“Focus groups weren’t helping either,” said Ms. Thompson, 43. “You get the same rational responses from people whether they are talking about cars or shampoo.”
So Ms. Thompson and her team of planners hit the road in late 1997, and every year since then, they have logged thousands of miles by foot, van, train and boat from Harbin in the north of China to Haikou, an island on the country's southern tip. On fact-finding trips called "Xploring" that last up to six weeks, they work in fields with farmers, attend school with children, hang out with teens in cyber cafes, cook dinner with housewives and play mahjong with aging villagers.
Ms. Thompson, who now splits her time between Toronto and New York as Saatchi’s director of strategic planning, detailed her experiences in One in a Billion: Xploring the New World of China, which will be published this fall by PowerHouse Books in the U.S. She recently spoke to AdAgeChina from her home in Toronto about how Xploring helped Saatchi & Saatchi create advertising that would resonate with local consumers.
AdAgeChina: How did the Xploring program start?
Sandy Thompson: When I moved to Asia, I went to focus groups, but we were getting the same rational responses from consumers whether we asked them about cars or shampoo, they wanted to know about product benefits, that kind of thing. I wasn’t getting any feeling from the focus groups about how they make decisions, so I went to Patrick Pitcher (Saatchi’s Hong Kong-based CEO, Asia at that time) and asked him if we could just go, and he said yes. After all, you don’t go to a zoo to study how lions hunt, you go to the jungle. We just started driving. The first trip at the end of 1997 went from Beijing down to Dalian and ended in Shanghai. I remember freezing my butt off that winter.
AdAgeChina: Which Saatchi & Saatchi clients wanted to fund Xploring trips?
Ms. Thompson: We did a ton of trips for P&G but also some for Lion Nathon, a beer company, the Chinese internet company NetEase and Toyota. The Xploring idea started in China, but we have used it subsequently in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Africa and even in the U.S., where we finished a 5,000 mile road trip about a month ago for General Mills.
AdAgeChina: Can you give me an example of how insights gained by Xploring changed a marketing plan for one of Saatchi’s clients?
Ms. Thompson: We helped P&G with Crest toothpaste in one very concrete way. Originally, we were doing focus groups for that brand and, like every other toothpaste marketer, the ads talked about cleaner, whiter, healthier teeth and fresh breath, the usual benefits of good oral care, and ones which any brand can own.
But while we were Xploring, we realized that when people smile in China, they often cover their mouth out of embarrassment and nervousness. So we changed the brand positioning for Crest to showing off your smile for life, which gives the stronger emotional benefit of being able to take your hand away from your mouth when you smile. We would never have gotten that just from focus groups.
Another example is a campaign we did for Unicef. The client wanted a commercial to communicate that Unicef is helping feed and inoculate the children of China. We were in Wuhan when the brief came through. On that trip, a little beggar girl came up to me selling flowers for change. I gave her a handful of change and within seconds, of course, I was surrounded by other children and our driver tried to shoo them away. Back in the van, we realized it wasn’t enough for Unicef to announce their presence. If they were truly going to make a difference, they needed to communicate to people the idea that they need to love other people’s children as much as they love their own, to make a more emotional connection with Chinese.
AdAgeChina: How pronounced are the regional differences in China, in terms of language, behavior and outlook, and what are some of the cultural cues marketers should be aware of?
Ms. Thompson: That’s really the principle of the book, the reason I wrote it. Every client knows the figures about how big China is, the numbers of things like cell phone ownership are incredible, they blow you away. But companies can get seduced by those numbers, they weren’t taking the time to know Chinese as individuals, to understand the real people behind purchasing decisions and understand what motivates them. There are regional and language differences but good marketing in China is about getting down to the individual level, not just the regional level.
AdAgeChina: That’s not an easy thing to do in a country with 1.2 billion individuals.
Ms. Thompson: True, but it helps sitting down with them in their homes rather than going by research studies or focus groups, to learn what motivates them while they’re cooking dinner, or by shopping with them. and I want marketers to feel that they are selling to real people, not respondents, and understand the truth of China rather than just reading reports or watching Powerpoint presentations.
