xrematon

December 18, 2015

Insight through fiction

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Demographics,Marketing — by xrematon @ 10:06 pm
Tags: , , ,

My preference for ‘story books’ over ‘fact books’, regardless of whether the latter are history, science or business, has always been strong. The value of making this choice has been vindicated by studies which have shown that those who read fiction are better at empathising.

Building on this idea, I was struck by the notion that reading a novel could act as a form of secondary research to help understand a consumer context. I happen to have just finished “Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw and feel my hypothesis can be illustrated with this particular novel, whilst also highlighting some interesting limitations.

This book is a recent publication (from 2013) and tells the tale of five migrant workers who come to make their fortunes in Shanghai. Reading the book provides a more engaging version of the insights I have been developing over the past 12 months of working on various Chinese consumer projects. For these projects, my research has been more traditional: analysis of consumer surveys, reading market reports, checking out online media etc.

“Five Star Billionaire” helps me to better understand concepts I had already grasped. Through the characters narrating their different stories, the novel shows how Shanghai is melting pot of individuals who have come from near and far to make it big in the big city.

However, the book does not touch on some significant issues relating to migrant status. Though the idea individuals may not wish to reveal where they really come from is an important part of the book, the difference in status between true Shanghai residents, who have more access to welfare and other social support, compared to those who are either illegal migrants from abroad or rural migrants, was not touched upon. Reform of the hukou system to address these issues is under way but many feel this needs to be sped up.

Another aspect to modern China that was present in the novel, but not explored for all its implications, is the rise of the economic power of women. Two out of the five characters are female and both reflect how women can progress rapidly in this dynamic society. Phoebe goes from being an illegal factory worker to the manager of a high end spa thanks to her determination and commitment to making the most of the opportunities around her. Yinghui is a successful business woman with a whole chain of enterprises to her credit. The phenomenon of ground-breaking women is true in reality. Half the world’s self-made female billionaires are Chinese.

However, interestingly, the book does not go on to explore the impact of modern urban lifestyles and great careers on social dynamics and societal structures. Women take longer to find a spouse, settle down and start a family; or else struggle to bring up their children in the city with them. Describing the lives of those ‘left-behind’ children who are kept in the rural areas to be brought up by close and not so close (often illiterate) relatives could be the stuff of a deeply engrossing but probably also deeply tragic story.

However, where reading “Five Star Billionaire” really came into its own was for developing a more nuanced understanding of personal progression. People have to start at the bottom of the pile.

“Here are some of the jobs her friends took in the year they left home. Trainee waiter. Assistant fake-watch stall-holder. Karaoke hostess. Assembly-line worker in a semi-conductor factory. Bar girl. Shampoo girl. Water-cooler delivery man. Seafood restaurant cleaner. “

The ambition and drive needed to succeed and fulfil one’s aspirations is well articulated

“That day Phoebe felt her life was awash with good feelings. She was dressed according to the rules of fashion that she had picked up from observing Shanghai women: wear the biggest possible sunglasses you can find, carry the largest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with magnificent confidence.”

Whilst consumer surveys show that people are optimistic about their future and statistics reveal that wages and income are increasing, what doesn’t come across from these source of insight is that getting there is not always a straight path upwards. People slip and fall: one character was a successful pop star who suffered a breakdown and had to start over again; another was conned and lost all their savings; another decided they felt more comfortable going back to their old life in their village.

Reading fiction makes it clear that real life is more complicated than market intelligence would suggest. It doesn’t have all the answers – as discussed above – important aspects can be omitted – but it does help with the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.

Touffou_1

Advertisements

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.