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Targeting the Chinese Consumer: 5 Key Insights from China Marketing Experts

We know that a lot of our audience and customers are doing business in Mainland China – whether it’s working with Chinese suppliers or selling directly to Chinese consumers. 

Since our mission is to enable the entrepreneur economy, we go beyond just helping to set up a Hong Kong company and providing a business account: we want to support our customers to be as successful as possible. 

That’s why last week we welcomed 3 China marketing experts to our London office to share their insights into targeting Chinese consumers. On stage we had Jing Daily & Vogue Business in China journalist Tamsin Smith, Emerging Communications’ Marie Tulloch and Alicia Liu, founder of Singing Grass.  

So if you’re planning to target the Chinese consumer, we’re delighted to share these 5 expert takeaways from our event.

Have a deep understanding of your customers

To start with, Alicia reminded us of the huge opportunity China poses to brands. China is currently comprised of 855 million digital consumers, who spend over 40% of their time awake online. The current Coronavirus outbreak is pushing the tech-savvy population even further online, not only for shopping, but also for entertainment and learning opportunities. Alicia mentioned there’s been a rapid growth in the beginning of 2020 in offline businesses looking for online marketing and sales channels to engage with the consumers in China. 

To grasp this opportunity, however, all speakers stressed the importance of knowing your customer, and pointed out that a lack thereof is where it has gone wrong for many brands.

Too often, brands simply want to market to “Chinese millennials”, but Marie pointed out there are many different types of Chinese consumers. Below is a categorisation of 7 different types of segments she introduced. Each must be understood, and you’ll need to have the right product positioning and strategy in order to reach these consumers. 

Credit: Emerging Communications 

Not only do you need to know consumer preferences in terms of what styles they may like, you must also be very aware of any cultural and political sensitivities. 

Tamsin addressed a few big PR-disasters, ranging from Dolce & Gabbana’s 2018 campaign which stereotyped and offended Chinese audiences to Dior who gave a presentation with a map of China that excluded Taiwan. 

The best way to prevent such disasters, according to Tamsin, is to make sure you have Chinese staff across all levels of your organisation and not only as sales associates in your store. 

Moreover, Chinese staff must feel comfortable enough and be given the space to make their voices heard. Due to vastly different cultures, cultural training may sometimes be required to make sure you can cooperate effectively. 

Control your narrative & react quickly 

When mistakes do happen - and they inevitably will! - it’s important that you have a plan in place. Virality is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, but the speed at which (viral) news spreads in China is unprecedented. Tamsin highlighted a few PR-disasters where badly-perceived campaigns or “mistakes” were shared over a billion times in a short span of time. 

The brands that seemed to be impacted the worst by this were the brands that didn’t react quickly and only when they had no other option. Dolce & Gabbana is a good example of this: after their poorly perceived campaign, they took 6 days to issue a formal apology, and only once the government pulled their fashion show. Sales in China have not recovered since. 

Dior, on the other hand, reacted to their mistake within 1 hour on social media, and a few days later at their fashion show they went the extra mile in showing their love for China, by playing a popular patriotic song during their fashion show a few days later.

Find your niche

Entering the Chinese market, or targeting Chinese consumers in Britain, can seem daunting if you’re new to the game. It’s important to find your niche and see where there are gaps in the market. Marie pointed out that for instance expats and entrepreneurs from China living in the UK are an underserved market. Often, they’re treated as either just another British citizen, or as a Chinese tourist, but neither hits the mark. It’s a missed opportunity as this customer group is relatively wealthy, but may need to be targeted via specific channels and with tailored messaging. 

Not only can addressing niche markets work in your favor, having a unique and more niche product can also work. Alicia pointed out the success of UK-based brand Tangle Teezer in China after it got picked up by a local KOL; Marie pointed out a growing interest in for example cruelty-free beauty products, which would usually be sourced from the West and would be hard for Chinese brands to replicate. 

Localise your marketing strategy

This may seem like a no-brainer, but according to our experts many brands are not doing enough when it comes to localisation. 

Firstly, you may have to allocate your budget across channels a bit differently compared to what you’re used to in the West. Let’s take KOLs for example; whereas KOLs or influencers are of course used by marketers all over the world, the speakers stressed that in China KOLs are even more influential than in the West. In order to build trust with Chinese consumers, working with the right influencers is vital and reviews from both KOLs and actual customers are extremely important in the Chinese market. 

Moreover, the speakers stressed how important it is to do more than simply translating your blog or Facebook content to WeChat. Not only may consumers have different preferences, the channel itself works very differently. 

Credit: Emerging Communications

For example, Marie pointed out the importance of private channels and groups in WeChat, which may be different compared to how you use your Facebook page. Some brands, such as Perfect Diary, have been very successful at using private WeChat groups to drive sales. Sales agents, too, make much more use of private social media to sell to clients which is something that can work to your advantage, but also to your disadvantage if you don’t have a clear strategy on how to maintain consistent voice & tone – or worse when the agents start selling counterfeit or competing brands privately! 

Elevate your customer’s personal brand

How do you position your USP in China: Is it quality? Innovation? The speakers agreed that the days are over where brands can simply sell because they’re from “London” or prize their “Swedish” design. Instead, Marie pointed out that, perhaps no different from the West, today it’s very much about what wearing or using your brand says about the consumer. How will using your brand make them look to their friends and social following? A prime example of this is the success of high-end athleisure brands, because what better way to signify that you’re doing well on all fronts than walking into a yoga studio in a designer outfit? It’s important to make it clear how you will make your customer look good to their peers  when setting out your brand positioning and strategy.

We hope our audience left feeling inspired to start or continue their journey East. Neat, Singing Grass and Emerging Communications would be happy to help you on your way!

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