Marketing In China: One Size Won’t Fit All

From targeting to mobile and social strategies, companies seeking traction in China should shed any multipurpose marketing mantras and recognise the rich complexities that characterise the country and its people.

Marketing In China: One Size Won’t Fit All

Companies seeking traction in China should shed any multipurpose marketing mantras and recognise the rich complexities that characterise the country and its people.

It’s particularly important for organisations keen to leverage the raft of free-trade agreements that China has entered into internationally.

Experts in the field say that instead of one single country, marketers should see China as an amalgam of dozens of vastly different regions, each with its own language and customs. Instead of trying to segment Chinese consumers using Western demographic constructs, such as 25- to 35-year-old males, companies often get better results by taking a city-based approach to campaigns.

And rather than simply lifting and shifting social media campaigns from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, organisations need to understand the radically different social networks Chinese people use.

Finally, forget about reaching consumers via desktop computers: In China–where 434 million new smartphones were sold last year, according to analyst IDC–it’s all about mobile.

Think Diverse, Spend Big

Indeed, the Chinese are particularly enthusiastic about mobile platforms–consuming about a third of all online media content through mobile devices in 2015, said Matthew McDougall, founder and chief executive of Digital Jungle, a cross-cultural digital marketing consultancy for businesses entering China and those targeting Chinese-speaking audiences around the globe.

“We don’t even think about PC design,” he told

McDougall also spoke of the country’s diversity. “Most Western companies think of China as one-size-fits-all,” he said. “People treat China as a single market, but there are 56 provinces that all speak their own language. And most Western media is blocked: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.”

Successful organisations often take a city-by-city approach. “Beijing has 21 million people, and Shanghai is even bigger,” he added.

This can also help address shortfalls in marketing budgets. “Some of the largest companies say, ‘I have $100,000 for China,’ but with that it’s hard to build brand and reach,” McDougall warned.

While a small hotel may be able to set up a website in China for $10,000, McDougall said, some fast-moving consumer goods companies routinely spend $50,000 a month on social media alone. “People often underestimate the costs,” he said.

Listening Is Key

The need for a more nuanced approach to marketing in China is not lost on Graham Fink, multimedia artist and chief creative at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather China.

“[Market research agency] Millward Brown will tell you that what works in one province only has a 52% chance of working in another, and there are many different languages,” Fink said. “You know, not everybody speaks Mandarin. In Shanghai, everyone speaks Shanghainese, and so if you’re not from Shanghai, you can’t understand it.”

But some common themes can be found.

“Social media is huge,” Fink said, noting how it has given people freedom to express themselves in a way they might not be able to in other forums. “We have social people who sit and monitor this stuff every day, and they are always telling us what people are talking about and what the latest thing is. Of course, that feeds into our creativity and some of the ideas and the campaigns that we do.”

Similarly, McDougall and his team trawl social media content and categorise their findings using machine learning. “We perform sentiment analysis but also key opinion leader [KOL] analysis to determine who are the KOLs in a peer group,” he said. “The technology allows us to mine the data, which then informs the strategy so that we can use a planning-validate-test approach.”

But, again, he warned, multinational companies cannot think of social media in China as a cookie-cutter version of Western social media.

About half of China’s population uses social media platforms, particularly WeChat, McDougall explained. “There are 600 million people using it,” he said. “It’s very much like a communications platform, but it’s also become a banking system–91% of WeChat users have their credit card details attached and use it to pay for bus fares, gaming, and to watch videos. It’s significant and important to have a presence on this platform.”

Weibo (think Twitter) and Youku (think YouTube) are also key.

“They came out in 2009-10 and were almost exact copies of Western platforms, but now they are very Chinese,” McDougall said. “If you watch Chinese people order dinner, and they take photos and share information–these platforms are designed for that.”

An understanding of which platforms consumers are using and how is critical for success in China, he added. And he was succinct about why: “A million impressions doesn’t go very far in China.”