Just finished reading Tom Doctoroff’s book, What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and the Modern Chinese Consumer. I knew I would love it and I did. I knew I would love it because I’ve been reading Doctoroff’s Huffington Post posts for years and I have found him easily to be one of the most insightful people regarding the Chinese consumer. I like him for two main reasons. First, I never get the sense that his conclusions regarding the Chinese consumer or even China in general are tempered by a desire “to sell tickets.” What I mean by that is that I think he calls it like he sees it, rather than manipulating things so as to push China as a consumer destination so as to increase business for JWT, the mega-advertising agency for which he is the China CEO. Second, he doesn’t just follow the crowd when it comes to analyzing China. Much of what he says is truly his own, and even when I am not seeing what he is seeing, his analysis always seems sound. In other words, the guy is good.
And so is his book. And so is its main thesis.
The thesis of the book is that no matter how much China’s consumers appear to be becoming more “Western,” they remains distinctly Chinese. And since China’s consumers are China’s people, I would add that this remains true of the country as a whole. I will also add, that this is a value-neutral statement.
I actually find it strange that people would think otherwise. Though the world is becoming more global the culture that countries (not just China) have developed over thousands of years do not simply disappear upon using an iPhone. How many truly bi-cultural people do you know? By this I mean the person who can truly seamlessly meld with more than one culture? How many do you know who are truly Chinese/American bi-cultural? I know less than ten. Ask a Chinese person who spent a long time in the United States whether they think of themselves as Chinese or American or both and see how many say both? I have yet to get that answer? Ask an American who has lived in China for a long time the same thing, and again, I will bet that none of them say both? Why is that? Because cultures are relatively immutable. Again, that is a value-neutral statement, though I personally am glad that is the case as I think the world would be a lot more boring if everyone were the same. David Brooks spoke of this in a recent column on Bruce Springsteen, entitled, The Politics of the Particular:
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
(Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
But I digress.
Doctoroff does not pretend China is going to be America any time soon and he urges companies to act accordingly. China’s consumers are becoming increasingly modern and international, but they are now and will remain uniquely Chinese. Doctoroff himself described both his book and the Chinese consumer in an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, What Chinese Consumers Want:
Understanding China’s consumer culture is a good starting point for understanding the nation itself, as it races toward superpower status. Though the country’s economy and society are evolving rapidly, the underlying cultural blueprint has remained more or less constant for thousands of years. China is a Confucian society, a quixotic combination of top-down patriarchy and bottom-up social mobility. Citizens are driven by an ever-present conflict between standing out and fitting in, between ambition and regimentation. In Chinese society, individuals have no identity apart from obligations to, and acknowledgment by, others. The clan and nation are the eternal pillars of identity. Western individualism — the idea of defining oneself independent of society — doesn’t exist.
Various youth subtribes intermittently bubble to the surface — see the recent rise of “vegetable males” (Chinese metrosexuals) and “Taobao maniacs” (aficionados of the auction website Taobao). But self-expression is generally frowned upon, and societal acknowledgment is still tantamount to success. Liberal arts majors are considered inferior to graduates with engineering or accounting degrees. Few dare to see a psychologist for fear of losing “face” — the respect or deference of others — or being branded sick. Failure to have a child is a grave disappointment.
The speed with which China’s citizens have embraced all things digital is one sign that things are in motion in the country. But e-commerce, which has changed the balance of power between retailers and consumers, didn’t take off until the Chinese need for reassurance was satisfied. Even when transactions are arranged online, most purchases are completed in person, with shoppers examining the product and handing over their cash offline.
Even digital self-expression needs to be safe, cloaked in anonymity. Social networking sites such as Sina Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter), Renren and Kaixing Wang (Chinese versions of Facebook) have exploded. But users hide behind avatars and pseudonyms. A survey conducted by the advertising firm JWT, where I work, and IAC, the Internet holding company, found that less than a third of young Americans agreed with the statement “I feel free to do and say things [online] I wouldn’t do or say offline,” and 41% disagreed. Among Chinese respondents, 73% agreed, and just 9% disagreed.
