What Chinese Consumers Want

Understanding China's consumer culture is a good starting point for understanding the nation itself, as it races toward superpower status. Material similarities between Chinese and Americans mask fundamentally different emotional impulses.
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Apple has taken China by storm. A Starbucks can be found on practically every major street corner in coastal cities and beyond. From Nike to Buick to Siemens, Chinese consumers actively prefer Western brands over their domestic competitors. The rise of microbloggers, the popularity of rock bands with names like Hutong Fist and Catcher in the Rye, and even the newfound popularity of Christmas all seem to point toward a growing Westernization.

But don't be deceived by appearances. In my new book, What Chinese Want, I argue consumers in China aren't becoming "Western." They are increasingly modern and international, but they remain distinctly Chinese. If I've learned anything from my 20 years working as an advertising executive in China, it is that successful Western brands craft their message here to be "global," not "foreign" -- so that they can become vessels of Chinese culture.

Understanding China's consumer culture is a good starting point for understanding the nation itself, as it races toward superpower status. Though the country's economy and society are evolving rapidly, the underlying cultural blueprint has remained more or less constant for thousands of years. China is a Confucian society, a quixotic combination of top-down patriarchy and bottom-up social mobility. Citizens are driven by an ever-present conflict between standing out and fitting in, between ambition and regimentation. In Chinese society, individuals have no identity apart from obligations to, and acknowledgment by, others. The clan and nation are the eternal pillars of identity. Western individualism -- the idea of defining oneself independent of society -- doesn't exist.

Various youth subtribes intermittently bubble to the surface -- see the recent rise of "vegetable males" (Chinese metrosexuals) and "Taobao maniacs" (aficionados of the auction website Taobao). But self-expression is generally frowned upon, and societal acknowledgment is still tantamount to success. Liberal arts majors are considered inferior to graduates with engineering or accounting degrees. Few dare to see a psychologist for fear of losing "face" -- the respect or deference of others -- or being branded sick. Failure to have a child is a grave disappointment.

The speed with which China's citizens have embraced all things digital is one sign that things are in motion in the country. But e-commerce, which has changed the balance of power between retailers and consumers, didn't take off until the Chinese need for reassurance was satisfied. Even when transactions are arranged online, most purchases are completed in person, with shoppers examining the product and handing over their cash offline.

Even digital self-expression needs to be safe, cloaked in anonymity. Social networking sites such as Sina Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter), Renren and Kaixing Wang (Chinese versions of Facebook) have exploded. But users hide behind avatars and pseudonyms. A survey conducted by the advertising firm JWT, where I work, and IAC, the Internet holding company, found that less than a third of young Americans agreed with the statement "I feel free to do and say things [online] I wouldn't do or say offline," and 41% disagreed. Among Chinese respondents, 73% agreed, and just 9% disagreed.

Chinese at all socioeconomic levels try to "win" -- that is, climb the ladder of success -- while working within the system, not against it. In Chinese consumer culture, there is a constant tension between self-protection and displaying status. This struggle explains the existence of two seemingly conflicting lines of development. On the one hand, we see stratospheric savings rates, extreme price sensitivity and aversion to credit card interest payments. On the other, there is the Chinese fixation with luxury goods and a willingness to pay as much as 120% of one's yearly income for a car.

Every day, the Chinese confront shredded social safety nets, a lack of institutions that protect individual wealth, contaminated food products and myriad other risks to home and health. The instinct of consumers to project status through material display is counterbalanced by conservative buying behavior. Protective benefits are the primary consideration for consumers. Even high-end paints must establish their lack of toxicity before touting the virtues of colorful self-expression. Safety is a big concern for all car buyers, at either end of the price spectrum.

To win a following among Chinese buyers, brands have to follow three rules. First and most important, products that are consumed in public, directly or indirectly, command huge price premiums relative to goods used in private. The leading mobile phone brands are international. The leading household appliance brands, by contrast, are cheaply priced domestic makers such as TCL, Changhong and Little Swan. According to a study by the U.K.-based retailer B&Q, the average middle-class Chinese spends only $15,000 to fit out a completely bare 1,000-square-foot apartment.

