What Sells In China? Security

Published on December 08, 2010

Successful mass marketing in China must appeal to the culture's deep-seated need for security, according to China expert Tom Doctoroff, '89, North Asia area director and Greater China CEO at JWT China.

The nation's 3,000 years of turbulent history, encompassing autocratic rule, brutal invasions, European imperialism, civil war, mass famine, and widespread political persecution has rendered its people cautious and averse to risk and change. Add to this the influence of Confucianism, which places family above the individual, and Daoism with its emphasis on universal order, and Westerners can understand the unique perspective of the Chinese.

"There is one absolute in China and that is stability and order," said Doctoroff, who outlined the unique challenges of marketing to Chinese consumers when he spoke to students November 19 at Harper Center. The event was sponsored by the student-led Marketing Group. "Stability needs to be reinforced at every level of being and consciousness. It's about order in the universe. Order is sublime. Order is imperative. The fundamental role of today's central government — much like the role of emperors in the past — is to make sure everything is in order."

According to Doctoroff, successful mass marketers in China use themes that foster a sense of "reassurance" for the risk-adverse Chinese and convey protection of the family, which is sacrosanct in China.

"Safeguard is the most popular brand of soap in China because its motto is, 'germs kill,' " he said. "They want a product to help them have a sense of managing one's fate — a fantasy of control." Another popular selling point is "brand guarantee" because the Chinese have "an active preference for a multi-national brand because it's assumed to be safer," he said. Professional endorsement also works well with Chinese consumers, along with the guarantee of reliable professionalized service behind a product.

When it comes to price, it's important for manufactures to get their product's "price value right" because the Chinese are "very finicky about what they pay," said Doctoroff. They also "love to bargain" and are attracted to "added benefits," such as three-in-one products like shampoo or conditioner. They also flock to "reduced pricing," whereby a higher price is stated on the package but sells for a lower price.

Another quality marketers successfully exploit is the Chinese fascination with the "glorification of the mundane," in which the everyday man can be elevated to the role of hero or superman. As a result, they are apt to take simple occasions such as weddings and turn them into grand memories. "In China, weddings are Cecil B. DeMille productions that cost an average of $20,000 U.S. dollars," said Doctoroff. "There are life-size portraits of the husband and wife. The portraits are transcendent with splashes of color everywhere."

Markets also have capitalized on one of China's great strengths, its "ability to mobilize resources on a grand scale for a national objective," he said. Pointing to the Olympics as an example of mass mobilization, he showed students an Adidas commercial portraying a multitude of Chinese people lifting an Olympic diver into the air, from where he safely dives into a sea of his open-armed countrymen. "Commercials often celebrate mobilization," he said.

Although the Chinese "have become global, they have not become Western," according to Doctoroff, author of the bestseller, Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer. "Self-expression is not growing today. Society does not encourage people as individuals."

Manuela Nicolae, a second-year student in the Full-Time MBA Program, said Doctoroff's presentation was her first exposure to Chinese culture. "I was intrigued by the fact that the Chinese have embraced globalization but they are not more Western," she said.

Kurt Davis, a full-time, first-year student, said he has been to China several times and agrees with Doctoroff's assessment of the culture. "China is modern but it's still Chinese," he said. "It's hard for people to understand that China is not going to become the United States."

— Mary Paleologos