselves in.

So, what are cultural differences – and similarities – in global consumer sentiment as people grapple with the reality of this virus and what new restrictions on their lifestyle really mean? First, the similarities.

The panic buying of toilet paper

From Hong Kong, to Australia and Italy, the U.K. and the U.S., stock shortages of toilet paper seemed to be the psychological tipping point when information about the virus and its potential personal impact went from being intellectualized to internalized.

The slogan and song

Once the initial panic buying was over, people quickly realized that a strong mental attitude was as important as their physical health. In China and Hong Kong, people used the phrase Jia You or Ka You, which literally means Add Oil, as the rallying cry. In Italy, it was Andra Tutto Bene – all will be well. In the US and UK, stay strong and stay safe seem to be common sign-offs.

View of the world, their country and companies

According to a six-country study just released by FleishmanHillard’s TRUE Global Intelligence (TGI) COVID-19 Mindset: How Pandemic Times Are Shaping Global Consumers, the virus, in a few short weeks for some markets, has changed consumers’ view of the work, our country and companies as employers. It has upended our world views, reshaping our perceptions, behaviors, values and societies. In China, this is also true with 87% of people saying their view of the world had changed and 86% saying their view of their country had changed.

Belief in government and schools

The study revealed that consumers globally are most impressed with the response of government and schools (59% and 41% respectively) and least impressed with major corporates and employers (37% and 33% respectively). Chinese consumers had most faith in their government and local schools – 79% and 67% respectively. They also had more faith in employers than other markets, although they still rated them the lowest at 58%.

However, there are differences in attitudes and perspectives.

Chinese consumers trust each other more

According to the TGI study, Chinese consumers trust each other as individuals more with 61% believing their fellow individuals are doing “excellent” or “great” in fulfilling their role in this crisis. This is far above the global average of 34%.

However, while they trust each other, they do not think their current environment is conducive to major life decisions such as adopting a pet or having a baby. Ten percent of Chinese consumers said they were postponing adopting a pet because of the virus, more than the global average of 5%.  In addition, 11% of Chinese consumers also said they were postponing having children, the second-highest group after South Korea at 28%.

Chinese consumers are also eager to get back to some semblance of normal

This perhaps is not surprising as the China government has been encouraging “back to work” since the end of February, a month after the virus really started to grip the nation. The TGI study revealed fewer Chinese consumers were practicing social distancing (44% versus global average of 74%), fewer postponing or cancelling medical or dental appointments (18% versus global average of 37%) and fewer not leaving the house except for necessities (48% versus global average of 74%).

Chinese High Net Worth consumers seem to be showing particular resilience. Supporting TGI’s findings, another study by consulting firm Agility research and strategy reveals that mainland millionaires continue to have an optimistic mindset, even after the unfolding of the COVID-19 outbreak. Out of the 81 millionaires that Agility spoke to in China, 82 percent of respondents still believed that their own economic wellbeing would improve in the future and 86 percent thought their own disposable income would grow in 2020. But they are spending their money on different things – on their health and that support a healthy lifestyle, like private health insurance.

Consumer sentiment will continue to shift as the impact of the virus moves through different phases in different markets. There is no doubt, however, an ability to withstand the pressure of uncertainty and changed living circumstances over the long haul will be one of the key markers of a nation’s, community’s, company’s and individual’s successful transition to a “new” normal.