The Magic Brush: How listening to Gen Z can guide brands through challenging economic periods

Words by Wenxi Chen
Date 2024-03-25

In China, there’s a famous folktale called The Magic Brush.

In this story, a wise old man gives a young boy called Ma Liang a magical paintbrush as a reward for his good heart. And with this brush, whatever he painted, came to life. Ma Liang decided to use his powers to benefit his fellow villagers. He painted abundant crops, healthy livestock, and beautiful scenery—bringing prosperity and joy to the entire community.

For over half a century, China has felt like Ma Liang wielding a magic brush.

Since China began to open up and reform its economy in 1978, GDP growth has averaged over 9 percent a year, and more than 800 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty. There have also been significant improvements in access to health, education, and other services over the same period.

Growth has been exponential. Improvements were felt across the country rapidly. Now China is the world’s second largest economy (and will likely be the largest before the end of this decade) with a colossal population of over 1.4 billion people.

But the magic paintbrush appears to be running low on paint. The past year has brought a stream of bad news for China’s economy: slow growth, record youth unemployment, low foreign investment, weak exports and currency, and a property sector in crisis.

The majority of China’s population have never experienced anything other than an economic boom—especially for Gen Z and Millennial consumers. The recent economic slowdown has therefore come as quite a shock for a cohort used to optimistic forecasts.

But the brush hasn’t lost its magic. A new context comes with new opportunities. And new opportunities are emerging for brands to engage these younger demographics, address societal challenges and driver positive change through this turbulent economic period.

The world changes quickly; but strong brands keep pace

Economies around the world are slowing. Consumers are becoming more conservative as inflation rises and discretionary spend shrinks. The “buy, buy, buy” era is over. Spending frivolously is not an option for most consumers. Today, people are more interested in cost-effectiveness and savings. Some Gen Z audiences, especially in the West, are rejecting the culture and values of consumerism.

These emerging values can feel like obstacles for brands. But these are not barriers—they are messages. Changing contexts and changing values mean brands must change strategies. This new context is an opportunity for brands to show they are listening; showing they have their finger on the pulse, and the agility to provide solutions for consumers.

So how can they do this? Just like Ma Liang. Through skillful design and transparent spirituality.

Invisible economies have visible design

Design is closely linked to consumption. It reflects our values. Out attitudes. Our decision making processes. So as the economic environment shifts—how can design evolve to meet new consumer needs? What role will it play in brand building?

Just look at the response to the global economic recession between 2007-2009. The US subprime crisis triggered a global economic recession. Shortly after, minimalism, which advocated simplicity and abandoned embellishments, became the mainstream design principle.

This sharp decline in consumer trust in institutions led businesses to adopt a “what you see is what you get” style of design. Transparency became the standard. Brands combined minimalist styles with cost-effectiveness—reflecting the values of consumers at the time.

You can go back further. Throughout history we can see that after economic downturns, design tends to subordinate form to function. Many famous furniture works and brands that perfectly integrate design and functionality were born during the Great Depression of the 1920s to 1930s, when brands needed to find new ways to stimulate consumption.

Spiritual thinking

Much of brand and consumer thinking has been shaped by the omnipotent rise of technology.

But there are signs of a much older force becoming an increasingly decisive part of consumer decision making: Spirituality. People are turning to the divine to help them get a leg-up in a competitive society, hoping that it’ll be the extra push needed to land a job or get the scores to get into a good university.

Again, it is Gen Z and younger demographics who are leading the way. This does not necessarily mean consumers are becoming more religious. But indicates to brands that consumers are looking for emotional fulfilment and things can improve their mental wellbeing. The uptick in home fragrance sales, ultimate frisbee, and city walks are all related trends that reflect this need.

The emerging areas of interest give brands new paths to engage with consumer. The perfume brand Boitown, for example, created a fragrance named ‘如隐Ruyi’ exclusively for Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai. The fragrance allows temple visitors to take home a bottle of “blessed scent” from the temple gift shop to infuse their own spaces with positive and blessed energy.

Rediscovering the magic

China isn’t a success because of a magic brush. Painting a picture doesn’t make it a reality.

Instead, you need to think about who you are painting for. What they value. What they like. What they need.

As China and its consumers navigate a rare period of economic downturn, brands and businesses need to reassess the pictures they are painting—and how they provide value in this modern landscape. And if we look to history, and to the values of young audiences, we can see how meaningful relationships can blossom through design and spirituality.

First published in Campaign Asia.