Ogilvy Study Reveals the Diversity of Modern Chinese Mothers

and how society’s depiction of them is often at odds with reality

SHANGHAI, March 31, 2010 – There are an estimated 320 million working mothers in China, more than the entire population of the United States. They are the driving force of the economy and the wheels of industry. They form the bedrock of new markets, pillars of growth and drive domestic consumption.

And while this vital and influential demographic represents a tantalizing opportunity for those marketers that can offer something relevant, practical and meaningful to them, it is presumptuous to assume that Chinese mothers are similar to each other, and will therefore respond to marketing messages in the same way. This is the argument made in “Mum’s the Word,” the latest study by Ogilvy & Mather Greater China’s consumer insights and trends group, Discovery.

“Brands should help mothers solve real life problems,” said Shenan Chuang, chief executive of Ogilvy & Mather Group China. “Selling becomes easier and more effective when that happens first. So we set out to gain an insight into Chinese mothers’ perceptions of the world around them and their place in it.”

“What we found was that many mothers in China feel marginalized by their representation in society and the marketing discourse,” added Chuang, highlighting that many brands are falling short of connecting with them.

“The superwoman stereotype of one that ‘perfectly balances a career while raising a child is an oversimplification of the diversity in mothers’ lifestyles, aspirations and ambitions for themselves and their children,” said Kunal Sinha, Executive Director – Discovery, at Ogilvy & Mather Greater China.  “At the same time, Chinese moms aren’t ‘helpless’ either and are certainly not in need of being rescued by brands – despite how they might be represented in contemporary advertising.”

“Fundamentally, Chinese mothers see themselves as being in control of the product; she is the hero, not the brand. That’s the key insight that can make the difference for our clients and brands that are looking to reach this coveted consumer group,” Sinha added.

Notably, the study finds that:

All mums are not the same. The lives and ambitions of 320 million individuals vary dramatically from that of each other, as well as from their parents’ generation. Within the hubbub, three broad categories of mothers were identified - based on their personal goals, financial independence, self-image, beliefs and expectations of their children:

  1. Go-getting mums (29.4%)
    These mums look to prove themselves within what remains a male dominated professional environment, and subsequently have to balance their careers with the responsibility of being a mother. They rely on outside help, such as ayis or housekeepers. A recurrent theme amongst such mothers was the desire for acknowledgement of their endeavors from their husbands, in-laws and the wider society.
  2. Easygoing mums (34.9%)
    They have adopted a naturalistic approach to their child’s development, with the primary focus being health and happiness. Expenditure is diverted primarily towards their child’s personal welfare, from which they too derive happiness.
  3. Dedicated mums (35.7%) 
    Of the three categories of mothers, it is the Dedicated Mum that we see most often in the marketing discourse. This group places the child at the centre of all their endeavors. Subsequently, they feel that they are judged by their child’s successes or failures. They instill strict routines for their children in an effort to assume control over their fate. The only parts of their lives where children were given any freedom were in choosing their own clothes and food, when eating out.

“Happiness is to have a degree and a job” commented a mother of a 13 year old in Xi’an. Like many others, she had a pragmatic view of education, pushing her child to excel academically even though she knew that this was often at the expense of his leisure time. Moreover, whilst fathers were traditionally seen as the main source of education at home, today mothers have even taken on this role. Many voiced concerns about how best to help their children.

ACTION TIP: Mothers look to outside ‘authoritative’ sources for assistance such as professional bodies, online groups, friends and colleagues. While information is widely available for mothers of babies or small children, there is far less support available to mothers of school-going children or teenagers. Brands can add real value by creating on- or offline communities to connect mothers with similar questions and concerns.

It’s not a simple case of ‘career woman vs homemakers’. Despite the bipolar archetypes projected by the media, most women occupy a grey area - with career women fulfilling homemaker responsibilities, and homemakers making money. Brands need to portray this reality in their narratives.