AdAgeChina: Among all the Chinese cities you visited, did one stand out as your favorite?
Ms. Thompson: Wuhan, and for one reason, the street musicians. They were incredibly inspiring and genuine, in the way they spoke to us and the time they spent with us. They have a very can-do attitude and I connected with them. But Chinese people in general say “yes” before they say “no,” which I wouldn’t have thought before I spent time in China. Wuhan is also a gorgeous city.
AdAgeChina: What else did you learn about China through Xploring that surprised you as a relative newcomer to that country?
Ms. Thompson: I was surprised by the power and strength of women in China. Before I moved to Asia, a lot of people in North America warned me that I wouldn’t like working in that region, because women are treated less respectfully than men. But the truth is, Chinese women are beautiful, successful and kind, whereas in other parts of the world, the more successful women become, often the harder they become at the same time.
Another surprise was the youth in china. You would expect in a developing market that young people can’t wait to move somewhere else for a better life, either to study or for jobs. But we never heard one young person say they didn’t want to come back to China, even if they did want to study overseas. They all said they wanted to come back to help build China.
That means marketers aren’t westernizing Chinese kids, who are very proud of who they are. Instead, marketers need to help them celebrate their culture and heritage, but more importantly, their music, fashion and movies, the things that are important to them today.
AdAgeChina: What are some other mistakes foreign marketers might make in China?
Ms. Thompson: The biggest mistake is not giving consumers the right benefits to buy a product, meaning the right rational benefits as well as the right emotional benefits. There is now a lot of choice in China, plus Chinese culture is full of emotional motivators. Looking at Chinese fashion, music and movies, marketers don’t build on them enough to try to create connections with consumers and inspire consumers to stick with brands for the long term. It used to drive me nuts when multinational marketers in China didn’t try to create an emotional attachment with consumers.
AdAgeChina: Several Chinese companies are already selling their products in foreign markets, but they aren’t truly global brands yet. What’s your guess about which Chinese company will be the first to succeed at building a global brand?
Ms. Thompson: The ones that automatically come to mind are Lenovo and Haier, big players, but it’s not really about size, it’s about understanding foreign markets. Several local companies are capable of creating global brands at this point, if they take the time to understand other markets, not just by doing research but by figuring out how their brand can provide meaningful benefits.
AdAgeChina: How long has it been since you last visited China, and when you last lived here?
Ms. Thompson: I was last in China in June, I was Xploring for a little over a week, and I moved back to North America about two-and-a-half years ago.
AdAgeChina: China changes so fast these days, do you fear the book is already out of date?
Ms. Thompson: It certainly doesn’t take long to be out of date in China, that’s why Xploring isn’t something you do every couple of years, someone on Saatchi’s planning team is on the road in China every week to stay on top of the market and stay current. That’s the nice thing about Xploring, it’s ongoing. But the last chapter of the book acknowledges that China does change so quickly that it’s almost impossible to do a book that isn’t out of date by the time it’s published, that’s just one of the challenges in that market.
Other appointment news in Greater China
[shanghai] Soames Hines has joined Ogilvy & Mather as president, international clients in China, a new position created by the WPP Group company in Shanghai to help the Ogilvy Group develop its 360 capabilities for multinational clients. Mr. Hines will retain his current role as CEO, China at 141 Worldwide, the integrated marketing arm of WPP's Bates Asia and he will remain based in Shanghai. Mr. Hines, who took over 141's Chinese operation in 2004, started his career with Ogilvy & Mather in London in 1982. He relocated to Asia in 1990, moved to China in 1994 to set up WPP's JWT division and returned to London in 1997 to run JWT’s global Unilever and Diageo businesses.
[shanghai] Adidas Group has appointed Edward Bell as marketing communications director, Greater China, based in Shanghai. He succeeds Shanghai-based Aldo Spaanjaars, who was promoted to a new position, VP, operations, Greater China. Previously, Mr. Bell was planning director, China for Ogilvy & Mather, Beijing.
[shanghai] Harjot Singh, previously Shanghai-based strategic planning director, China at BBDO Worldwide, has relocated to Toronto as senior strategist at Cossette Communication Group. BBDO has not named his successor.