What Makes China Buy

Nearly every business wants a piece of this huge consumer market.

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Marketing is hard enough in the digital age without worrying about what entices Chinese consumers to buy Western products.

But Tom Doctoroff, CEO of JWT Asia Pacific and author of a new book, “Twitter is Not a Strategy” (2014, Palgrave Macmillan), says the goal is clearly achievable. In a recent talk, he warned that marketers need to tread carefully if they hope to grab a piece of China’s US$217 billion online market. His talk, part of the Sir Gordon Wu Distinguished Speaker Series, was sponsored by the Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School.

Doctoroff notes that although Twitter, Google, Facebook, and YouTube are banned in China – one illustration of how fundamentally different its online market is – Chinese consumers are avid e-shoppers. For example, on this year’s “Singles Day,” a November 11 holiday in which single people are encouraged to buy gifts for themselves and each other, Alibaba reported sales of RMB 57.1 billion ($9.3 billion), 60 percent above last year’s gate.

Yet many marketers attempting to penetrate China don’t coordinate their online and traditional campaigns, a non-strategy that’s sure to prove ineffective, or worse, confusing, Doctoroff notes. Message consolidation between traditional and digital marketing plays right into the Chinese experience. “The basic truth of Confucian societies is that chaos is not good,” said Doctoroff, noting that the cacophony of media outlets can certainly spark confusion among consumers. “Harmony is the platform on which progress — and price premium — is built.”

Doctoroff also acknowledged a central unifying tension that plays out in Chinese society between the desires for projection and for protection. Status is tied to the profound ambition that drives many Chinese people, which explains why individuals will pay a lot of money for a luxury car but skimp on household goods and furnishings that are not visible to the outside world. Marketers can play to this dichotomy by offering different price points. For example, the same manufacturer can offer an expensive toothpaste that consumers can aspire to, as well as a less pricey brand. Rather than emphasize how well a deodorant works, a marketer such as Axe might imply it helps attract women and the status they bring.

Similarly, Chinese ambition does not call for overthrowing society or creating disruptive products. Instead, he says, the Chinese want to master convention. The widespread use of avatars allows an outlet for sharing thoughts and emotions while protecting the individual from identification. “The online world is a blank canvas of self-expression,” Doctoroff observed. “It's liberating and intimate, but also allows people to feel safe.”

Another factor distinguishing the Chinese e-market is reliance on endorsements by respected spokespeople. Some are paid; others are courted. Doctoroff said marketers should aim to appeal to Efluencers (celebrity types whose embrace will influence other consumers) and/or Netizens (active participants in the online community) by tapping into their two core motivations: products that let them display “coolness” and show off their knowledge. These endorsements are almost a requirement in this tough-to-crack marketplace: In China, 92 percent of digital consumers buy a product only if opinion leaders or bloggers have written a positive review, says Doctoroff.

One thing marketers have in their favor when targeting China is its homogony. Yes, it's a huge country, “but don't overstate the geographic differences,” advised Doctoroff.

Instead, Doctoroff recommended marketers differentiate their message by age groups and income. “Cultural unity has kept China a country for 5,000 years,” he said. “As a marketer, it pays to respect that identity.”

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