2 Principles for Marketing to China Online

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This piece is written by Ernie Diaz, Director of Web Presence In China 

Ernie Diaz

A published author, journalist, editor and veteran of Integrated Marketing Communications, Ernie Diaz has been developing and executing marketing campaigns for global brands in China for over ten years. Having consulted and managed marketing campaigns for Fortune 500 brands, Ernie has become a contributor to Thought-Leadership circles around the world, including digital giants operating inside and outside of China.

There is not one true sentence you can utter that begins with “The Chinese….”

You can’t even say, “The Chinese speak Chinese.” Maybe you can say “The Chinese are Chinese,” but that would just be meaningless patter.

Meaningless patter is still much in demand by Westerners who wish to market to China, though. CMOs at big organizations, greedy for global market share, don’t have the time to really understand the place, and maybe that’s O.K.

Definitely not O.K is the persistent desire by these organizations to gain China marketing insight with sentences that begin with “The Chinese”. Never mind the social or cultural aspects – it’s just bad for business. Imagine a western marketing consultant telling a Chinese CMO, “Americans like lots of red, white and blue colors on websites – it reminds them of freedom.” Or how about, “Europeans prefer small, closed-in living spaces that reflect their small country sizes and make them feel safe, given a modern history of frequent warfare.”

Ridiculous. Offensive, perhaps. But even sensitive, progressive Hollywood is still portraying Chinese as either nerds, kung fu thugs, or kung fu nerds. So we’ll just have to accept that the impulse to put 1.3 billion people in a neat, one-dimensional package is going to be with us for a while.

For the destructive yang of slapping labels on a fifth of the world’s population, there is a quiet yin that will nurture your efforts in China, should you heed it. Be still, and observe: gnarly wave-shredding surfers. Cuban cigar aficionados. Die hard vegans. Any eclectic consumer group you care to mention has its Chinese subset.

More importantly, each of these eclectic Chinese consumers has a discrete set of motives for buying, based on a personality just as blastedly complex as her western counterpart’s.

If this sounds like common sense, good. But common sense in action is rare, particularly with for-profit organizations. Witness the American Federal Government’s inability to “Do unto others…”

Hopefully, it sounds like common sense to say that China, the once and future world’s biggest market, itself comprises a million markets. Hopefully, a western organization will approach its Chinese market research with a modicum of the care it does its American research, recognizing that success will be proportionate to how greatly it can differentiate its target market segment from Joe Sixpack (Zhou Erguotou?)

And now for a complete 180,  albeit one made to illuminate the digital road to China sales.

Still common sense, though – the Chinese are all exactly the same. Exactly the same as all the rest of us, from a cynical marketer’s point of view. The same boundless hopes for an unlimited future, the same limited time and energy to achieve it. Therefore, the same psychological principles leveraged to bring a western prospect from Attention to Interest, on through to Desire and finally, lucrative Action, work just as well on the Chinese. Hey, we said “You can’t begin a sentence with ‘The Chinese’, not  “You can’t end it.”

The Principle of Individuality

The results are in. Bertrand Russell, Frank Sinatra, and Jefferson were right. Marx, Engels, and Pete Seeger…not so much. The individual is the pinnacle of society, not the collective. Nowhere is this truer – from a consumer perspective, anyway – than in China, where the rebound from mandatory collectivism is in full spring. Witness Sina Weibo, where just as on Facebook, hundreds of millions of individuals scream, “Look at me! I’m special!” with their own unique stream of cute animal photos, and pics of food they’re about to eat.

Takeaway for the western marketer: no one’s buying your stuff for god n’ country on this side of the ocean, either. Stress benefits over features, especially social distinction benefits.

The Principle of Belonging

No, not belonging to a family, tribe, or church, but belonging to something much more compelling: the fantasy world we want to live in, as informed by all media working together in hypnotic collusion. A Chinese fantasy world varies from the Western no more than the Bellagio’s Mandarin suite varies from its Presidential.

Here in China fantasy world, TV moms obsess over the right toothpaste for their tots, who are scampering about spotless one-acre, skylit island kitchens, while their husbands hug tight curves in Audis on their way to XO parties, where Eurasian women coyly smile at their goatees, which promise at least a little Genghis Khan.

Meanwhile, the teens find ingenious ways to use premium beverages for flirting with each other, then go act way too excited together at KFC, grabbing spicy chicken sandwiches out of the air one-handed.

If this dream world seems foreign to you, then you are the foreigner, the outsider, you lucky stiff. Wherever you wander, Chicago or Chongqing, you’ll see a Starbucks full of us, trying to have witty dialogue about our problems, like in the movies. You’ll note our UGG boots, which show we’re really down to earth. Despite our 8-dollar coffee. And complete inability to stop looking at pretty people and pretty things to buy on multiple devices. Then you’ll notice how our Chinese and Western appearances don’t do that much to differentiate us. We’re all consumer zombies. Run, stranger!

And you marketers, your only sin is if you don’t sell that dream hard enough.

Cecilia Wu

A witty, nutty and frosty writer who hopes to jot down moments of inspiration from her daily life

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