Chinese businesses and consumers have on their hands similar channels of communication as we do in the UK. However, did you know they are often used in slightly different ways than in the UK? Here are some of the subtle but important differences:
- Face to face is still the best way to establish new and nurture existing relationships. Nothing builds a relationship more than seeing each other face to face, having a meal, or even singing some drunken Karaoke together (yes, the socialising bit is important when doing business with the Chinese people and we will cover more in our course). The key thing is to remember that it takes time to build relationships and it’s more the case when doing business with Chinese people. Invest time in building the relationships before you expect the return (read more in my blog Lessons learnt expanding to China’s Tier 1 cities).
- Mobiles – One thing different about Chinese businessmen is that many of them answer their mobiles wherever they are, whatever they are doing – in a meeting, at the dinner table, on holiday or at a family gathering. I was once told by a recruiter friend that a Chinese HR manager picked up the phone during an interview with a candidate and was on it for over 20 minutes. Not great if you were the candidate, but the point is, if you are trying to reach your Chinese clients/partners/agents urgently, you have a better chance in reaching them on mobile than you do in the UK.
- Emails – you may see even in some larger, well established companies, employees still use their own private email account for business use. As a result, email addresses can often change due to excessive spams and you may not be notified about it.
- Social Media – the Chinese are constantly on Social Media, especially through mobile devices (you are probably aware that Chinese Mobile Internet users have already over taken desktop users back in 2012). They use it more and they are also influenced by it more (as they are deemed a more reliable source having come from friends and family). In our recent China Online Marketing talk, our speaker Arnold Ma from Qumin showed us a really interesting app which Durex developed to engage Chinese consumers on WeChat. The app is an art gallery where visitors can walk around and view different artworks. Each artwork is tied to a Durex product. Visitors can go to the store within the app and purchase products directly from their phones. There are also gamification elements in it (and it’s a big thing for the Chinese), for example, visitors can collect keys and open doors which will then take them to other parts of the art gallery.
In short, Chinese social media are a dominant platform to reach Chinese businesses and consumers, so make sure it’s part of your marketing strategy!
With 5,000 years of history, Chinese culture exerts an enormous influence and explains a lot about how the Chinese do business today. An understanding of China’s Business mentality and etiquette can help you avoid unnecessary misunderstandings, build relationships quicker, and maximise business opportunities. What are the key differences in business environment, Chinese mentality and how do you navigate around them to deepen your Chinese business relationships? Here are some of the key points (and we will cover more in full detail in our upcoming Survival BUSINESS phrases – Mandarin taster on 25th September 2018 at 19.00):
- Guanxi – In the west, we say ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. This captures the essence of Guanxi in Chinese. In English, the term means having a fantastic set of contacts. Without Guanxi, ie. with the right introductions, it will be especially hard to get to the top decision makers in China as the Chinese much prefer to do business with the people they know. In the past, Guanxi is essential for getting a job, seeing a good doctor etc. It is no longer as critical now but in general, it’s still an extremely important way to get things done in China, in personal life and in business. To do business successfully in China, you need to build a strong Guanxi chain. Nurturing a good relationship/Guanxi via sharing a meal and thoughtful gift giving are basic practice in China. We will cover this in detail plus other useful Chinese characteristics in our Survival BUSINESS phrases – Mandarin taster on 25th September 2018 at 19.00.
- Banqueting – Nurturing Guanxi is vital, so people need to socialise. The meal plays an important role in doing business in China. Banquets are often hosted at lavish restaurants to welcome Western guests. The head of each party is usually expected to give a speech and toasting with Chinese wine is a part of the occasion. In Chinese, we call a business dinner ‘fanju’ (饭局),which literally means a dinner plan or strategy – it’s something that’s planned to achieve the desired business results. There are Chinese books on how one can best plan a ‘fanju’– a testament to the importance of the dinner in doing business in China even for the Chinese themselves. A quick note on the dinner, if you are hosting, your Chinese guests are likely to interpret the price of the meal as how sincere you are about the business relationship – it’s also associated with the concept of ‘giving face’ (explained below), Where do you have to sit at a banquet? Do you have to finish everything on the plate as demonstrated in a HSBC advert?
- Gift Giving – Do you know that it’s a big taboo to give a clock, or a watch as a gift to the Chinese people? This is because in Chinese, the word ‘clock’ sounds like the word ‘funeral’ and when you give a clock to someone, it sounds like you are ‘attending to their funeral’ in Chinese! It’s considered very unlucky and we can get quite offended. Sadly, these small (but quite unpleasant) misunderstandings are still happening, for example, earlier this year the British Transport Minister presented the mayor of Taiwan a watch on her visit and unsurprisingly it was not very warmly received (you can read more about it here). Things like this highlighted the importance of some fundamental knowledge of the Chinese culture when doing business with the Chinese people. What other gifts can be sensitive to your Chinese counterparts? We will explain in detail with real life case studies on the 9th.
