Wanda City cap­tures the Chi­nese zeit­geist

China Daily (Canada) - - ANALYSIS -

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.

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