Memes in Chinese Marketing
To understand the personalities and behaviors of China’s increasingly younger online user base, you need to understand Chinese internet culture. In today’s digital age, China’s unique internet culture plays a significant role in shaping Chinese culture, especially amongst young adults and teenagers. Chinese memes, or 表情包 (biǎoqíngbāo) in Chinese, come in a variety of forms, from pictures, emojis, GIFS, to newly invented slang. The characters 表情 (biǎoqíng) literally means ‘facial expression’, which is appropriate given the fact that Chinese memes typically consist of images that depict an exaggerated facial expression. If you’re active on any Chinese social media app, it’s hard not to be bombarded by an array of these memes.
Chinese internet memes have evolved over time into becoming a unique entity with its own traditions and conventions. This is partly due to the Great Firewall of China, a set of regulations that restrict users from accessing certain parts of the web, specifically popular western platforms such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Biaoqingbao are an online phenomena that has rapidly become popular amongst millennial and Gen Z internet users for their sarcasm, satire, and humor. Beyond the superficial appeal of memes, many netizens relate to biaoqingbao as they respond to popular topics and convey emotions felt by the Chinese public.
This paper argues that brands should consider Chinese memes as an unorthodox but potentially effective marketing strategy that could boost your brand’s image and relationship to Chinese consumers. Reasons as to why your brand could benefit from referencing the latest trending memes will be outlined towards the end of the article. For foreigners who lack the knowledge to understand the meaning and potency behind Chinese memes, this article will first provide a brief overview of the most prominent types of Chinese memes that currently circulate the Chinese web.
Similar to how Apple and Google have their own set of custom emojis, so does WeChat. Prior to WeChat, Tencent’s QQ was the most popular instant-messaging platform used in China, and was known for boasting its iconic biaoqing collection. Tencent’s collection of emojis remain distinctive for their quirky design and somewhat unique assortment of symbols.
For example, Tencent offers a standard collection of facial expressions and symbols that are globally recognized (a smile, a heart, a thumbs up, etc.). In addition, there are extra emojis that are exclusive to Tencent’s apps only, such as being crushed on the head with a hammer, or an assortment of penguin emojis which pays homage to QQ’s mascot. Tencent had transferred its emoji collection over to WeChat, with remarkably few changes.
However, what makes Tencent’s emojis even more special is the connotations behind symbols that a non-Chinese user may either misinterpret or fail to notice. As a prime example, Western internet users would interpret the smiley emoji 🙂 as expressing happiness or agreement. But did you know that in China, this emoji is actually used ironically to express sarcasm and detachment from reality?
It is not uncommon to see netizens combine this emoji with other emojis to accentuate their feelings of despair or stress at work. As a result, the playful use (or misuse) of certain emojis has produced an entire genre of user-generated images that re-invent these emojis in humorous ways. Variations of Tencent’s emojis are done in a number of ways, such as being accompanied with text.
So how does user-generated content, such as the examples mentioned above, circulate across the Chinese web? WeChat is the primary social media app in China for daily communication, and happens to include a feature that lets users download and save stickers to send to their friends. Stickers are images that are larger than emojis. Users can search and download thematic sets of stickers from WeChat’s store by pressing on the magnifying glass icon, and can be sent with a single tap of the finger as an individual message.
Just like emojis, stickers can convey a range of different emotions based on their appearance, and in many cases include short pieces of text. If you head over to WeChat’s sticker store, you’ll notice that sticker sets are based around a particular character, person or theme. WeChat’s sticker store has been very popular amongst brands looking to make their own branded stickers, and has given graphic designers a platform to design their own sticker collection for the app.
One of the most popular stickers that you may have encountered on WeChat is Tuzki the bunny. Created by animator Momo Wang in 2006 during her undergraduate days at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, Tuzki has become a well-recognized and beloved character amongst netizens.
WeChat users are not restricted to stickers from the WeChat store. WeChat allows users to upload their own custom stickers and animated GIFs, which can be found by pressing the heart icon. You’ll find that custom stickers are the most commonly used form of biaoqingbao amongst users who share popular old and new memes.
Custom stickers on WeChat offer users the creative freedom to upload or even create their own memes (you can even upload a photo of yourself!). Users tend to send classic memes they’ve discovered through their friends or WeChat groups. If you’ve surfed the Chinese web long enough, you may have noticed a common theme in aesthetic and style that most Chinese memes share with each other. These memes usually reflect a component of society and people’s personal experiences, which make them relatable and impactful.
