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.