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Got your eyes set on China? Don’t take the plunge before you’ve read this…

In a land seen as the holy grail of growth it seems every industry wants to know the secrets to building their brand in China. With its huge population, vast geography, exploding wealth, a great appetite for brands – and let’s not forget some enticing government-backed incentives for select businesses to invest in China – what’s not to love about this economic powerhouse, and what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve been working globally for nearly 25 years, and I’ve seen countless examples where the local team exaggerate consumer differences to justify their own marketing initiatives. I’ve also worked on and lead countless cross-country projects where the team’s first meetings are peppered with cultural gaffs and insults but end with hugs and “hi-fives”. “People are people” is my mantra and I firmly believe that we are bound more by common values than differences. However, when it comes to China it is how well you acknowledge the differences that will make or break your brand, campaign, project, team or business.

Difference 1/Chinese people are very proudly and uniquely Chinese
The Chinese are not easy targets, they are not grateful for your presence nor are they waiting with bated breath for your product. They wont just buy anything simply because it has an international brand attached.

The Chinese don’t take kindly to brands shoe-horning their existing global communications (or you) into their lives. Chinese people like to hear about brands from a Chinese perspective, this means becoming part of the national culture and not simply adapting messaging from elsewhere and expecting people to be impressed.

Difference 2/ Impressing is a matter of proof

The Chinese are very literal and precise people, not necessarily easy bed-fellows for marketeers and story-tellers. This means that brand positioning and communication can be tricky. The emotional benefits and altruisms that are the norm for Western brands are often viewed as irrelevant, confusing or just plain nonsense. This means that when brands are looking to define a meaningful value proposition in China they must articulate and prioritise functional proof points and work relentlessly to prove the competitive advantage.

Difference 3/ Product benefits must be for me, today

China is still a developing market and wealth and education for many is just one generation old. The Chinese have an endearing optimism about the future but their sense of security around their lifestyle is understandably fragile. This means consumer needs are still relatively rooted in self-protection and safety; risk is acutely avoided and people’s attitudes and behaviour are very much focused on the here and now. Brand owners need to find ways to explain why people should be interested by landing the benefit closer to their lives today.

Difference 4/ “the blue sky opportunity” can be scary

There is no one way to build a successful brand or business in China (or anywhere else for that matter). There is no silver bullet or easy answer, period.

The Chinese attitude to risk and the need to impress through proof mean that “starting with a blank sheet of paper”, a term often associated with innovation, creation or challenging the status quo in the Western world offers quite a number of challenges to the uninitiated.

Let me be clear, the difficulty is not in education or willingness to learn, but the thrill westerners might feel when presented with a “blank sheet of paper” or a “blue sky opportunity” is not what the local Chinese team may feel. A “blank sheet of paper” could well be seen as an “invitation to fail”. The trick is to find ways to make Chinese people feel more comfortable with not knowing all the answers and feel secure and confident enough to start creating.

With the above in mind, here are some top tips to help you avoid some of these pitfalls and build your brand in China:

  1. Forget what you know from other developing nations or Asian markets and find a good local research partner and invest in learning about consumer attitudes and behaviours
  2. Build relationships with your consumers and your co-workers
  3. Get real about your Unique Selling Points and Reasons to Believe. If it doesn’t genuinely deliver a tangible and immediate benefit to the consumer then perhaps think again
  4. Demonstrate value through quality – remember, someone will always be able to do it cheaper (probably within an hour)
  5. Encourage and build local talent with high touch support. Provide templates, case studies and examples and go out of your way to help the team succeed.