Lessons Western marketers should learn about the changing consumer in China

China: changing at breakneck speed
China: changing at breakneck speed

When you are living and breathing the China market, it's often easy to forget the breakneck speed with which it changes, writes Chris Dobson, creative strategy director, Imagination APAC.

Preparing a presentation last week for the ‘Profiting from experiences’ seminar at Imagination London prompted me to re-look at China, and also prompted something of an epiphany.

While it may be true that China’s days of double digit super-growth may be behind it, the consumer revolution is just picking up speed and the future looks exciting for brands that are willing to adapt and innovate to get ahead.

Why do I say this?

In 1990 only 26% of Chinese people lived in cities, today it’s 52%, by 2020 it will be 60% or some 850 million people. And these cities are changing. Most major cities now have growing, or fledgling metro systems that are turning today’s urban sprawls into more cohesive cities. This is helping to close the gap between people and brands – making them more relevant, and readily accessible.

And the people in them are changing too. In the next 10 years some 160 million people will enter the urban upper middle classes - that’s almost the entire size of today’s mass middle and upper middle classes combined. These are the people who will fuel China’s growth – buying the higher value products and services that will drive the Chinese economy forward.

But things won’t come easy

People in the West tend to think and talk about China in the singular, like ‘England’ or ‘France’. When you are talking about a country covering 10 million square kMs, containing 20% of the world’s population living in 22 provinces, each completely distinct from each other in terms of culture, sense of humour, cuisines, histories (and in many instances, language). You can’t just read a book and write ‘China’ on your strategy slide and expect it to work.

Advertising scores back this up. Recent research by Millward Brown shows the chances of having an ad score well on basic metrics like ‘enjoyment’ in two cities is only 52%. Between Tier One cities it is even more pronounced. Between Shanghai and Beijing it’s only 38% - that’s less than between two European countries (62%). 

So, how do you get ahead?

Well, and this is kind of obvious, the first thing is to accept that China is different, and – hard though this is to accept (deep breath people) - in many ways one-step ahead of the West. Without the baggage (physical or emotional) of our consumer history, China is writing its own future.

While we’ve been complaining about the death of the High Street, China has become the world’s largest e-commerce market, growing 71% between 2009-2012 (compared to only 13% in the US) and should have over 10% of total retail sales happening online in the next five years.

While we’ve been arguing about media buys, China has given birth to an online content business worth over $1bn a year that sees 750m people viewing content online.

Here are five things that I would encourage anyone serious about China to keep in mind.

1) Be prepared to innovate: Forget what you think you know, and approach everything with an open mind.

2) Really embrace storytelling: China is a land of stories, myths and legends. Stories are emotional. They transcend provinces. They make connections. Where people might not understand an ad, they will understand a beautifully crafted story, engage with it, and share it.

This master brand campaign for Pepsi celebrating Chinese New Year is a great example, garnering over 100m views in the first week, and over 500m total views. The thing is, it’s 25 minutes long. So, 500 million people (US population: 313m) took the conscious decision to sit down and watch a 25 minute TVC.

3) Socially amplify: 564m internet users, 600m social media users, 88% active, 46 minutes daily average, 66% follow brands, 50% visit an e-commerce site direct from social media. Do you need me to go on?

4) Have an e-commerce strategy: In a country the size of China that is so well connected (over 78% of Chinese villages have broadband access) if you aren’t accessible online, you don’t exist. Make it easy for people.

5) Invest in experiences: Experiences create memories that are more powerful than any ad could.

Experiences shape perceptions and behaviours.

If you are a consumer brand, invest in experiences that bring your brand to life (for a great example, look at the Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai) and invest in the people that represent your brand. If you are a B2B brand, think about experiences that will make your brand more valuable; that bring to life your heritage, innovation investment, quality and safety in a meaningful way.

The coming years will see the truly creative, and innovative rise to the top. The big question is, are you up for it?

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