Unilever Puts in Face Time With the Chinese Consumer

Ad Age Tags Along With Greater China Chairman Alan Jope as He Examines the Aspirations, Buying Habits of a Middle-Class Family

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SHANGHAI (AdAge.com) -- Alan Jope's schedule last week illustrates the importance of the Chinese market for multinationals in almost every industry.

ON-THE-SPOT ADJUSTMENTS: After Alan Jope learned that Zu Quingrong couldn't understand the entire Omo range of laundry products, he told staff to ramp up improved packaging designs.
ON-THE-SPOT ADJUSTMENTS: After Alan Jope learned that Zu Quingrong couldn't understand the entire Omo range of laundry products, he told staff to ramp up improved packaging designs.
Unilever's chairman for Greater China had dinner dates in Shanghai with Fortune 500 CEOs including Omnicom Group CEO John Wren and a visiting U.K. government minister.

But the meeting on his agenda most likely to help Unilever achieve its 20% revenue-growth goal this year was not with an elite power broker. It was an afternoon he spent hanging out with Zu Qingrong, a 41-year-old woman from Dalian, a city in northeast China.

Ms. Zu is one of dozens of Chinese men and women who have allowed Mr. Jope into their homes since he moved to China in April 2009.

An outgoing, curious Scotsman, Mr. Jope pries into their daily lives, asking about hygiene practices, internet-surfing habits, finances and child-care philosophies, along with fears and dreams. And, of course, he asks how and where they consume food and personal-care products. Sometimes the conversation even turns to topics such as political beliefs and extramarital affairs -- nothing is off-limits. After these visits, Mr. Jope will tell managers to switch dollars to online advertising, tweak packaging or the like.

On the ground
To show just how valuable these first-hand encounters are for China's second-biggest advertiser after Procter & Gamble, Mr. Jope invited Advertising Age to tag along on his visit to Ms. Zu's home. We were joined by Unilever Senior Brand Manager Subrina Liu and Kitty Lun, chairman-CEO, China at Lowe Worldwide, which handles creative for brands such as Omo detergent and Lux.

"It's easy to distance ourselves from consumers in this ivory tower," said Mr. Jope, with a sweeping gesture toward Unilever's modern and airy 22,000 square-meter regional headquarters in Shanghai, with an even bigger R&D center across the street.

"I try to do some sort of consumer connect monthly, usually in combination with a market visit to a customer or retail check outside Shanghai," he said. That's a routine he's followed since joining Unilever in 1985. He's been inside hundreds of homes in developed nations including the U.S., U.K., France and Germany, and in emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Mexico, Colombia and Senegal. He once spent 24 hours with a Muslim family living outside Jakarta, Indonesia.

Today's session is with a bubbly middle-class woman who lives in Shanghai with her husband, an engineer for Philips, and their 8-year-old daughter.

The lively and self-confident daughter of a Chinese navy captain and a doctor, Ms. Zu works as a freelance consultant advising parents about overseas study options for their children. She has never left China but craves the opportunity to travel abroad and insists on conversing with Mr. Jope in English "to practice."

Comfortable life
The Zu household's monthly income of $2,200 is high but not uncommon for a tier-one city like Shanghai, where incomes are steadily rising, making it easier for consumers to afford international brands such as Lux shampoo and Walls ice cream.

The Zus can't afford a car "yet," but their lifestyle is comfortable. They have three computers -- a laptop for each parent and a desktop for their daughter -- as well as satellite TV and wireless internet access. Her husband has a Nokia E71 smartphone while Ms. Zu has two phones, including a Sony Ericsson.

Ms. Zu goes online for e-mail, Skype calls to overseas friends, and news and beauty tips on 163.com, China's biggest site. She chats with other moms on online bulletin boards. She's afraid to shop online, so a work colleague organizes her purchases on Alibaba's Taobao.com site -- mainly food, clothing and cosmetic brands from Dalian.

She uses QQ.com, Tencent's popular instant-messaging platform, to organize weekend dinners and soccer games with old friends from Dalian who also live in Shanghai. Her husband, meanwhile, spends hours online each evening playing games and downloading music.

Heavy use of digital media is common across China, a discovery Mr. Jope made during his very first home visit last spring. He immediately instructed every division head in China to devote at least 10% of their media budgets to online media.

Ms. Zu is a typical Chinese consumer in many ways but offers a few surprises, including a relatively relaxed attitude to parenting. She dismissed the tainted milk scandal in China in late 2008 with a wave of her hand, commenting that she had "too much else to worry about." And her daughter is saddled with just one extracurricular activity, a Saturday morning dance class. She admires Chinese actresses like Zhang Ziyi, but prefers western male celebrities. Her dream date: "manly and handsome" actor Denzel Washington.

Shopping trip
After two hours spent grilling Ms. Zu at home, our group visited the place she shops at weekly, a three-story Carrefour hypermarket in the Gubei area of Shanghai that is one of the world's busiest stores.

Mr. Jope quizzed her on beauty and home-care brands in the store, and that conversation confirmed his suspicions: "I have been concerned about the consumer's ability to navigate the Omo brand architecture. She was a fairly loyal Omo consumer, but was unaware of our Omo range architecture and was unable to figure it out at point-of-sale." The next day, he put "increased urgency against the launch of improved Omo pack graphics that make it easier to navigate the range."

In the shampoo aisle, we ran into an in-store promoter from a promotions company that works for Unilever and heard her pitch for Clear shampoo. Mr. Jope later said he'd give her a "four out of 10" grade because she didn't fully explain Clear's anti-dandruff benefits, and she pushed the promotion -- buy the bottle and get a free mini-bottle -- rather than the brand, even though Clear isn't a value shampoo for Unilever. The takeaway: Mr. Jope sees the need for a steady supply of well-trained promoters rather than outsourcing to poorly trained hires.

Overall, Mr. Jope came away satisfied that the Chinese consumer is steadily moving toward quality multinational brands. "She's proud of where she is and what she has achieved. This was a sharp reminder of how independent Chinese women are in urban markets."

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