Why luxury brands need to jump on China’s cute ‘Meng’ trend
Key points to remember:
Meng culture, a Chinese preference for cute and cuddly things, should actually be seen as a long-term trend among young Chinese consumers.
Although some brands have started collaborating with manga and cartoons, most of the luxury and fashion players have yet to understand the far-reaching cultural significance of Meng.
As the Meng culture expands its influence beyond China into this interconnected world, brands that swap glam for cute will have an edge in the Gen Z market.
One of the fundamental changes in the luxury industry today has been the migration to the Chinese Millennial and Gen Z market. Some of these changes are technological, as with the digital transformation that most of the big brands have. operated to reach young Chinese consumers. Others are about taste: seasonal collections inspired by traditional Chinese festivals, collaborations with Chinese pop stars, and the growing number of designs suited to China’s young Meng culture – also known as cute culture.
Translated as “cute” in Chinese, Meng (萌) is a pop expression of all things as having an innocent and childish charm. Similar to the kawaii phenomenon in Japan, China’s “Meng” culture shows a preference among the younger generations for cute and teen-looking fashion styles.
Not surprisingly, capitalizing on Meng’s popularity has become the key to success in China’s competitive retail world in recent years. POP MART, a Chinese toy company selling collectible dolls and action figures, successfully launched its Hong Kong IPO last December with a market value exceeding $ 12.5 billion. Company founder Wang Ning once said during a interview that “buying a box of ‘mystery’ dolls is like buying a box of ice cream – it’s about giving customers 5-10 minutes of dopamine. “
These Meng-inspired objects are considered both restorative and heartwarming, and many believe they have therapeutic appeal to Millennials and Gen Zs as they grow increasingly exhausted from the fierce competition of working life in China.
As such, the Meng culture began to infiltrate the aesthetic of luxury and fashion. Gucci, the Italian brand owned by Kering known for its maximalist approach, created a series of fashion editorials in September 2020 with Elle Men China which featured manga characters from the “One Piece” show wearing the brand’s Fake / Not collection. As one of Japan’s greatest manga classics, “One Piece” is also an endearing symbol of childhood for the post-80s and post-90s Chinese generations.
In January of this year, Gucci released another capsule collection featuring iconic manga character Doraemon for Chinese New Year. On social networks, Chinese fashionistas were delighted with this collaboration, which responds both to their childhood nostalgia and their desire to appear in fashion.
That same month, a cohort of luxury brands – from Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga to Burberry and Loewe – also joined the race to launch cute-inspired CNY collections using cartoon characters.
But despite these growing collaborations between luxury brands and manga, there is a tacit consensus within the industry that these collections will only target Chinese consumers. Due to the dominant Western assumption that cute aesthetics are only for kids, it might be tempting for brands to ignore the massive influence of Meng culture on younger consumers.
In the West, cute cartoon-inspired designs are only meant to target children and not adults who buy luxury as a treat. But in China influenced by Meng, cute designs have a timeless appeal to children and young adults. According to Meng’s rhetoric, looking pretty and harmless is the ultimate form of sex appeal. This preference for childish cuteness is the opposite of the typical ideals portrayed in Western luxury advertising, which focus on maturity, sophistication and seduction.
For global brands, balancing the tastes of a more mature Western audience with a younger audience in Asia has become a challenge. In fact, the polarization between Western and Eastern styles has become a constant theme of the industry in recent years, according to The Boston Consulting Group Insights from Global True-Luxury Consumers. Unlike Western consumers who favor a quieter luxury style, Chinese consumers are increasingly displaying extroverted values, preferring designs laden with logos and bright patterns over pieces that speak of heritage and craftsmanship.
However, China’s growing Meng culture has far broader implications for brands than just signaling young China’s thirst for cuteness. With the rise of Meng culture, brands are expected to capture this generation’s new attitudes towards luxury, both inside and outside of China.
First, Meng culture signifies the emotional needs of young consumers because for millennials and millennials in China, Meng culture evokes a sense of restorative through fantasy. Today, more and more of these citizens project the same need for emotional restoration through luxury shopping. But just as relevant as these new emotional factors is what usually drove consumers to buy luxury goods (glamor, social status, etc.). Thus, for brands, this increased focus on customer emotion should inform future collaborations and designs.
Second, this cultural tendency to see cuteness as the new glamor is becoming a global trend reaching markets far beyond China and East Asia. In the West, Gen Z and Gen Alpha have gained increasing exposure to K-pop and viral Chinese street fashion videos on TikTok, among other Asian pop trends that have shaped their approach to style. Therefore, by exploring the Meng culture in China, brands can also extend their cultural relevance to consumers in other regions.
While it might be too early to say that Meng culture will be the next booming fashion trend, this cute movement continues to infiltrate the internet in China and beyond. For brands, it’s a chance to be more active by responding to the preferences of China’s young “Meng” and seeing it as much more than a subculture.