Take a look at the photo on the right:
As silly as that seems to us, it’s actually quite rational for a good portion of Chinese consumers. Let me explain: in Chinese culture, eight (which sounds like “to prosper”) is a much more fortuitous number than four (which sounds “to die”). Combine that with the idea that more is always better, and you can see why eight rings must be better than four.
Of course, you generally only see such blatant (and humorous) trickery in more rural areas where fewer people are well-educated or exposed to Western trends, but that doesn’t mean the duplicity is any less serious in cosmopolitan areas. The past few years have been plagued with carcinogenic baby formulas,
an expanding (and infamous) designer knock-off market, and sometimes dangerously unhealthy pharmaceutical fillers. Even the water isn’t safe: in the picture to the left, the only difference between the fake (left) and real label is the disposal icon (incidentally, the real one indicates recyclability, while the fake calls for disposal as trash).
And that’s why, in 18 days, I’ll be lugging 50 pounds of baby formula, designer clothing, and vitamin supplements across 12 time zones to my family. The goods there just aren’t trustworthy. But very few consumers have relatives in the West who can help them circumvent these deceptions. As a result, their attitude is one of stubborn skepticism.
Here are three key aspects of the Chinese consumer mindset, along with their implications for marketers hoping to expand into the Chinese market.
The rich are willing to pay a huge premium for trusted brands. I once bought my uncle a Ralph Lauren coat for $35 at T.J. Maxx. The exact same coat sold in China for $500, which is exorbitant given the purchasing power difference. But that doesn’t stop luxury brands from flying off the shelves, because at least consumers don’t have to worry about lead poisoning from clothing dyes.
What this means for Marketing: Make sure you have a really strong reputation in your home country before considering expanding into China – it will likely be your most profitable marketing tool.
As a brand, you’re deceptive until proven trustworthy. Every time I flip to an infomercial, my aunt yells from the kitchen “Don’t fall for it! It’s a lie!”, without having even seen what was being sold. That’s the instinctive (and pervasive) skepticism towards unfamiliar brands. Demonstrating quality isn’t enough (my family, at least, would just assume it’s all digital effects) – establishing a reputation is the key to profits.
What this means for Marketing: If you’re planning on introducing a relatively new product into the Chinese market, be prepared for a loooong adoption period until you have enough people on your side. Alternatively, try partnering with a long-established, reputable brand to shortcut that period of skepticism.
The quality of knock-offs is increasingly impressive. Last year, my mother brought a designer purse from an outlet store back to China. Upon seeing it, my grandma complained: “What a waste of money – our fakes are better than these.” You see, unlike the knock-offs you find on NYC sidewalks, most Chinese fake handbags are now produced in the same factories that make the real deal. When shopping, you can even ask for “AAA” rather than “A” rated products (the latter are usually $15-$30 cheaper), depending on the authenticity.
What this means for Marketing: If your product is pricy or luxurious, be prepared to market only to the very rich. Everyone else already has high-quality alternatives (even if they can afford the real McCoy), so don’t waste your marketing dollars.
I’ll be spending most of November in China, so check back for more thoughts on Marketing in China next month. If there’s anything in particular you want me to look out for while I’m there, email me and I’ll do my best to report back to you.