ACTION TIP: There is as much room for a Fisher Price or Nestle day care in offices, as there is an opportunity for an Amway distributor in every household.

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Mothers are net savvy, using the internet as a resource to assert their freedom, and expressing themselves through collective action.

For example, Li JiaoJiao, mother of a two year old and founder of the QQ group ‘ChongQing Mummies’ which helps members earn savings, try new brands and support causes. This trend of online communities is growing in momentum; the challenge for marketers is to access the 20% of digital influencers who hold sway over the remaining 80%.

Mothers have to balance several things with the overall aim of keeping harmony in the home. Traditionally, men were expected to handle the external affairs of the family and he would be supported by his wife so that he could be successful in his career. Today this balance has shifted. Mothers are increasingly playing catch up and seeking fulfillment in their professional pursuits. This creates areas of potential conflict, with mothers looking for spaces to air their concerns and seeking sounding boards for advice. Mothers who experience difficulty in managing conflicts go to experts for help. This is why talk shows or expert blogs that deal with family issues are so popular.

ACTION TIP: This is an area of influence that brands haven’t tapped into. Brands can hire experts to talk about managing domestic conflicts, put lectures online with branded content, or create a mini-site that has a consultant answer questions from mothers.

Mothers seek personal space away from the family to make the most of limited time to socialize with friends and reconnect with society. For one mother this is a weekly badminton club. But for many mothers recreation time is often limited to the house: watching TV or a DVD, reading, as well as surfing the internet even though they would prefer to get together with friends in person and actually go to the cinema.

ACTION TIP: Brands can connect better if they provide moms with opportunities to socialize freely beyond work and home. Sports brands, hotels, airlines, media brands and even apparel brands are just a club away from deepening their bond with consumers. Companies should also think in terms of what they could create to entertain and engage both the child and the mother, giving moms the space they desire.

For mothers, the most meaningful and fun activities are ones that can enrich their child’s experiences and broaden their vision. Our findings suggest that the happiest time for families is when they go on vacation together, especially when children are between 4-6 years old. Beyond traveling, favorite activities include fun with digital products, educational toys, creative learning programs and socializing with friends.

ACTION TIP: The pragmatic nature of mothers in China holds a valuable insight for brands that target children or mothers or both. While portraying child-like fun, it is important to demonstrate the value of this fun beyond pure recreation and more in terms of broadening their children’s horizons. Imagine fun that construes intelligence, fun that indicates street smarts, and fun that signifies social bonding.

Women may control family finances, but on the whole there is a lack of planning and overall knowledge. Any planning tends to take place on a yearly basis rather than month by month, with one spouse’s earnings often being put into savings. Microfinance usually takes place via intricate personal networks as opposed to at an institutional level, with the flow of money much quicker and reliant on trust. All of which runs contrary to the practices of financial institutions that believe big is better; in reality small and personal win out.

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ACTION TIP: If financial institutions want to attract more borrowers, they would be wise to position themselves as small rather than large since the latter is much more impersonal. Banks should also consider becoming involved in community activities which give financial institutions a face and a voice. Financial seminars which teach practical money management skills would also be warmly welcomed by mothers.

The health scares that have dominated the headlines have led mothers to question the safety of brands aimed at children. Mothers now look to external web-based sources to validate a brand’s claims. They also look to peers for guidance and are becoming more sophisticated in their knowledge, reasoning that price does not necessarily equal efficacy. There are however many indications that suggest further education is needed to help consumers.

For example, we met mothers in Shenyang who spent considerable sums of money on myopia prevention and treatment without any scientific evidence that they were effective.

It is estimated that the beauty and well-being market will reach RMB 380-400 billion this year in China. Mothers are becoming increasingly concerned with their appearance, which the study suggests can be motivated not only by a desire to get approval from their husband but also from their children. One mother of a 12 year old in Wuhan commented that after her child challenged her appearance, she decided to revamp the way she looked to save “face” for her son and to “try hard to stay young, confident and knowledgeable.”

