The World: Insider's View - China

Teenagers offer a wealth of insight into the emerging attitudes and behaviour of the next generation of Chinese consumers, Darren Yao reveals.

All communications agencies claim to understand consumers. The problem is that consumer insights are now becoming a commodity. Decades of Generation X/Y/D, silver foxes and tie niang zi (iron ladies) mean smart names aren't enough.

You must go deeper.

We recently conducted a youth study in major Chinese cities. We talked to teens and people in their early twenties, who represented emerging behaviours and attitudes. People who reflected a new, energetic, diverse China. We spoke to skaters, dancers, entrepreneurs, goths, hip-hop fans, computer-game addicts and young women whose goal is to find a husband online.

It differed from most studies in terms of methodology and output. To get closer to the teenagers, we worked with a couple of students from a Shanghai art college. They filmed the interviews and took pictures, while our youngest planner did the talking.

In focus groups, Chinese teens aren't always that open about their personal lives. It is easy for adults to see them as distant, alien even. But after spending hours in their homes, letting them show us their make-up cabinets and spending time with them in clubs, on basketball courts and in shopping malls, they started to talk about the interesting stuff: love, hopes, relationships with their parents, drugs, online behaviour.

This resulted in some great material and a good relationship with the college, and it offered a fascinating perspective on what it means to be young in China today. We then got 200 students to take photos of how they saw modern youth culture.

The mix of images we collected was inspirational: more varied, honest and revealing than anything we could have gained from a research company.

We started to build up a very textured picture of this generation, which is coming of age at a time of rapid change. They lead vibrant, optimistic lives but are also worried they may be left behind.

The most consistent attitude was the importance of being part of an internationalist, successful China. Nearly everyone mentioned the generation gap. They stressed the difference between their parents' world view and their own.

The study has been useful for our own clients, of course, but we felt the images and words were so arresting they could go further.

So we organised a photography exhibition in a central Shanghai shopping mall. So far the reception has been very positive: we have a visitors' book crammed with comments from locals, tourists, teenagers to silver foxes.

Which is reassuring. Because when it comes to proving consumer expertise, a 70-year-old man or a 15-year-old girl can be just as effective a judge as a middle-aged marketer.

- Darren Yao is a senior planner and youth expert at TBWA\China.