The he economy (markets targeting male consumers) is the male counterpart of the sheconomy, a phenomenon of recent years that has seen women’s economic participation and purchasing power reach new heights in 2023. But one must never make the mistake of overlooking the male market in Roaring Twenties 2.0 China. The proportion of single men in China is increasing on a yearly basis, in turn giving the he economy a leg up. So the question becomes… What do men want?
This year marked the 15th anniversary of China’s Double 11, aka the equivalent of Black Friday in the United States, aka the largest e-commerce shopping festival in China. Double 11 reflects the changing dynamics of Chinese consumer behavior.
The “silver economy” (markets that meet senior citizens’ needs) and “he economy” (markets targeting male consumption) were two buzzwords of this year’s Double 11. On Taobao, Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group’s ubiquitous shopping app, transaction volume for senior products increased by 2.6 times compared to last year. Additionally, within the first 10 minutes of JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce giant, launching its campaign, transaction volume for the electric wheelchair category experienced a tenfold surge compared to the same period last year, while the hearing aid category witnessed a fivefold increase, according to China’s only English newsweekly Beijing Review (Vol.66, Issue 47).
According to Tmall, another Alibaba online shopping spree seducer, this year’s top three items for male consumers are road bicycles, e-sports products and windbreakers, consumption of which increased by 305, 114 and 90 percent year on year, respectively.
Remarkably, the growth rate of the top three items for male consumers has, for the first time, surpassed the top three items for pet dogs. This has become a humorous observation among netizens, challenging the stereotypical notion that men need less than pets.
China’s male consumer market has emerged as a new frontier for consumption. Against the backdrop of a rising middle class, intensified mobile Internet integration, an upgrade in personalized demands, and the year-over-year rise in the proportion of single male adults, the he economy is expected to experience long-term and sustainable growth, Fu Yifu, a senior analyst at the Suning Institute of Finance, a research institution of Suning Finance, said in a recent report according to Beijing Review.
Domestic branding was another characteristic of this year’s Double 11. Of the 402 brands on Tmall that achieved transactions of more than 100 million yuan ($13.8 million), 243 were domestic brands. In addition, domestic brands in the cosmetics and pet food sectors posted an impressive performance. According to investment firm Kaiyuan Securities, among the top 10 brands in cat and dog food sales on Tmall, domestic brands hold seven seats, while international brands hold three.
Now, speaking of “domestic branding” and the “he economy,” Temper figured it was high time to dive into the world of guochao — for male consumers. #bearwithus
Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, Zhang Hao was imperceptibly influenced by what he constantly saw and heard. “My grandpa is good at traditional arts, for example, playing the zither (a Chinese string instrument), chess, doing calligraphy and painting, which cultivated my interest in Chinese culture from a very young age,” the Tianjin-based commercial pilot tells Temper.
Courtesy of the travel his work entails, 20-something Zhang Hao got the opportunity to learn about the different culture of different countries. “The different dressing styles with their own cultural characteristics, in particular, left an impression. And so I began thinking about what we have here [in China] and shifted my focus more to those clothes featuring Chinese elements,” he adds.
Zhang Hao considers himself a bonafide guochao aficionado.
Guochao (国朝| guócháo, literally “national wave” but meaning “hip heritage” aka packed with traditional Chinese elements) has been making, well, waves in China for several years now. The basically describes the young Chinese consumer inclination moving towards domestic brands and products, especially those labels integrating traditional Chinese cultural elements and styles.
One representative example of doing a solid job at guochao is Li Ning, the Chinese sportswear giant whose show infused with typical China input put guochao on the map during New York Fashion Week’s Tmall China Day in February 2018. Lacing up its shoes and clothes with Chinese elements has gained much young consumer recognition. Then there’s the case of Florasis (花西子| huā xīzǐ), one of China’s most famous domestic beauty brands to have surfaced in recent years. The brand endows its designs with Chinese culture and heritage, for example, its lipsticks have traditional Miao minority-inspired patterns carved into them and come in packaging buzzing with Oriental aesthetic vibes.
Aside from these brands applying their innate cultural heritage to their products, many longstanding labels, basically cultural staples, too, have been reborn due the country’s young minds taking a trip down nostalgia lane. For example, after first hopping into sight in the 1940s, the Shanghai-based White Rabbit Candy holds a special place in China’s collective memory and history.
