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Chevrolet’s Man U deal highlights misunderstanding of marketing in China

In a recent press interview, Tim Mahoney, CMO of Chevrolet, talked openly about the company’s recent sponsorship deal with Manchester United. While much of what he said made sense, some his comments served to highlight the common misconceptions held by many Western brands about marketing to China.

Undoubtedly, football is a globally recognised sport and Manchester United (although struggling through a transitionary period at present) is one of the big brands within it. However, unlike Cricket in India or Badminton in China, where these sports are practically religions, football is still a developing sport in many parts of the world. For this reason, Chevrolet’s decision to not shout loud is very sensible given that the audience in developing nations might not yet be there to hear or possibly understand it.

Another sensible decision is to build engagement with consumers at a grass roots level with activations that have meaning within the community. Sponsorships are in effect advertising, but unless there’s something that ties the sponsor’s name on a T-shirt with the consumer, all you’re really doing is buying some very expensive tickets for customers and staff.

However, what doesn’t sound so sensible is Chevrolet’s very Western assumption that consumers in developing nations will be more willing to pay for brands with purpose. Consumer needs in developing markets – particularly China – tend to be more basic and more rooted in personal benefit.

In China 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. This means that brand owners need to find ways to explain why people should be interested by landing the benefit closer to their lives today.

That’s not to say they don’t have a heart and would look dispassionately on a company’s CSR activity, however the emotional responses will only translate into purchase if there’s a strong benefit for the consumer personally. The more degrees of separation between a brand and it’s personal benefit, the less likely people will understand and choose it.

The halo effect of CSR activities such as bringing football to deprived children may have a lot of merit. However, unless Chevrolet can prove “what’s in it” for the consumer personally it is unlikely to translate into purchase.