China's marketing potential is vast--and it's unstoppable

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Remember Sally Field's emotional exhortation when she won an Oscar: "You like me, you really like me!"? That's how I felt when I traveled to China last week for the International Advertising Association's World Congress in Beijing. Chinese consumers unabashedly embrace advertising: They like you, they really like you.

"Chinese people are perhaps the most advertising-friendly people on earth," said Tom Doctoroff, CEO of J. Walter Thompson Co. in China. "Due to a spiky mix of Communistic inhibition, and an explosion of lifestyle choices, Chinese people-particularly the disoriented young generation-need brands. Dazed and confused, they actively latch on to them. Logos are badges. Nike shoes are identity surrogates. Consumers are undaunted by cynicism. China is virgin territory."

But Mr. Doctoroff added that China's love of advertising hasn't yet translated into a cadre of local brands. "Where is China's Mickey Mouse?" he asked. The problem is that local brands often are inconsistent in their ad appeals. One drink product, LuLu, used three different pitches in six months, claiming it would make kids smarter, promote family harmony and even make skin softer.

Austin Lally, general manager of Procter & Gamble's beauty-care business in China, cautioned that "there is no such thing as China. There are 1,000 Chinas," where consumers have differing aspirations and spending power. "Marketers must grasp that complexity or fail," he said.

One constant among Chinese teenagers P&G talked to is that they are "tired of being interrupted. They are demanding fun and exciting commercials, ones they want to watch." In prior years, Procter would have reacted by "dialing up the volume of advertising." But within the last two years, P&G has been measuring the "watchability"of its TV commercials. And Mr. Lally said "where and when" consumers are receptive to the company's messages is just as important as the content.

Koichi Yamamoto, senior manager of Dentsu Communications Institute, gave further evidence of how consumers can influence the perception of advertising-to other consumers. After Coca-Cola premiered its new C2 in Japan, Mr. Yamamoto said consumers created the better the part of 40,000 Web pages about the brand that had a "strong impact" on what consumers thought about C2, even thought they had no specific idea where the information was coming from.

China, from my expert vantage point of having spent all of 10 days in the country, is an unstoppable phenomenon. My wife Merrilee and I took a cruise on the Yangtze River and we learned the country is raising the river to 125 meters above sea level (in one month in 2009 it will be raised the final 25 meters). All this will cause the relocation of over 1 million Chinese.

Any country that can raise water levels and relocate a million-plus people, and whose citizens unabashedly embrace advertising and buy branded products as badges of how far they've come, is a country I want to stay on the good side of. They take enormous pride in their considerable accomplishments, and one thing is for sure: You won't see any empty seats at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

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