Chinese memes often fall under four main categories: méng (cute), jiàn (mischievous), sàng (decadent), and wū (dirty). Chinese memes often consist of images and texts that convey a positive, negative or neutral emotion, emphasized by hyperbolic facial expressions. Memes often feature the faces of well-known public figures, celebrities, actors, athletes, and so on. In China, pictures with specific facial expressions are turned into biaoqingbao. Facial expressions are also placed on popular cartoon templates such as Panda-Man and Mushroom-Hairstyle. Some of the most popular facial expressions include:
- Chinese basketball player Yao Ming’s laughing face
- Chinese actor Jacky Cheung’s contemptuous face
- South Korean actor Choi Sung-Guk’s sarcastic face
- Professional wrestler Elijah Burke’s smirking face
- Japanese actress Kana Hanazawa’s laughing face
Other cartoon templates such as Well-Behaved Baby and Enigmatic-Small-Person are also widely used. If it isn’t already obvious, biaoqingbao are very versatile and customizable, and can serve various purposes depending on the text that accompanies the image. As a brand, what can you take away from this newfound knowledge, and how may it be useful?
Why Should Memes Matter to Brands?
Memes are everywhere. Memes reach people everywhere – even your mum and dad! The virality of memes is so widespread that they reach a significant proportion of the 618 million Chinese netizens that are online. Memes styled like the examples mentioned above are also familiar to many people, requiring little difficulty to understand. Think of memes as free advertising that’s inadvertently performed by millions of online users. Hence, memes can be a powerful yet overlooked marketing tool that brands can leverage to increase reach and boost engagement with consumers.
One of the best ways to connect with your consumers on a personal level is to inject humor into your campaigns and interactions. Memes are a great way to engage and humor your consumers (particularly younger consumers), and can help expose your brand to people that have stumbled across your meme. Brands nowadays are using a more casual and relaxed approach to customer communication with elements of personality to make them appear personable and human. Consumers want to feel that your brand is in touch with the consumer base and their lives. That’s why it can be effective to produce memes that respond to the latest online challenges, trends, and news.
Foreign brands entering the Chinese market may want to show customers that they are in-tune and socially aware of Chinese popular culture. This can be done in many ways. For example, you could post a meme on your WeChat moments or include them in your WeChat article. Or you could create your own set of custom stickers inspired by current memes. By leveraging popular meme templates in your marketing strategies, your brand can potentially go viral and weave itself into the cultural fabric of Chinese society.
Memes are also very cheap and easy to make, and only require basic photo-editing skills to produce. Otherwise, there are plenty of meme generators online that can do the job, and they don’t have to look polished!
Consider these tips
While there is plenty of upside to embracing meme culture in your marketing strategies, there are a number of important things to consider in order to maximize your content’s virality and success. Creating a bad meme that is out-of-touch or poorly executed can hurt your brand image. That’s why you need to be aware of the following points:
- Timing. If there’s a trend that’s hot right now, don’t wait a week to respond. Capitalize on its current virality and deliver a post as soon as possible.
- Congruence. Consider the age and demographic of your audience. If your audience is of the older age range, memes may not be the most appropriate or effective form of communication. Younger consumers however may be more receptive. Regardless, consider how responding to a meme may be received by your consumers (try not to respond to something that could be offensive).
- Originality. Memes should be relatable and funny. This requires making your captions clear and concise. Make sure that your memes have originality, and aren’t a simple copy and paste of another meme.
- Over-use. Memes are at their funniest because they’re spontaneous and appear naturally. Forcing memes to your consumers can produce the complete opposite of your intended results. Sometimes, less is more.
(For more information on Chinese culture, check out our current articles or book a consultation with us now).
Finally, it’s important to be familiar with the slang and buzzwords that your consumers are currently using in their vernacular. For example, there are many catchphrases that are abbreviated for easier typing such as báifùmĕi which means the perfect girlfriend (bái = fair-skinned, fù = rich, mĕi = beautiful). This can help you to localize your brand name and logo in a way that is memorable and effective.
Brands continue to find fun and interesting ways to market their product. In today’s competitive marketplace, it is more important than ever to appear relatable and build a genuine relationship with your customers. This requires getting to know your audience, their personality, and discovering what they find funny. Memes exemplify that your brand is in tune with pop culture, and inject life into your brand.
If you need help in creating original content for your brand, contact Gab China.