The sweetie product has boldly moved and grooved by introducing new products such as lip balm, perfume and sweaters in cooperation with cosmetics and clothing brands since 2018. The daring roll of the dice in a bid to regain the brand’s previous fervor attracted many young consumers to the delicate designs because the products reminded domestic buyers of their childhood.
“More and more of my friends have taken a liking to guochao,” Zhang Hao chimes in.
The results of a China Youth Daily survey published in October 2020 conveyed how, among the 998 university students interviewed, about 80 percent were willing to support domestic brands and had high expectations for their development; around 10 percent of interviewees were keen to buy the products of Chinese brands.
Zhang Hao said his love for guochao products came from his heart—“it’s a gut feeling, an instinct,” Temper quotes. “Clothing designed with Chinese styles do very much suit the Chinese man, especially in terms of personality and aesthetic appeal.”
“Guochao demonstrates the Chinese people’s confidence in their culture,” Cui Lili, Director of the Institute of E-Commerce at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, tells Temper. These products combine the finest historical and aesthetic elements of Chinese culture with modern consumption settings, which easily gain the favor of young people.
“I think guochao is a long-term trend, indeed,” Zhang Hang, a 20-something Shanghai-based photographer, told Temper.
“I think I spend 30 percent of my income on guochao products every year,” Zhang Hao said, adding clothing makes up the heftiest portion here.
“I also like garments designed with Chinese aesthetics and have many,” Zhang Hang echoed.
Whereas both men share a love for guochao wardrobe styles, reality also holds… Men don’t have that many types of guochao products to choose from and clothes usually are the main slash only option, according to Zhang Hang.
In terms of cosmetics and beauty brands, let alone the guochao ones, men are not the main consumer troop, Zhang explained. “For most newly established brands goes that the customer group they want to target at the beginning are millennial and Gen Z women.”
Clothing and shoes have long been the prime products of male consumers, according to Cui. “Actually, it’s only been over the past five years that skincare and beauty products have gradually become a part of Chinese men’s consumption habits, with their consumers mainly post-90s,” she added.
“I think that the rise of China domestic cosmetics brands has chiefly occurred in the past three years,” Cui said. To grow bigger in a short period of time, they basically follow the traditional track—targeting women’s products.
“Besides, if I choose to go for skincare, I will choose a product because of its quality, not because of any guochao affinity. I put them on my skin and face, which requires a bit more consideration,” Zhang Hang said. He himself prefers a range of famous foreign brands in the field.
“I will buy domestic facemasks because they receive public praise,” Zhang Hao said. However, these masks usually have no gender requirement, and their thumbs up also mainly comes from female consumers.
Men’s skincare and cosmetics are still relatively niche in China. In comparison, the overseas cosmetics industry has been developing over an extensive period, resulting in a highly mature market. “This may also be why many Chinese men tend to favor foreign products, to avoid some consumption risks,” Cui explained.
But one must never make the mistake of overlooking the male market in contemporary China. The proportion of single men in China is increasing on a yearly basis, in turn giving the he economy a leg up.
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the number of single adults in China stood at 240 million in 2018. Different sources estimate that this number might now have increased to 300 million. Besides, China’s seventh national census, conducted in 2020 and released on May 11, 2021, demonstrated how the number of single men aged 20 to 49 in China far outweighed than that of their single female peers.
“China’s Gen Z, compared with other age groups, has newer consumption concepts and is more ready to accept new things,” Cui said, noting the Gen Zs have stronger cultural self-confidence when it comes to domestic products.
“Male consumption boasts budding potential for the guochao market,” Cui said.
Both Zhang Hang and Zhang Hao reiterated the shortage in guochao products also restricts their consumption habits.
However, there is relatively little market research on male consumers out there, and the market value of this group has yet to be evaluated and developed. The male consumers need time to grow on the one hand, and the market needs time to adjust, on the other, according to Cui.
“For guochao brands, the more difficult thing is to discover the actual demands of a very much segmented men’s market, which takes time to explore,” she said. Despite the established clothing, shoes and gaming products, guochao brands should tap into fitness and health, pet care and other fields that hold, or can spark, the male interest.
“Finally, then, one suggestion for those male consumers who don’t do much research before buying: always go for reliable platforms and brands,” Cui concluded.
The he economy is the harbinger of a new wave of consumer behavior.
And what do men need?
Well, more than pets.
WRITTEN BY BEIJING REVIEW REPORTER TAO XING FOR THE CHINA TEMPER
EDITED BY ELSBETH VAN PARIDON
FEATURED IMAGE: LITTLE RED BOOK COLLAGE
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