Three Myths about Marketing to China


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When it comes to marketing in China, the rules change, argues Tom Doctoroff, CEO of Asia Pacific at advertising giant J. Walter Thomson. In his new book, “What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and the Chinese Consumer” (2012, Palgrave MacMillan), Doctoroff states: “In my 14 years here, I have not encountered a single brand that did not require significant modifications.”

That’s because the Chinese have different goals than do people from the West — and also from most other Asian cultures (although Koreans and Vietnamese come closest to embracing Chinese philosophies). The key to deciphering the Chinese mindset, Doctoroff says, is recognizing that the country’s men and women share certain beliefs, beginning with the omnipresent Confucian conflict and tension between ambition and regimentation, and the Daoist tug-of-war between growth and the safety of the status quo. “Practically everyone in China wants to stand out while fitting in,” he says.

Making blanket statements about the people of the world’s most populous nation does run the risk of seeming facile. But basing generalizations on culture as well as political past and present can help businesspeople bring their products to, and do business with, China. In “What Chinese Want,” Doctoroff debunks modern myths about China. Here, we explore three of them.

Myth#1: American-style individualism is taking root

Looks can be deceiving, says Doctoroff. China’s youth may embrace rock bands or get tattoos. Entrepreneurs may open their own shops. But, Doctoroff argues, these exploits rarely stray far from the Chinese comfort zone. “Self expression is not the same as independence of thought,” he says, and running one’s own company is not the same as creating breakthrough innovations.

Doctoroff says Chinese consumers are hard-wired by the country’s two enduring philosophies to reject true originality. Daoism promises gain if life is lived in harmony with the cosmological order, in which all things big and small are interconnected now as well as in the past and future. Confucianism views the family, rather than the individual, as the basic unit of society. “China is all about the clan,” Doctoroff says, reeling off the five key relationships of life: between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brothers, friends, and ruler and the ruled.

History reinforces the view that any challenge to the order of the universe is dangerous. Invasions that have plagued China through the centuries have ingrained the need for safety. “In an unsafe, topsy-turvy universe, stability is prized above all else,” Doctoroff writes. “The highest good is stability and the only absolute evil is chaos.” Simply put, individualism and innovation create perils.

Doctoroff isn’t saying that the Chinese don’t want to succeed — they just want to achieve perfection within an existing realm. “Westerners want to be stars of a show of their own making,” he says. “Chinese want to be emperors of their corner of the universe.”

Thus, marketers who stress how their products will set consumers apart are bound to fail. Instead, successful ad campaigns position products as stepping stones or symbols of success, Doctoroff says. Beauty products must enhance a woman’s ability to open doors professionally. Automobiles should make a statement about a man on the way up. Instead of emphasizing the revolutionary aspects of their devices, advertisers should explain how their products get the job done faster or better, or how their quality-control process results in safer products.

Myth #2: The Internet will Revolutionize China

If you’re talking social revolution, the Internet has already inexorably altered China, says Doctoroff, noting how 500 million Internet users are indulging in games, downloading (bootlegged) music and movies, visiting chat rooms, and buying goods online. Indeed, e-commerce has gone a long way toward compensating for the scarcity of high-quality brick-and-mortar destinations, a sales channel that eases the way for companies to sell their products across the vast country. “The Chinese,” says Doctoroff, “are addicted to the web.”

But don’t expect an Arab-Spring-style, Internet-led revolution in China. Although the Web pulses with complaints against the government, even the most angry youths hide their identity behind anonymous avatars — although that is likely to change with the passage of a law in late December requiring web users to reveal their real names to Internet service providers. “The Internet is a pressure valve that helps people let off steam,” says Doctoroff. But “release” is not the same as “freedom.” Further, he says, “the Chinese Internet explodes with disgust,” but doesn’t voice calls to action.

In fact, Doctoroff says, the State wields the Internet as a tool of stability. It blocks searches and deletes sensitive topics — few Chinese know that dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, for example.

But the government’s use of the Internet goes deeper than censorship. At least 50,000 “net police” monitor blogs and eavesdrop on conversations, alerting leaders about pressure points so they can meet needs and diffuse issues before dissent erupts into action. “As in dynastic times, the Chinese embrace a foreign idea and use it in a classically Chinese way,” Doctoroff says. Although the government allows the Internet as “a blank canvas for self-expression and material gratification,” it manages discourse so that political unhappiness stays at the grumbling level rather than erupting into rebellion.

Myth #3: Like Europe, the China market is many countries

The idea that China is a fragmented entity is not true today, says Doctoroff, and was not true in centuries past. Han Chinese, who represent more than 90 percent of the population, “take great pride in their unified culture,” he says. Recent extravaganzas (think the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo) have both celebrated and reinforced the one-country/one-mindset view. State-led infrastructure projects physically bridge provinces in the world’s third largest country (behind Canada and Russia).

That’s not to say differences don’t exist but, Doctoroff explains, they have to do with geographic nuances and economic realities rather than culture. For example, northerners buy shampoos that treat dryness, while southerners worry about oiliness. The coastal provinces, encouraged by state mandates, are entrepreneurial, while the northern provinces, which are dominated by state-owned enterprises, are bureaucratic.

The biggest differences are driven by varying stages of economic development and per capita income. Doctoroff says that here’s where marketers can tailor their messages. Two-tier price structures within the same brand family give consumers something to aspire to. For example, the price tag for Colgate Total Oral Care premium toothpaste is 200 percent higher than that of the company’s Herbal and Strong brands. Colgate makes the lower price profitable by using local ingredients rather than the imported ingredients that go into Total Oral Care.

His advice for advertisers: Be direct. Be consistent. Use heavy mass media and rely on in-store and other promotional efforts to push sales of less expensive brands.

One of the most important advertising rules is to “keep it simple,” says Doctoroff. Media buying agency Mindshare estimates the average Shanghai resident views three times the number of ads in a day that a UK consumer does. In Beijing, says Doctoroff, television screens are everywhere: “in taxis, elevators, restaurants, building exteriors, locker rooms, and bathroom stalls.” The good news is that the same commercial or print ad can run throughout the country and still resonate.

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