Luxury items are desired more as status investments than for their inherent beauty or craftsmanship. The Chinese are now the world's most avid luxury shoppers, at least if trips abroad to cities like Hong Kong and Paris are taken into account. According to Global Refund, a company specializing in tax-free shopping for tourists, the Chinese account for 15% of all luxury items purchased in France but less than 2% of its visitors.

Public display is also a critical consideration in how global brands are repositioning themselves to attract Chinese consumers. Despite China's tea culture, Starbucks successfully established itself as a public venue in which professional tribes gather to proclaim their affiliation with the new-generation elite. Both Pizza Hut and Häagen Dazs have built mega-franchises in China rooted in out-of-home consumption. (The $5 carton of vanilla to be eaten at home is a tough sell in China.)

The second rule is that the benefits of a product should be external, not internal. Even for luxury goods, celebrating individualism -- with familiar Western notions like "what I want" and "how I feel" -- doesn't work in China. Automobiles need to make a statement about a man on his way up. BMW, for example, has successfully fused its global slogan of the "ultimate driving machine" with a Chinese-style declaration of ambition.

Sometimes the difference between internal versus external payoffs can be quite subtle. Spas and resorts do better when they promise not only relaxation but also recharged batteries. Infant formulas must promote intelligence, not happiness. Kids aren't taken to Pizza Hut so that they can enjoy pizza; they are rewarded with academic "triumph feasts." Beauty products must help a woman "move forward." Even beer must do something. In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.

Emotional payoffs must be practical, even in matters of the heart. Valentine's Day is almost as dear to the Chinese as the Lunar New Year, but they view it primarily as an opportunity for men to demonstrate their worthiness and commitment. In the U.S., De Beers' slogan, "A Diamond is Forever," glorifies eternal romance. In China, the same tagline connotes obligation, a familial covenant -- rock solid, like the stone itself.

The last rule for positioning a brand in China is that products must address the need to navigate the crosscurrents of ambition and regimentation, of standing out while fitting in. Men want to succeed without violating the rules of the game, which is why wealthier individuals prefer Audis or BMWs over flashy Maseratis.

Luxury buyers want to demonstrate mastery of the system while remaining understated, hence the appeal of Mont Blanc's six-point logo or Bottega Veneta's signature cross weave--both conspicuously discreet. Young consumers want both stylishness and acceptance, so they opt for more conventionally hip fashion brands like Converse and Uniqlo.

Chinese parents are drawn to brands promising "stealthy learning" for their children: intellectual development masked as fun. Disney will succeed more as an educational franchise -- its English learning centers are going gangbusters -- than as a theme park. McDonald's restaurants, temples of childhood delight in the West, have morphed into scholastic playgrounds in China: Happy Meals include collectible Snoopy figurines wearing costumes from around the world, while the McDonald's website, hosted by Professor Ronald, offers Happy Courses for multiplication. Skippy peanut butter combines "delicious peanut taste" and "intelligent sandwich preparation."

Even China's love affair with Christmas -- with big holiday sales and ubiquitous seasonal music, even in Communist Party buildings -- advances a distinctly Chinese agenda. Santa is a symbol of progress; he represents the country's growing comfort with a new global order, one into which it is determined to assimilate, without sacrificing the national interest. The holiday has become a way to project status in a culture in which individual identity is inextricably linked to external validation.

The American dream -- wealth that culminates in freedom -- is intoxicating for the Chinese. But whereas Americans dream of "independence," Chinese crave "control" of their own destiny and command over the vagaries of daily life. Material similarities between Chinese and Americans mask fundamentally different emotional impulses. If Western brands can learn to meet China's worldview on its own terms, perhaps the West as a whole can too.

This post was originally published in the Wall Street Journal. It is an overview of my new book What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China's Modern Consumer, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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