- Face – The Chinese concept of ‘Face’ concerns the image or credibility of the person you are dealing with. For the Chinese, it’s important to maintain a good, external image. In business, ‘giving face’ to someone could mean to compliment a member of staff in front of his boss, arriving a meeting with an immaculate suit to show your respect, or hosting a very nice banquet dinner as mentioned before. Face is also linked with hierarchy, respecting someone’s rank or status. This is has implications on how you address your Chinese associates and where people sit during a banquet for example.
We will help you to compare and understand more differences in the Chinese way of doing things, pitfalls and ways to navigate around them in the Survival BUSINESS phrases – Mandarin taster on 25th September 2018 at 19.00.
4 senior members from CRCC Asia, Bank of China, Active Anglo Chinese Communications and Davica HR gathered at a recent China Unbound event to discuss how we can build more successful cross-cultural teams and collaborations. Here are highlights of the event!
Q: Is there a difference between privately owned organisation’s in China and State Owned Organisations in terms of the way people behave?
“Yes I feel UK SMEs generally behave more like privately owned organisations in China and UK large corporates are similar to State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in China.” Yintong Bester, MD of Active Anglo Chinese Comumnications says.
“Having said that, it is important to try to empathise and understand each company’s background that you are working with, and work out what defines success for them.” Edward Pearce, Director of CRCC Asia adds.
“Particularly with SOEs, they might have some targets that are not necessarily related to making more money. It may be about keeping people employed or sorting out some other potential future problems.”
“On the other hand, for many small Chinese companies that I met that could potentially list on AIM, it’s the listing process, the successful listing, that is their success. That means either they got a big pay out or they got fleet of cars, or they got their new factory etc. It is not necessarily successfully running this business for 10 years.”
Bester further observes, “It’s not consistent, some companies you find they take a very structured approach, develop their business step by step, and very focused. Then with other companies, they come up with an idea and off they go! Chinese companies I have dealt with can be so different, they are less consistent than the companies in the UK in my experience. I feel it’s a transitional stage in China now.”
To see how we can help you build your China business: Survival BUSINESS phrases – Mandarin taster on 25th September 2018 at 19.00.Read More
How do we successfully engage Chinese consumers? I spoke to a good friend and China veteran Ben McMillan for some tips. Ben spent 10 years in China, photographing China’s explosive growth story and set up his own media production company, Beijing Photospace. BPS went on to become one of the leading production houses in China, supporting clients such as American Vogue, Sony Pictures and Mercedes.
1) Tell us about your fascinating business, journalist and photography background! How do they help you understand how to engage with Chinese consumers?
Well those are different disciplines and experiences, and they’ve given me a very rounded exposure to China. On photography first, a picture speaks a thousand words and to take one for a Chinese advertiser, or commercial client, by definition requires successfully meeting their expectations. But the thing with photography is you don’t get things like a scale drawing, or a precise model for the product you deliver. Instead you have to connect with your client’s vision and understanding of their whole brand and customer base. So it’s a super direct exposure to the world and aesthetic view of the culture from which your client is from. And in my case that helped me learn a great deal about China.
Journalism also had great relevance to photography and business in China because so much of the standard support you get in London – access to locations like a roof top, processes in place to get permits to shoot – just don’t exist there. So you have to draw on other skills. Finding out processes and passing tests and making connections. As for setting up a business in China, again it teaches you an awful lot about a culture and community. And that’s what consumers are! Many expats live in China but most inhabit exclusive, gated compound homes and their office and a bunch of plane and hotel interiors. That’s really different from drawing the story of a culture out of people, from all levels of society, and in all kinds of locations. In their comfort zone not yours … eye to eye.
2) You said it’s important to understand how the UK is perceived in order to engage Chinese consumers successfully, why is that?
National identity really matters in marketing into any community. Think of the Marlboro Man back in the eighties and nineties. The rugged cowboy who smoked Marlboro cigarettes. In one image the product was entirely wrapped up in a range of positive brand messages about the USA that people could immediately understand. Space, bravery, freedom, manliness … conquering the American West and so on. It was aspirational and worked because the audience in the west had grown up watching cowboy movies. So we could connect all those dots ourselves, in a heartbeat.
So with UK, the question is … what dots do Chinese consumers connect about the UK in a heartbeat?
