(De)Constructing a Culture
Kate Fitzgerald Account Executive

Kate Fitzgerald
Account Executive


It's very easy for companies to be drawn to the booming Chinese market. 

Little do they know the task at hand...

What are the main components we consider when devising a marketing strategy? Almost always, first and foremost, we determine our target audience; our demographic. The product or service we are advertising usually gives us a good indication of the type of person we are targeting: gender, age, pay gap etc. This, in turn, lends itself to the tone we use, the images chosen, the mediums through which we broadcast and most importantly the message we want to portray.

But what happens when you’re faced with an entirely different language and culture?

Due to the meteoric rise of the Chinese economy ($11 trillion GDP), companies have been becoming increasingly interested in bringing their business there. But this has consistently proven to be a complicated endeavor for many reasons.

Attempts to create a globally consumable brand is a near to impossible feat. Changing a product or service to cater for the locality’s needs or tastes risks destroying the qualities that made the brand desirable when it was first created. Whereas keeping a brand’s heritage intact when it enters a new market is very likely to mean that marketers need to retain characteristics that root it in the culture from whence it came.

Some brand marketers continue to attempt to create campaigns that transcend cultural barriers, but the reality is almost everything about the brand should be reconsidered for the Chinese market.

We have all seen the plethora of advertising blunders sweeping the internet that have occurred due to things being lost in translation. KFC, China’s most successful fast-food restaurant, reportedly got it pretty wrong when translating its slogan ‘Finger-Lickin’ Good’ for the local Market. According to various accounts, it translated to ‘Eat Your Fingers Off’.

In what seems to be a similarly lazy attempt at translation, when Pepsi expanded their market to China, they launched with the slogan, ‘Pepsi Brings You Back To Life’. Unfortunately, in Chinese, this was more along the lines of ‘Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From The Dead’.

Translation into Chinese is very complicated. The very bases of the structure of the Chinese languages do not lend themselves to being easily translated. From a linguistic perspective, English and Chinese are entirely different. In Chinese, there is no letter case, plural forms or even tenses; A tense is implied by adding new words to a sentence. In fact, the same Chinese character may convey very different meanings when combined with other characters.

On top of all this, take into account that there are several versions of the language: Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu. It is a combination of all these intricacies that makes navigating the Chinese market a delicate venture.

The consumer landscape in China has been hugely influenced by the tidal wave of social sharing that has become so integral in the lives of its inhabitants. In previous generations, status had always been an underpinning driver for most of Chinese consumption but things have changed, drastically. Shareable, Instagram-able experiences are the new currency of trade. In response, businesses have no choice but to roll out the most captivating experiences they can muster.

Self-respecting Chinese have been taught through their heritage to live stayed, straight-laced, hard-working lives. However, due to a much wider exposure to the global mindset in comparison to previous generations, consumers are increasingly seeking temporary escapes from their ‘responsible Chinese life’.

There is a market for out-of-the-ordinary experiences. There is a rise of individualism and these consumers are eager to collect unique and novel experiences. If we also consider the increase in usage of Ephemeral content (Instagram stories, Snapchat), everyone is consistently concerned with collecting share-worthy experiences every hour of the day.

In reply to this thirst for unique experience, the landscape of Customer Experience in Asia has become somewhat of a spectacle. Brands are creating what can only be described as playgrounds for adults. Urban spaces where city-dwellers can gather and unwind, learn skills, meet like-minded people, share experiences and most importantly have fun.

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Chinese news agency Xinhua recently opened the longest elevated bike path in the world in the city of Xiamen. It is five miles long and 16 feet wide and has garnered the agency exposure of enormous proportions.

Another strategy that is harnessing this renaissance of self-expression is openly addressing issues that aren’t freely spoken about in China. This will draw the perpetually increasing portion of the Chinese market that wants to feel rebellious.

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Earlier this year at a bookstore in Hong Kong, Amnesty International launched a range of books for sale with blacked out passages to call attention to censorship in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, which is part of China but has a separate political system, has strict laws prohibiting freedom of expression.

An aspect of the Chinese psyche that has been utilized in the creation of its marketing strategies for decades is an addiction to and obsession with making their lives as effortless as possible. The on-demand sensibility is infiltrating every industry in the country.

The customer experience relies heavily on convenience. In such a crowded country where people have an extremely infallible work ethic and often have little spare time, the experiences they wish to incur in that spare time must not waste it. 94% of Chinese online shoppers shop via mobile. Consumers are so accustomed to having these services at their literal fingertips, that they have now developed an expectation for all brands to be just as immediate and effective.

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It's easy for us to ignorantly presume that Google and Facebook rule supreme in China just as they do here. However, this is most certainly not the case. 75% of all first-stage research is conducted via Baidu, China’s number one search engine. For those marketing in China, their websites need to be built with Baidu in mind and the SEO needs to be modified with Mandarin Character keywords in mind.

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Similarly, WeChat is the undisputed dominant social tool in Mainland China. It has over 860 million active monthly users. This is, essentially, the Facebook of China and its inclusion would be paramount in any marketing strategy aimed at Chinese consumers.

So where do you begin? A good place to start would be enlisting the right researchers, advisers and translators. A westerner’s perceived idea of what may attract the Chinese consumer is more than likely going to miss the mark.

Ideally, enlisting local professionals and experts would keep the message from being lost in translation. This ensures a successful, meaningful campaign. But it’s also important to consider, does your product/service apply to these particular consumers?

Just because China is an extremely viable market shouldn’t be the only reason you decide to market internationally. There also has to be more than just relevance, there has to be a genuine investment of interest. You need to treat this market as you would a client by taking into account their every need and tailoring their every campaign personally.

A marketing campaign geared towards China should respectfully gain an understanding of the culture and forge a holistic strategy with a different national psyche in mind. 


If you enjoyed this, check out some of my other pieces!

On Ephemeral Content and The Curated Self.

On finding our happy place through VR Travel.

On how we're changing whom and why we trust. 

On the evolution of social media becoming less isolating. 

On the digitization of smells:

On storytelling through VR.


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