From Mao's little red book to little red phones

01 Jun 2004|LiAnne Yu

While flying to NYC on United last week, I caught a special segment entitled “Digital Cool,” featuring Samsung’s design vision for China’s mobile market. At the heart of this was a special on Chinese women and their mobile phones. Global companies have definitely caught on to the fact that women in China are defining their work, leisure, and romantic identities in ways that are very different from the generation under Mao’s regime. And in a society where the rules of status are being dynamically rewritten through product ownership, Chinese women consider mobile phones to be reflections of their newfound femininity and agency.

A few years ago I conducted ethnographic research on mobile professionals in China for Ericsson. As part of my study, I visited cell phone retailers and posed as a shopper. I picked up one model, only to have the sales girl tell me that this was not the right phone for me. “This phone is square and serious looking and will make you look chubby. It’s better for businessmen. You should buy this other model-it fits beautifully in your small hand and will tell people you have a “ke-ai” (adorable) personality.”

Chinese mobile phone makers, such as Ningbo Bird, have been among the first to recognize the buying power and uniqueness of the female market. Check out the ad for one of their latest products, designed to “fit a woman’s hand” (and definitely not for the serious businessman).

For me, the good news isn’t that I can go into a store in Shanghai and be handed a red phone. Rather, I see such first attempts at designing technology for women in China as raising awareness of the fact that this segment has its very own trajectory. There is the opportunity to dig deeper and figure out what implicit needs aren’t being met by localized Western and Japanese products, or those designed for the general market (general often meaning male). And, as Chinese companies like Ningbo Bird and Haier shift their strategies from cheap production to innovative design, and develop brand recognition outside of China, how will the competitive landscape change?

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