Doctoroff, an American advertising exec in China for close to a decade, is Greater China CEO at the ad agency JWT and has written a book called Billions, which is the best psycho-analysis of Chinese consumers I have ever read.
It is written from the perspective of a marketing professional talking to his clients, and he walks the thin line between "starry-eyed optimism" and "self-righteous pessimism" with consummate skill.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics – which Doctoroff describes as "the most ambitious brand-building exercise in history" – is inevitably a focal point, and the ways in which foreign companies can leverage it are fully explored. In doing this, he looks at the emerging middle class and talks about the psychological approaches in advertising that work, and also those that don't work. The behavioral trends that govern purchasing decisions are identified and their origins discussed. He links all these issues back to the basics of Chinese culture, but thankfully manages to avoid too many tedious clich?s about Confucianism.
"The Confucian and dynastic heritage of China has resulted in an insecure middle class pulled in opposite directions – protection of self and projection impact of international integration, global media, and relentless economic progress, it is impossible to sweep away 'identity'," Doctoroff says. "If you wade into the world's largest and oldest market, leave assumptions on the shore. Let insight be a weapon on unfamiliar terrain; let profit spring from respect for the Middle Kingdom's unique civilization and magnificent heritage."
There is a fascinating section on the differences between consumer psychology in the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong/Taiwan (How many commercials do I shoot?). Doctoroff does a good job of dissecting the Chinese woman. He analyzes well the needs, desires and other psychological buttons of the Chinese consumer (security and stability, etc) and contrasts them with the equivalent Western consumer buttons. We are all the same, but we are all different.
At every step, he ties his points to specific examples relating to top brands, from the brilliant to the wince-inducing (Toyota had one ad showing two Chinese stone lions bowing before its latest model).
If you are not looking to sell FMCGs (fast-moving consumer goods) into the China market, some of the detail and practical information provided may be unnecessary. But if you have a product you are trying to pitch at any level of Chinese consumer, Billions is well worth a flip through. You will learn something.
Billions has joined the select group of China books that I recommend to people – the others are Jim McGregor's One Billion Customers, Tim Clissold's Mr China, and Peter Hessler's River Town. I would expect James Kynge's China Shakes the World to make the cut, but I haven't read it yet.
Billions by Tom Doctoroff, published by Palgrave Macmillan. List price: US$27.95
Excerpt: Only just begun
Some commentators suggest we are living at the start of the Chinese century. This is perhaps a bit much. As Morton Abramowitz concluded years ago in a critique of Asian triumphalism, economic strength is not enough. "In an interdependent world," he wrote, "those that aspire to lend their name to centuries must also have political strengths and value systems that enable them to project influence persuasively." On a diplomatic plane, the PRC is increasingly proud but still insubstantial. It will remain so until the Communist Party cedes its monopoly on power. Furthermore, enduring leadership – both economic and political – is lubricated by "responsive innovation", a quality nurtured only in democracies and societies rooted in individualism.
There is no question, however, that the rise of China – and industrially, it will rise bumpily yet steadily – heralds a fundamental financial, diplomatic, and psychological realignment of historic proportions. Not since the debut of industrial America after World War I has the world seen such a drastic reshuffling of the economic deck. The Middle Kingdom's commercial potential is huge. Moreover, the country boasts both a seemingly endless supply of cheap migrant labor and increasing success in high-end sectors such as microprocessing and component design. I'll leave it to the scholars and consultants to quantify this two-headed dragon's impact on global prices, labor markets and output. Suffice it to say the upheaval is vast. By 2020, the Chinese juggernaut will both threaten and enhance the livelihood of everyone, even the most inward-looking, Wal-Mart-loving evangelist in George W. Bush's red America.
We have been given an incredibly rare and special gift. Every year, approximately ten million Chinese enter the hallowed ranks of the middle class. The growth has only just begun. A flattening slope is decades away. In large ways and small, the Chinese market battleground is chaotic. It is muddy and unformed. There are a few power brands – Pepsi, Nike, Rejoice, Safeguard, Olay, and McDonald's – but not many. The opportunity for both local and international marketers to define and own consumer desires is wide open. With courage, investment and respect for China's culture and worldview, the gold ring – ownership of the category benefit – is still within reach. We hope more focused, savvy corporate heroes stand up and grab it.