Michael Ohlsson, a DJ and promoter, hosts monthly parties which he says poke fun at the growing consumer culture in China.
"I find a lot of ‘cool hunters’ and marketing people are looking for something that doesn’t really exist here," said Ohlsson. "I’m not being naïve… it’s just that I think people expect there’s some sort of ‘cool culture’ here but I’m pretty cynical about it.
"I get e-mails and calls from ‘cool hunters’ and marketers every week. A lot of them seem to want to more or less make it up."
Using events is a popular way of linking products to influential people. DJs, for example, can help brands link their products to the people that set the trends. Parties sponsored by alcohol companies are common.
The problem is that many of the people who organize and promote events may not fully understand the market.
Ohlsson, for example, is American. He has been in China for four years and doesn’t speak Chinese.
More than that, the Western values at the core of all these marketing approaches may be counter to traditional Chinese values.
In her upcoming book, Brand New China, Jing Wang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, notes that the "rampant consumer culture in China today is a mockery of the Communist revolution."
But, she argues, focusing on the chasm between traditional revolutionary values and modern consumer-driven growth only muddles any potential understanding of how the Chinese market operates. In her study of how brands have evolved in China, Wang has detected, among other things, a "bobo fever." This sees brands looking for a class of bourgeois bohemians in a country where the "bourgeois base is statistically small and where the bohemian equation is not existent."
She has some important pointers for advertisers looking for a foothold in China. Learning from the past and taking traditional values into consideration when marketing a product is the first lesson. For example, communal and family values are much stronger among teenagers in China than in the West.
Another factor is decorum and it applies to all cultures with a Confucian element.
"I don’t think the young people in China are as liberated as advertisers would imagine them to be," Wang observed.
Then there is appreciating that people from different regions have different habits. In southern China, for instance, people tend to appreciate a more indirect and creative approach to storytelling. In Beijing, they are "more serious about information."
Big corporations like Procter & Gamble and Nike have understood how to build on their strengths and how to localize their message. Going forward, though, Wang believes this localization is going to have to be much deeper to continue being effective.
"It used to be skin-deep localization but now they are not just talking about hiring locals to star in commercials. There is a stronger progression to localize their content."
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