Updated: May 29, 2019
"You need to have two well-defined tones of voice - one for China, another one for the West,"
says Giovanni Borde.
He was previously in charge of branding Starbucks for China; he was also in charge of creating LITAO's identity. I asked him what the key to successful communication across cultures is:
"It should feel like the two personalities are from the same family, have the same value system and the same core - yet you cannot translate the words directly - you have to translate the experience instead. That becomes the skeleton of your messaging."
Why should you care?
In China, disposable income levels are on the rise, consumer spending is increasing, and the business environment is becoming more and more open. At the same time, China’s demographics are rapidly changing. Understanding how to stand out in such a large and complex market is more imperative than ever.
One crucial step to making a name for yourself in the China market is finding your Chinese personality, as well as making sure you don't experience an identity crisis. We have seen many brands fall on both ends of the spectrum, some not taking on a Chinese personality at all and others taking their Chinese personality too far to the brink of cultural appropriation. Success in the Chinese market lies somewhere in the middle.
How do I find a happy medium?
Three foreign brands that successfully tapped into Chinese tastes and trends, each of their campaigns going viral on social media platforms, are Montblanc, Tourism New Zealand, and SK-II. They proved that you can stay true to your brand yet accommodate culture-specific needs.
They combined the popularity of social media seamlessly with other trends and time-tested traditions. The interesting thing for marketers is, these campaigns never asserted the products in question as their focus.
Montblanc – “Moon Phase” campaign
In 2014, Montblanc, a German luxury brand, released its “Mystic Moon Phase Campaign” to endorse their new luxury watches. The campaign tapped into the Chinese consumers’ interests in Chinese astrology and the lunar cycle. To differentiate themselves from competitors, MontBlanc fashioned a mini app with an eye-catching WeChat QR code incorporating the lunar cycle. After scanning the QR code, users were invited to enter their birth date to see how the user’s birth moon cycle corresponds with their personality, relationships, and career. The campaign utilized WeChat—a social media platform that has over 1 billion monthly users—as its primary platform; however, the hashtags created for the campaign reached over 10 million hits on another popular social media platform, Weibo.
China is known for its high-context cultural narrative—the most important things are those which are not voiced. The emphasis of the campaign was not on Montblanc’s new line of watches, but rather the interactive lunar calendar and horoscopes, which gave the brand a sense of cultural finesse and intrigue.
Tourism New Zealand – Key Opinion Leader (KOL)
KOLs have been taking Chinese marketing by storm. Accenture discovered that 70% of Chinese people born after 1995 will use social media to directly purchase goods as opposed to other outlets. In comparison, the global average is only 44%. In China, KOL marketing has become indispensable for any kind of consumer goods or services.
In 2011, New Zealand tourism chose Yao Chen, a dominant figure in the world of social media with over 40 million followers on Weibo, as their brand ambassador. She held her highly-anticipated wedding in Queenstown, New Zealand. With an estimated 7,000 media articles written about the event, New Zealand quickly became the ultimate luxury destination for romance. And, within a year, New Zealand saw numbers of Chinese visitors increase dramatically, with China finally overtaking the US as the third largest country of origin for visitors, exceeded only by Australia and the UK. The number of tourists from China has continued to increase; as of this past year, China has surpassed both the US and the UK taking its place as the second largest source of visitors.
SK II – “She Goes to the Marriage Corner”
In 2016, SK-II, a Japanese skin care brand, launched a campaign titled “She Goes to the Marriage Corner”. The campaign included a video that went viral reaching over 1.2 million views on Youku, a video sharing platform, in a single day. The subject of the campaign was “leftover women”, a concept which refers to women past the age of late twenties that have yet to marry. No image nor mention of SK-II skin care products were shown in the whole campaign. Instead, SK-II aimed to identify with women and show that they understand how women feel facing the pressures to find a marriage partner by a certain “cut-off” age, and also that this is not what women want by letting real women tell their own stories. They aimed to empower not only unmarried women, but all women by sending a message that women should not let societal and family pressure dictate their future.
The campaign sparked conversation with ads receiving 100,000 views on WeChat and 20,000 views on Weibo just within days. The campaign’s hashtag #changedestiny gained popularity on the sites as well. Within the campaign’s first year of release SK-II’s sales increased by 50%.
How does this apply to small businesses and entrepreneurs?
Although most of our clients are not brands selling to end-consumers, but people aiming to convince the B2B, they too will learn a lot just by looking at these add campaigns. Business is all about 'pushing' and 'pulling' - which translates to sales & marketing at their highest level of abstraction. While advertising at its core is created to push for sales - we see that the market dictates that the brands now focus on social media trends with subtle elements of traditional Chinese culture, without appropriating.
I see a big need for a cross-category approach in China, and that usually starts with curiosity and building awareness. That's what I will be sharing through my LinkedIn account this year with a hope to provide a bigger context and new narratives for making business in China.
By Lina Bartuseviciute
Lina is a Lithuanian living in Shanghai. After 8 years of studying politics and Mandarin Chinese, she set up a cross-cultural business consulting company, LITAO. Her true specialty is communications: paying attention to nuances and context beyond language, and then bringing the cultural know-how to the negotiating table. LITAO offers tailored go-to-market strategies and operational support, ranging from finding a Chinese name to business matchmaking, road shows and soft landing.