Is there an entry point of cultural understanding you can link your product to that will resonate? And if there isn’t, or if there’s a less desirable association about the culture from which you come, how can you rebalance that? How can you reinvent?
I’ll address this further in the talk but I appreciate a response to that might be, ‘why try to link a product to a national identity at all’? A washing machine is a washing machine, and paint is a paint. Why should it matter to the consumer where products come from? But in many ways I don’t think that’s the case with China.
In China, every interaction with everyone and everything is defined by national identity.
Every taxi driver wants to know where you’re from, and they process that information against how you act, appear and past cases they’ve known. And if they can, every market seller will try and sell a product on the back of where it’s made. And usually … not China!
And up to a macro level, China as a state commissions foreign expertise in every major industrial field in order to learn from them, and nations have been partnered, or not, due to very specific historic frameworks and modes of perception. In the case of the UK, the Chinese business world associates us with good management, law, finance, education and personal investment, especially property.
But Chinese consumers have a hard time putting their finger on what the UK is good at.
They like the premiership football league, for example, but know it’s full of foreign players. Whereas by comparison, Germany is clearly identified with strong leadership and good manufacturing, especially cars. And their football team knows how to win! So it adds up. Equally with the USA … movies communicate so much about technology and a fast-paced, can-do society…buildings are shiny and modern. Whereas Britain, with the royal parades, neo-gothic houses of parliament and movies about butlers and Duchesses … we make the UK look so conservative, while in reality, with pop music, fashion, art, F1, defence, computer gaming … the UK is anything but!
We have so much to offer so it’s worth understanding those domestic perceptions before you spend money trying to tackle them, or in other cases, leverage them.
3) What are the 3 common perceptions, or misconceptions about the China market as you see it from your own experience?
China is much larger than the whole EU and just as diverse, so the first common perception, or misconception, is that China is one market. On the surface it is, in regulatory terms … but even that’s a stretch.
The reality of China is that the provinces are far more autonomous and independent than outsiders appreciate.
The big show meetings of the ruling party in Beijing are a by-product of that. It’s not just a post-Soviet presentational paradigm … but part of a constant effort by the centre to remind the wider country that they’re still there, and ultimately in charge. But in reality deals are done on such a scale across China, Beijing can’t possibly know what’s going on everywhere. Outsiders think China is run with a rod of iron from an all-knowing Beijing centre and it’s just not the case.
So if you want to partner with a company in Guangzhou, it’s the culture and regulations of Guangzhou you need to know about. Not just those of the central Government in Beijing.
And that follows through to the second and the third perception. That China’s economic success in the past 20-30 years is down to inspired central Government leadership when in my view, it was actually more the centre lifting restrictions and just getting out of the way. Which is where a lot of issues come from now. Today the centre is trying to manage a slowing down when it had nothing much to do with the growth that occurred in the first place, and doesn’t understand how it works as a consequence. Not to the extent that we would imagine a Bank of England of US Treasury department would. It was organic in many ways, once the ‘reform and opening up’ program was begun under Deng Xiaoping in the late seventies.
And finally modernisation.
It’s so easy to see sky scrapers and modern buildings in China as proof of a modernised society, in depth.
But that masks the fact that Chinese society is massively diverse in terms of internationalisation and awareness of global business practices. In China, you encounter people from all corners of a far wider economic, educational and cultural landscape than any Western nation.
So the mental world view of a person you are dealing from one meeting to the next can be very different. The fact you may be doing several such meetings in one day in an awe-inspiring 70 story tower has absolutely nothing to do with it. Many other important issues I’d like to talk about at the event on the 21st trickle down from these factors.
4) You lived in China for 10 years without speaking fluent Chinese, how easy is it to get by without speak Chinese?
I don’t speak fluent Mandarin, but of course I do have basic language skills that were essential. But while I was able to get around town and order food, pay bills and so on, yes I wasn’t able to have lengthy discussions. I was also travelling around China by myself, on jobs, like shooting Chongqing for a major feature for The Guardian in around 2006.
And really, looking back, the answer is confidence. Confidence, patience and anticipating where a communication problem might happen and proactively managing that, in advance. For example, printing your hotel address before you travel, so the taxi driver has that. Then from the car you can phone ahead and ask the hotel staff to tell the driver where you are going, to make sure. It’s a lot about logistics on a street level basis, and in terms of meetings and serious conversation, all my clients had English speaking staff.
Speaking Mandarin plays a much more important role in showing respect and commitment, and helps a great deal in relating to people and understanding their culture.
