How to Engage Chinese Consumers: with Partnership and Respect

25 Mar 2011|Added Value

As if marketers needed a reminder of the importance of Chinese consumers, recent news announcing China as the world’s second largest economy once again highlighted the potential of this burgeoning market.

China’s people are increasingly proud of the country’s growing status; and brands are taking notice, looking to form stronger relationships with the country’s consumers.  Critically, this means abandoning “talking down” to the Middle Kingdom, and instead developing messages based on respect, partnership and equality with the Chinese people.

Activity by Western brands in China started in the 1980’s, with many examples of cultural clumsiness.  Perhaps one of the most famous being when China’s fast food market leader KFC mistranslated their brand promise, “finger licking good” as “eat your fingers off”- creating considerable bewilderment amongst local consumers.

Despite some cultural teething problems, the 1990s proved a time of strong traction for many Western brands in China.  Consumers, just emerging from the dull hues of the Cultural Revolution, were eager to absorb new influences by mimicking Western lifestyles.  Foreign brands were considered unquestionably superior, serving as visible symbols of progress.

However in the mid 2000s, two incidents interrupted the honeymoon period enjoyed by foreign brands.

First, Nike created a television ad featuring the then rising NBA star Lebron James conquering the multi-level Chamber of Fear.   The problem for Chinese consumers was that the vanquished in each level included elderly kungfu masters and imperial dragons – two potent symbols of Chinese prowess and cultural tradition.  The public outburst was so intense that the Chinese government made a rare intervention and pulled the campaign.

Around the same time, Japanese automotive brand Toyota made a similar faux pas by expressing their vehicle’s superiority in comparison to Chinese icons.  This time, the new Prado was seen speeding past Chinese stone lions as they bowed in respect.  In another ad, the hero vehicle of a State-owned company was seen being left for dead in an uphill race.  Needless to say, Chinese consumers were united in their outrage.

Since the mid-2000s, cultural pride has deepened amongst local consumers.  This trend has grown in tandem with China’s rising economic status, and a corresponding level of participation in global affairs.

Realising this cultural shift, foreign brands now work to hone their message on partnering with Chinese people, rather than attempting to lead them and the trend is seeing an end to patronising campaigns.

Front page news: Liu’s return to glory

Nike has learned from their mistakes. Their current support of champion hurdler Liu Xiang is reflective of this new relationship.  As the first Chinese Olympic champion in Athens, Liu is today a powerful symbol of China’s success.  In fact, a national crisis ensued when Liu, as the event favorite, pulled out of the Beijing Olympics due to serious injury.

In response, Nike, Liu’s sponsor, saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate their local loyalty to Liu and his supporters.  Throughout Liu’s two-year comeback to the top of the sport, Nike has consistently celebrated the heroism and character of Liu in the face of setback.   When he cemented his return with a gold at the Asian Games last November – Nike ran front page ads with the tagline “Let your power do the talking” – a retort to Liu’s doubters.

Jolin Tsai and Usher feature together in GAP’s ad

Partnership also formed the key theme of GAP’s first ever dedicated campaign in China this year.  Each ad presents two recognized leaders in different artistic and social fields – one foreign, and one Chinese.  Pairings include pop stars Usher and Taiwanese songstress Jolin Tsai, environmentalists Zhou Xun and Philippe Cousteau Jr, and filmmakers Barry Levinson and Johnnie To.   The individual ads are united by the call to “Let’s GAP together” across cultural lines.

Presenting what seems a potential mismatch – Sprite’s new campaign features a game of one-on-one between NBA megastar Kobe Bryant and the considerably shorter, but very popular pop star Jay Chou, Jay spins, pivots and fakes, but is no match for  Kobe’s physique and talent, until refreshed and inspired by Sprite, uses  use a skateboard o thwart Kobe’s defenses.  In response Kobe exclaims “Man!”, Jay responds “I’m not your man”, and Kobe acknowledges ”You’ve got spark” – echoing the sentiments of young Chinese, sick of negative comparisons with the West.   The ad fittingly ends with the two stars basking in mutual respect, made possible by Sprite who becomes the subtle hero of the story.

View the ad:

This new partnership that global/foreign brands are cultivating with Chinese consumers is less superior in tone, but more focused on creating messages that match the perception of Chinese consumer in relation to the rest of the world – a perception that will be increasingly fuelled by the economic and political reality of China’s rise in status.

Tips for global brands entering China:

  1. China’s growing role on the world stage creates a desire that local consumers are part of the action – make Chinese consumers integral to your local communication to enhance engagement and intimacy.
  2. China’s ascendance is a huge source of pride for locals, so global brands also need to celebrate and acknowledge the importance of China with their consumers.
  3. Explore ways to culturally embed your brand, explore aspects of Chinese culture you can engage in your new product development, social responsibility programs and brand story.

 Written by Jerry Clode, Oracle Added Value, China

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