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Simple Sells

NOTE: Versions of this story appeared in the South China Morning Post (subscription only) and that’s Shanghai magazine.


Who says the Chinese don’t have a taste for cheese? Turn on a television here and you’ll likely see dancing chopsticks, singing office workers and plenty of pretty people cavorting through tall fields of grass under an unusually bright blue sky. To a Westerner, Chinese advertisements — not to mention many of the shows that take up space between them — seem rather, well, cheesy. It’s as if we’ve seen it all before. And, in many cases, we have.

“China is a traditional advertising market,” said Tom Doctoroff, Shanghai-based CEO of advertising giant J. Walter Thompson’s operations in greater China. “China is the 1950s and 1960s in the West. Think about it. Opinions are being shaped. Basic perceptions are being structured right now. In Shanghai, the consumer is only eight years old. And in other markets, they are even younger. People need basics imprinted on their brains.”

That’s a lot of brains that need imprinting. Over the past five years, a new middle class has been born in China. For the first time in their lives, people — more than 100 million of them — have disposable income to dispose of. And foreign companies are coming in by the truckload, ready to play the role of garbage collector. But seller beware, experts warn.

“In China, it’s so dynamic,” said Wen-Wen Paquette Wang, director of marketing for General Mills China. “Things are changing so fast. Consumers are always redefining themselves. Just because you got in two years ago does not necessarily mean you’ll be in three years from now.”

Obstacles are both conceptual and cultural, leaving marketers and advertisers in China in quite a quandary: How do you stay one step ahead of a fickle customer base while trying to stay two steps behind the advertising trends of the West? The answer is simple — keep it simple.

“This is a marketing purist’s paradise,” Doctoroff said. “People would roll their eyes at how boring tactics are. It’s conservative. It’s aspirational. It’s sunny. It’s glowing. It’s sparkling. It’s scrubbed clean. It’s saturated colors. No grainy, gritty realism.”

It may be more “Leave it to Beaver” than “Sex and the City,” but advertising in China today is still light-years ahead of where it was, say, 15 years ago, when ads consisted of men who wore suits and stood in front of factories and spoke emotionless into the camera — about factories and other men who wore suits.

Doctoroff likes to say that foreign advertisers in China are “skiing down virgin slopes.” Here are examples of how some of them are managing to stay upright.

Ice Cream Dreams
The folks at Haagen-Dazs like to call their ice cream a “super-premium brand,” and if you’ve ever paid RMB 78 for a pint at the supermarket, you know what they’re talking about. Still, Haagen-Dazs is surviving and the brand’s ice cream cafes are thriving in a culture new to both ice cream and indulgence. Why? Haagen-Dazs has effectively tied itself into the aspirations of a new upwardly mobile segment of the population — or those who just want to be seen as upwardly mobile. So, Haagen-Dazs ads in China focus less on product and more the projection of an image. “A lot of times the brands that people are choosing are brands that they feel reflect themselves: ‘This is who I am. This is who I want to be,’” said Wang of General Mills, which owns Haagen-Dazs. “Part of our brand is that there is a worldliness to it. It’s not from here. It’s from someplace else. It’s an international brand. One of the ways to establish that in China is to show foreign situations and foreign people.”

Gaining an Edge
Sometimes a product can give itself a makeover in a new marketplace like China. Take Schick, for example. The American men’s shaving equipment company has historically focused its advertising on the technical aspects of its products — playing catch-up behind industry leader Gillette. “Because Gillette’s equity isn’t that strong here, even though it’s still the leading brand, we went in a very different direction that was controversial with the United States,” said Doctoroff, whose agency handles Schick in China. “‘Sharp razor. Sharp face. Sharp man.’ Basically, he was conquering a woman. It was a battle for a woman’s affections, which you never would have seen in the West. That one worked brilliantly. That one worked as soon as it went on the air.”

Learning to Smile
“Knowing your consumer is fundamental.” Those are words Mike Shepherd lives by, even when it comes to something as fundamental as toothpaste. Shepherd, marketing director for Unilever China, knew a toothpaste commercial his company used in Brazil would never fly in conservative China. In it, a man emboldened by his recently freshened breath snatches kisses from unsuspecting girls. “While this is seen as very humorous in the Brazilian context, it is not appreciated here,” said Shepherd. Likewise, an ad for Unilever’s Chinese toothpaste called Zhonghua — which literally means “China” — has translation problems of its own. “No one in the West would probably understand what ‘inner heat’ is and the relevance of traditional Chinese medicine ingredients in sorting out this problem,” Shepherd said.

Jay, Not James Dean
Don’t bother listening for rebel yells in China. Chinese teens are not cynical. They are not jaded. Many teens here have grown up in comparably good times and think they have very little to rebel against. Thus, Pepsi — which likes to preach to this “next generation” — must choose its spokespeople carefully. “Jay is a rapper who to us represents the cutting edge of Chinese individualism, but he’s still safe,” explained Doctoroff. “We will never have anybody that shows any disrespect. We would never be able to alienate or isolate parents in any of our advertising. I don’t want to call it soft, but it’s not rebellious at all. We can never have a touch of rebellion. So our entire program of musical stars that we use and the tone of our advertisements is going to be modulated from what it is in the West.”

The Yao Ming Theory
“Sports are universal,” said Paul Pi, marketing director for adidas China. Thus, the major athletic apparel companies are among the rare few that can have success running their global advertising campaigns in China. An image of Tracy McGrady dunking a basketball has the same meaning whether run in Boston, Berlin or Beijing. “Here, you can have so much impact of you have the right athlete with the right product simply playing basketball,” Pi said. “You’re being visually interesting, but idea-wise, creatively speaking, not so deep, not so revolutionary, not so innovative. Whereas in the States or Europe, that simplicity has run its course and you have to go one step further.”

Blow the Bugle … Loudly
Often it’s not just the brand that’s new to China, it’s the entire product category. Western snacks, for example, have only had a shelf life of around five years here. Consumers need to be won over. They need to know why they should give up their watermelon seeds, fruit rinds and squid jerky for a bag of Bugles. Not surprisingly, many snack ads in China are geared toward teen-agers, who are likely not set in their snack-eating ways. Still, alongside flashy images like arcade games that come to life, advertisers must put specific product information. “In the West, the advertising can get beyond the basics much faster,” Wang said, “whereas here a lot of the categories are new and we’re always going into smaller and smaller markets. So we have to make sure we show the shape and show the package and say the name five times.”

Diamonds Aren’t Forever — Families Are
So what’s Diamond Trading Company to do? Well, put the focus on the relationship, not the rock. “Romance, while an important component, is not the core of a marriage in Confucian society,” Doctoroff said. “People speak of a mei man jiang lai (“complete and full future”) or xing fu jia ting (“happy and blessed family”) when describing the ideal marriage. … The diamond ring is a reflection of a bright and prosperous future. It is not a symbol of enduring romance. While the new generation places more stress on romance than in the past, it is still delicious frosting, rather than the cake itself.”

01.01.2003, 1:09 AM · Stories


Shanghai Diaries is a website about Shanghai, China ... and lots of other stuff. Voted Best Mainland China Blog in the 2004 Asia Blog Awards.

Editor: Dan Washburn

Related: Shanghaiist and Mudan Boutique

Dan is a freelance writer living in Shanghai. More about Dan.

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