China: 1-Child Policy

Cast of characters: The marketers

Marketplace Staff Jun 21, 2010

The one-child economy

When my wife and I adopted our daughter from Hunan in 2004, we figured we’d pick up a cheap, umbrella stroller in China. Wrong. Cheap doesn’t seem go well with aspirational urban Chinese parents and their one child. Overpriced infant formula, now that’s a winner.

So, what is the one-child market in China? How does it fit in the broader consumption and economic story?

The ad exec: Happy meals and intellectual weaponry

Tom Doctoroff is CEO, Greater China, at the global marketing and advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. And a columnist at He says Chinese families spend what it takes on their one child’s education.

“Historically, the only way to get ahead in China was through academic achievement,” Doctoroff says. “So anything to become smarter in an increasingly dog-eat-dog landscape will be a priority for the parents.”

He’s talking piano lessons to instill rhythm, swimming lessons for discipline. “Parents are going to spend money and time in making sure there are equipped to rise. Ultimately, it’s about intellectual weaponry.”

Observe the TV ads, and the frequent message: Buy this, mom and dad, it’ll make your kid smart. The pitch works for infant formula, educational toys, maybe even french fries.

“Even when you talk about a Happy Meal, that Happy Meal isn’t just for happiness,” Doctoroff says. “It has to have an education lesson.”
By that measure, my kids should be geniuses by now.

The youth market researcher: Cash in on mommy power

The dominant narrative of the Chinese parent is ultimate sacrifice for the only child, the human version of The Giving Tree, as one friend put it.

China youth-market researcher Mary Bergstrom at Bergstrom Trends thinks that’s changing. Take the new cohort of Chinese moms. They themselves are only children.

“Women in their 20s are feeling they have a lot of opportunities in China, things open to them that were not as open in previous generations. And they want to travel, have a car, they want to have the latest TV set or the greatest computer. All these things they want to provide for kids, but also for themselves.”

We bumped into that view a lot reporting the “One-Child Myth of Oppression” feature. Parents wanted it all for themselves, one reason they chose to stop at one child (the one-child policy has many types of exemptions). One father driving a beat-up VW Jetta talked seriously of upgrading to a BMW, or even an Italian “Fah-la-lee.”
The dilemma: more kids, or more stuff?

China 2.0 moms have new and different aspirations for their children, too, Bergstrom says. They hunt for new ideas online — remember this is the world’s largest Internet market — and differentiate themselves from older parents in their, gasp, late 20s.

“If you are a mother in her late 20s, you may want children to fall in line,” says Bergstrom. “To do well in school, make management and send money home. Whereas if you’re a woman in her early 20s, you may want them to be more independent and do things themselves.”

Translation: it’s not all about English lessons and cram schools any more. Think photography, chess and sports in the emerging one-child market.

The entrepreneur: Profit play centers

With all the emphasis on education and schooling, Chinese parents often fret about what’s missing in their only childrens’ lives: play. And where there’s parental guilt, there’s market opportunity.

Enter Adam Schwartz, founder of Color Me, a series of play-based learning centers in China. The centers strive to differentiate themselves from the teach-to-the-test schools. They’re meant for early-adapter parents who want their children to develop independent and critical thinking.

“I see the anxiety on the part of moms and dads,” Schwartz says. “They want to do the right thing for their child. And they are worried the child is already over-scheduled and already over-educated. And there is a freeing sense that this will be a good time for the child.”

Schwartz says Color Me takes ideas straight out of the New England summer camps where he grew up. Games and activities promote problem solving, individual expression, trial and error, playing well with others. But if Color Me is to succeed, enough Chinese parents will have to do something that comes very unnatural — and I am qualified to say this — get out of the way.

“In a lot of places, parents play on top of the kid,” Schwartz says. “But the need to develop independent thought needs to be cultivated. The camps we run, and the parties we hold, are designed to allow the kids this individual expression.”

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