ACTION TIP: Beauty brands can look at connection opportunities beyond romance. Many mothers dress up for their kids - beauty from a daughter or son’s point of view is another view of beauty worth exploring.

Mothers are choosing to invest in new clothes as a rational purchase, as they think it affects how they are viewed in society and at work. By contrast, cosmetics were seen more as a discretionary purchase, with mothers concerned that make up could damage their skin in the long term. Hence, a number of mothers prefer to spend money on skin creams or visits to beauty salons.

ACTION TIP: A potential area for development could be creating and promoting beauty products that offer spa quality treatments in home and the rational advantages of cosmetics, whilst tackling misconceptions within the market.

There are distinguishable features between mothers in Tier 1 and Tier 2 markets, which range from 8-20 million people, which help provide context.

  • 49% of mums in Tier 1 cities, compared with 31% in Tier 2, see having a child as a duty to carry on the family name; hence it is not surprising that within this same tier market, the child’s academic success is prioritized. 32% said that the child was fundamental to the stability of the family.
  • In Tier 2 cities, mothers prioritized the child’s health over education at all points in their development. This is evident in their expenditure on health services and products, which are on average 7% greater than in Tier 1.
  • Tier 1 mothers see the wider world as increasingly competitive, hence the need to propagate their child’s academic credentials as well as fostering their emotional intelligence, so that they could “ensure a good job”.
  • For both Tier 1 and 2 mums, TV was still a major source of information (over 80%). However, whilst newspapers were more read by Tier 2 mums, in Tier 1 they relied more heavily on the internet and below the line communication channels.  
  • Irrespective of city tier, mums highlighted a fear of being detached from society after the child was born, and that had motivated 23% to go back to work post childbirth in Tier 1 and 16% in Tier 2.

View the “Mum’s the Word” Video at: Youku.com or youtube.

About “Mum’s the Word”
This study an in-depth qualitative and quantitative exploration into the current mindset of the modern mother in China; to work out what has changed for her, how she sees herself and the world around her and what makes her tick. From June to September 2009, we conducted field research in seven Tier 1 and 2 cities across the length and breadth of China (Shenyang, Wuhan, Chongqing, Xi’an, Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen), visiting 165 homes. We spoke with mothers about their hopes and aspirations; we combed through their photo albums; met their children; went shopping with them and asked 15 mothers to keep diaries of their daily routines for a week. Unsurprisingly, some of these took the form of blogs.

With CTR Research, an associate WPP company, we completed a quantitative study among 1,569 mothers with children between the ages of 0-15 ; probing them on their attitudes towards family, life, children, success, education, finance, the media, entertainment, health, cosmetics and key personal observations. 

About Ogilvy & Mather Group China
Ogilvy & Mather Group China (http://ogilvy.com.cn/) is the largest marketing communications network in China. It offers the full range of marketing communication disciplines including advertising, direct marketing, interactive media, database management, public relations, graphic design and related marketing disciplines.

As Brand Stewards, the agency works to leverage the brands of its clients by combining local know-how with a worldwide network, creating powerful campaigns that address local market needs while reinforcing the universal brand identity.  The hallmark of the agency’s brand-building capabilities is 360 Degree Brand Stewardship®, a holistic approach to communications, using what is necessary from each discipline to build a brand.

Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide (ogilvy.com), a subsidiary of WPP (NASDAQ: WPPGY), is one of the largest marketing communications networks in the world, with 495 offices in 120 countries, specializing in advertising, relationship and interactive marketing, public relations, sales promotion and related services. 

For more information or photos, please contact:
Sarah Guldin
Senior Manager, Corporate Communications
Ogilvy & Mather China
e: sarah.guldin@ogilvy.com 
o: (8610) 8520 6552 

To order copies of the full report, please contact Kunal Sinha, Executive Director – Discovery, Ogilvy & Mather Greater China.

Normandy Madden, Asia editor of Advertising Age

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Contact: Sarah Guldin
Date: March 30, 2010
Office: Shanghai