Chinese at all socioeconomic levels try to “win” — that is, climb the ladder of success — while working within the system, not against it. In Chinese consumer culture, there is a constant tension between self-protection and displaying status. This struggle explains the existence of two seemingly conflicting lines of development. On the one hand, we see stratospheric savings rates, extreme price sensitivity and aversion to credit card interest payments. On the other, there is the Chinese fixation with luxury goods and a willingness to pay as much as 120% of one’s yearly income for a car.
According to Doctoroff, brands in China need to follow three rules.
Rule one is that products consumed in public can consume premium prices if they publicly convey status. Chinese consumers spend on luxury goods not for their inherent beauty or craftsmanship, but as status investments. The Chinese consumer with a $1500 pen may very well be unwilling to spend more than a dollar on a pair of underwear. And that leads to the second rule:
The second rule is that the benefits of a product should be external, not internal. Even for luxury goods, celebrating individualism — with familiar Western notions like “what I want” and “how I feel” — doesn’t work in China. Automobiles need to make a statement about a man on his way up. BMW, for example, has successfully fused its global slogan of the “ultimate driving machine” with a Chinese-style declaration of ambition.
Sometimes the difference between internal versus external payoffs can be quite subtle. Spas and resorts do better when they promise not only relaxation but also recharged batteries. Infant formulas must promote intelligence, not happiness. Kids aren’t taken to Pizza Hut so that they can enjoy pizza; they are rewarded with academic “triumph feasts.” Beauty products must help a woman “move forward.” Even beer must do something. In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.
Emotional payoffs must be practical, even in matters of the heart. Valentine’s Day is almost as dear to the Chinese as the Lunar New Year, but they view it primarily as an opportunity for men to demonstrate their worthiness and commitment. In the U.S., De Beers’ slogan, “A Diamond is Forever,” glorifies eternal romance. In China, the same tagline connotes obligation, a familial covenant — rock solid, like the stone itself.
The last rule for positioning your brand in China is to address the Chinese consumers “need to navigate the crosscurrents of ambition and regimentation, of standing out while fitting in.”
Men want to succeed without violating the rules of the game, which is why wealthier individuals prefer Audis or BMWs over flashy Maseratis.
Luxury buyers want to demonstrate mastery of the system while remaining understated, hence the appeal of Mont Blanc’s six-point logo or Bottega Veneta’s signature cross weave–both conspicuously discreet. Young consumers want both stylishness and acceptance, so they opt for more conventionally hip fashion brands like Converse and Uniqlo.
Chinese parents are drawn to brands promising “stealthy learning” for their children: intellectual development masked as fun. Disney will succeed more as an educational franchise — its English learning centers are going gangbusters — than as a theme park. McDonald’s restaurants, temples of childhood delight in the West, have morphed into scholastic playgrounds in China: Happy Meals include collectible Snoopy figurines wearing costumes from around the world, while the McDonald’s website, hosted by Professor Ronald, offers Happy Courses for multiplication. Skippy peanut butter combines “delicious peanut taste” and “intelligent sandwich preparation.”
Even China’s love affair with Christmas — with big holiday sales and ubiquitous seasonal music, even in Communist Party buildings — advances a distinctly Chinese agenda. Santa is a symbol of progress; he represents the country’s growing comfort with a new global order, one into which it is determined to assimilate, without sacrificing the national interest. The holiday has become a way to project status in a culture in which individual identity is inextricably linked to external validation.
If you are seeking to sell to China, Doctoroff’s book is literally a must-read. No question about it. If you are doing business with China, you really cannot afford not to read it either. Get it now. Seriously.
I don’t purport to be a branding expert nor an expert on China’s consumer culture, but what Doctoroff says certainly seems to jibe with what I have seen and heard. Do you also agree with Doctoroff?