Wanda City captures the Chinese zeitgeist
A Disney’s theme park is all set to open in Shanghai this month, but it is a rival park that recently opened in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, that continues to attract increasing attention internationally.
Wanda City opened last month as a direct rival to the imminent arrival of yet another United States brand, this time in the form of a theme park.
But is Wanda City really a direct Disney competitor? It is not. Instead, Wang Jianlin, who heads the conglomerate Wanda Group, has astutely tapped into major changes in Chinese consumer behavior.
Not just where theme parks are concerned, the Chinese market is changing and, increasingly, Chinese consumers will favor brands that are representative of and infused with Chinese culture.
Wang has spoken publicly many times of the need to move away from Western imports and to build home-grown global brands. This is precisely what is needed at a time when the Chinese mainland is losing its low-cost competitive advantage and the Chinese economy remains in a fragile state.
It remains to be seen just how popular Wanda City will be but certainly its strategic positioning does not represent a complete leap in the dark.
For many years now Western brands, especially luxury labels such as Burberry and Chanel, have seen struggling to maintain market share across China. Most have jumped to the conclusion that lower prices in Europe and the US of the same brand are the major cause but few appear to have considered, Wang excepted, the possibility that Chinese consumers are increasingly rejecting Western brand image in favor of brands that represent Chinese culture.
Wang’s perception is absolutely spot on but he needs to add to this with the indisputable fact that Chinese consumers now possess far more confidence and self-determination in their lifestyle and consumption choices.
The infatuation with Western, and typically US, culture and brands that are seen as carriers of this culture has been waning for some time. But such is the intangibility here that few have appreciated this major change in Chinese consumer culture and many still remain unconvinced and seriously skeptical.
The arrival of yet another “iconic” US brand, and few can lay claim to be more symbolic of US culture than a Disneyland theme park, therefore, should contribute considerably to the intangible change in Chinese consumer tastes.
US brands around the world, not too dissimilar to US culture, rarely show signs of adaptation, even in the face of an increasingly changing and fragmented global consumer culture. International expansion of Disney theme parks is a prime example of this rigidly inflexible approach, despite attempts at penetrating very different cultural environments.
In 1992 Disney embarked on what was then its first venture outside the insular US environment. Paris was the chosen location and, not surprisingly, an immediate culture clash emerged as well as substantial opposition from the public.
Several scrapes with bankruptcy soon followed as this symbol of US cultural imperialism tried to establish firm roots inside France and in so doing was perceived as trying to uproot one of the world’s most sophisticated cultures.
While Disneyland Paris, as it is now known, somehow managed to survive, it still stands as an extremely awkward and unwanted “guest” just outside Paris. Disney’s Shanghai theme park could follow suit.
To appeal most to the public, Wanda City needs to inject Chinese culture and aspects of modern Chinese life into every possible part of the theme park offerings.
The Chinese are now far more deliberate and independent in consumption and lifestyle choices. But Wang’s theme park does not appear at present to have delved anywhere near deep enough into China’s rich history and culture.
Chinese cartoon characters, for example, should dominate everywhere. Characters wellknown to Chinese such as Xi Yangyang and Zhu Bajie appear obvious candidates here and should be ever present in promoting Wanda City.
If Wang is serious about his theme park providing an opportunity to experience Chinese culture, Wanda City needs to incorporate key aspects of Chinese culture across modern and, even more importantly, ancient China. That means significant inclusion, therefore, from key individuals and their styles across the ages with regard to Chinese literature, music, arts and crafts.
Not only will this increase the appeal to a wider demographic group, it will also attract the attention of younger Chinese consumers too. National pride and identity may be waning in many developed countries but, according to my research findings in recent years, it remains as strong as ever among younger Chinese consumers.
Ancient Chinese culture, packaged in an exciting and passionate context, should fit well across all ages of Chinese consumers and the value they place on national identity.
A subtle blend of characters and symbols of modern as well as ancient Chinese culture therefore appears the way forward for Wanda City.
It is highly likely that, despite the fanfare that usually takes place when the US “comes to town”, the very American offering that we will soon see in Shanghai will very quickly begin to adapt more and more to fit in with Chinese culture and the very different needs of the typical Chinese consumer.
This is the path followed by Disneyland Paris, which would have sunk without the slightest trace tens of years ago had it not redesigned most aspects of its offering in line with French and European consumers’ very different needs.
For Wanda City to cement firm foundations in the Chinese consumers’ mind then it is imperative that this theme park brand is infused and enriched with Chinese cultural heritage where representation across all ages is extremely visible.
Shanghai’s Disney may provide some sort of token and modern Chinese cultural representation but Wanda City has to move fast to show that it offers the real Chinese deal.
The author is a visiting professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and a senior lecturer at Southampton University.