But you will find your clients don’t need to have long, complex conversations in Mandarin to establish that. Showing willingness to absorb Chinese culture at first is most important.
I never spoke perfect Mandarin, but I always did when meeting people for the first time. And I used key words and phrases, selectively, at the right moment to confirm I understood an agreement or a plan from both sides.
An appropriate use of a Mandarin phrase says so much more about what you know about China, than any amount of contractual commitments in written documents.
It shows you’ve taken time. You’ve understood and listened and had the respect to give that time and attention. If you’ve not taken that time, how trustworthy can you be, long-term? And always, always, end by saying thank you in Mandarin.
5) What is the one advice you most want to share with businesses looking to reach Chinese consumers?
Spend time in China. If you’re a decision maker, do a trip and make free time. Even a day if that’s all you can manage. Watch TV. Wander some shopping malls by yourself. Get a meal by yourself. The menu’s all have pictures! Look at advertising on the street. You don’t have to understand Mandarin to see a car ad is a car ad. Or a phone ad is a phone ad. Get a local SIM card and you’ll probably get adverts by SMS and some cold calls. Listen to the tone of delivery, the style of the voice. Is it male or female? Why?
Learn what you’re trying to participate in and break into.
As the oldest continuous history on earth, with the size of its territory, borders, population and history for isolationism … China is a different market from anywhere else.
There are lots of nuances about selling into China … how your product is perceived, if it’s perhaps associated with a country or part of the world.
At least 33.3% of the game is just getting personal affinity not just with reports and focus studies and whatever, but some practical experience.
You need to have some grasp, some reference point, for what you’re being told by staff or clients and partners. And you won’t get that simply by attending meetings and dinners.
You need to let China connect with yourself.
It will make a difference. The point is people in China do not differentiate business practice from the rest of life or their world view. When you get your head around that, it’s unusual, and it’s a big deal.
4 senior members from CRCC Asia, Bank of China, Active Anglo Chinese Communications and Davica HR gathered at a China Unbound event to compare UK and Chinese’s approach to leadership and how we can build more successful cross-cultural teams and fruitful collaborations. Here’s part 2 of 4 of our post-event highlight (UK vs Chinese Leadership)!
Q: If you are working with Chinese partners or agents, how do you get international collaboration?
A: “It is very important to learn what the structure is like in China, and how to work the hierarchy system. Nurture the relationship and show people respect is very important for a long term business.” Yintong Betser, MD, Active Anglo Chinese Communications explains.
You must also make sure that you are talking to the right person. As often there are junior line managers involved in the process – build relationships with them to get things done, but make sure you are talking to the senior managers if you need decisions made.
We should also realise that often the decision isn’t actually made here in the UK. The Chinese companies are massive in China, but they are a smaller operation here, and they don’t necessarily have the autonomy. So helping the managers here to send the right messages back so the right answer comes back is important. Claire Martin, Director of Davica HR adds.
Edward Pearce, Director of CRCC Asia adds: “The role of the government is also very important. Especially if you work with State Owned Enterprises.”
“A lot of UK organisations go into China and expect instant results. But you have to be patient and open minded.” Bester says. “For example, is common sense international? My British colleagues will say, of course! But is it? If your boss is supposed to chair a meeting but they are running late, would you go ahead and start the meeting? To the Chinese, the common sense is not to start. But in the English culture, to be punctual probably is more the common sense. So it is always a different interpretation.”
“Another example is how age is viewed. In the Chinese Culture, older can mean more responsible, more caring, so can be positive sentiments. But in the UK – people can get very upset if you tell them they are old!”
So things can be interpreted from different cultural references in China. Knowing these basics help build stronger relationships and are fundamental to effective business strategies as you cannot sell to someone effectively if you don’t understand the world from their point of view.
Enjoy this? Read the rest of the series here: Part 1 UK vs Chinese leadership, Part 3 Motivating Chinese employees, Part 4 differences between privately owned vs State Owned Organisations
China Unbound specialise in helping business people do better business with China using two primary drivers – Language and Culture. Their happy clients include professionals from Grant Thornton, Crowe Clark Whitehill and SB Wealth Management. www.china-unbound.co.ukRead More
On 16 June 2015, China Unbound hosted a China marketing talk with some of UK’s largest and reputable China marketing specialist agencies Qumin, Builtvisible and Shi Shi Ishi on China social media, SEO & branding. In this post, I interviewed one of our speakers Owain Lloyd Williams from BuiltVisible. I was curious about his experience in China and any advice he can share with us about marketing to the Chinese online from his time there.
How did you first get into marketing in China?
