How to appeal to Chinese consumers

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HONG KONG--Advertising in China --what works and what doesn't? A new consumer study from Grey China, evolved from 12 focus groups in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, says western agencies often don't know the answer.

"Sometimes you can almost tell that the ads are produced by foreigners. They're either too far-fetched or it's too traditional or tribal to be the real us," reproaches a 17-year old participant from Shanghai.

The survey focused on 17-to-21 year-old students from upper income families and affluent 25-to-35 year olds in China, because young consumers are the most open-minded, have the greatest spending power and are most likely to mold the consumption patterns and social trends in the future, according to Colin Bates, Grey China's director of strategic planning in Hong Kong.

He observed that urban Chinese have developed from the "Confucian" or "altruistic" perspective on society into the more "individual" or "me" oriented perspective, with 83% of respondents "looking for room to express individuality."

While it is true that Chinese consumers are showing signs of western influences, the survey also revealed that urban Chinese consumers consider themselves to be "modernized" rather than "westernized" Chinese.

Other tips for marketers: focus on personal enjoyment but not personal indulgence; "stand up but don't stand out" by avoiding unconventional or rebellious advertising; knowledge is good, but do not appear critical, especially towards authority; be assertive but not aggressive; and encourage cultural openness while realizing Chinese consumers see themselves actively selecting what is right and appropriate for them.

Mr. Bates says many marketers fear that Chinese consumers are "only capable of comprehending simple, informative or product-demonstration advertising." While it's true that, in a rapidly developing consumer goods market such as urban China, there's a consumer need for product information, he says, "increasingly it is necessary to differentiate on higher-order emotional benefits."

Copyright April 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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