I suppose the first taste of experience I had with marketing in China was when I was an English teacher for various schools in a city called Liuzhou, in Guangxi Province, and in Beijing. This began as “traditional” marketing such as hopping around town doing demo classes and organising promotional events and extra-curricular activities, and I also had creative control over the website and newsletter of one of the schools I worked for. Once I shifted into the journalism industry in China, it was then that it went 100% online and I was soon marrying up my editorial and writing work with platforms such as Weibo and of course Baidu.
What did you find as the main differences in the online environment compared to the UK?
The staggering rate at which things are evolving, emerging and progressing in various levels of Chinese society is truly reflected in its social media and greater online environment. I think if we look at Twitter over here and then look at Sina Weibo for example, things are certainly cranked up a notch when it comes to the speed at which things go viral, the ever-changing nature of what’s hot and what’s not, and even the user-based and technological capabilities of all these various platforms. WeChat, often referred to as China’s answer to WhatsApp, is also a perfect example of how quickly user functionality is evolving there – I even noticed a new feature on its main interface just the other day that I hadn’t seen just days before!
In plain English, can you explain how Baidu works differently compared to Google?
Baidu, which holds a dominant search engine market share in China, in its essence is similar to Google in terms of its layout and algorithm in which it ranks sites, however there are some key differences that make working with Baidu a largely fresh endeavour. One of these is that typically, when a user enters a query, a large share of the search results is made up of Baidu’s built-in products. It has its own Wikipedia-style site (Baike), a Yahoo! Answers Q&A style platform (Zhidao), and a Google Docs-style site (Wenku) among others. Users are able to search in these platforms independently; however they still appear naturally in the main search result, adding a new slant when it comes to optimising or marketing a client’s product for Baidu. There are several key algorithmical differences which without being too technical I hope to explain to the attendees on the 16th when we have a bit more time.
What are the common mistakes or misconceptions people and businesses have of SEO in China?
I’ve seen it time and time again where you have sites that assume a basic top-level Google SEO-optimised Chinese sub-domain will do the trick with Baidu. Oftentimes the result is that even a nicely laid-out, well-written site simply does not show up on Baidu for even the most relevant (and even branded) search term, as people aren’t aware of some of the simple steps you need to ensure to get your site on Baidu. I’ll be taking a look at some of the things everyone can do to get their business set on the right direction for Baidu exposure on the 16th.
Top tips for getting SEO right in China?
I would say take with you all that you hold true and dear with regards to the SEO mind set used for Google, though remember that we’re dealing with a different beast here and to some extent you do need to start with a fresh outlook of sorts (as contrary as that sounds!) Overall though, as with venturing out into the Chinese market in any business environment in general, just keep an open mind and remember to “ru xiang sui su” (do as the Chinese do) where possible. Oh, and of course keep on top of market trends as best you can – I’ll be running through a list of great China SEO resources during my talk.Read More
China Unbound was very lucky to have Jonathan Pfahl, MD of the Chinese-investor- backed London business incubator Rockstar Hubs, shared his experience of making their first step into the Chinese market. His top tips were:
- Relationships – it takes time to build relationships and it’s more the case when doing business with Chinese people. Invest time in building the relationships before you expect the return. This means patience and taking a long term view of your business development effort in China.
- Learn the language – as a foreigner learning Chinese, it will be a (long) while before I can conduct business in Mandarin, but when you are able to say a few simple words in Chinese, they are very impressed, and it really helps to break the ice. It also shows your respect and commitment to the relationship. It goes a long way.
- Put yourself in their shoes, online and offline – China is not short of products. What makes your business special that they would want to partner with, or do business with you? Think about how you can give them something unique that can help them stand out from their competitors.
- Likewise, in the online environment, if you are inviting someone to connect on LinkedIn, put yourself in their shoes. Study their LinkedIn profiles. Ask yourself if you are that person and you are the MD of that company, what would the invitation need to say for you the press the ‘Accept’ button? It’s also important to clarify and ask probing questions if you are not sure what they mean in meetings and email communications etc. to avoid misunderstandings.
- Celebrity / British brand association or endorsement – Rockstar Hubs has the endorsement of the Mayor of London, and we found that it has helped us tremendously in opening doors with potential partners and customers. Think about if there is a way you can associate your brand with a British brand or celebrity known by the Chinese.
- Persistence and timing – We found that early notice goes into the bin when it comes to inviting people to events in China! If you give people 3-4 weeks of notice like we do in the UK, people don’t seem to respond much to it.
- Timing, therefore is everything. We found that when we tell them just a few days in advance, magically, the Chinese seems to find time for it!