The Chinese market is constantly changing, but as income levels rise across China there is an increasing number of new consumers and first-time buyers who wish to purchase and experience new products and services. However, the Chinese market is evolving rapidly and to win these new consumers over you will need to continually reassess your marketing strategy to help raise the image, profile and understanding of your business in China.
Tradeshows and exhibitions are very good ways of meeting potential customers, but you still need to persuade them to buy your product. You will need to ensure that your sales literature is effective in English and Chinese and decide what kind of advertising is appropriate. You will almost certainly need to adapt your products to meet Chinese preferences or requirements in order to be able to sell them. Ignoring local regulations, tastes and cultural preferences is a recipe for failure.
For example, a lot of Chinese consumers attach much more importance to the functional aspect of many products than we do in the UK, so Chinese marketing campaigns may focus on these features rather than on what the product says about you as an individual.
Also, the concept of auspicious and inauspicious symbols is emotionally important to many people in China. Many companies make use of positive symbols and avoid those with negative connotations in order to maximise the success of their products. For example, the number 4 is regarded as unlucky, as the word “four” in Chinese sounds similar to the word for death, but 8 is regarded as lucky, as “eight” sounds similar to the words for prosperity and wealth.
Cultural issues relating to marketing
The concepts of good and bad luck, or auspicious and inauspicious symbols, are emotionally important to many people in China. Therefore, in order to maximise the success of your products, make use of positive symbols and avoid those with negative connotations:
Strategy and brand building
For many international companies, one of the key market entry barriers in China is low brand awareness in the local market. A UK business may be well known in Europe, but it is still important for the business to position itself suitably within the Chinese market.
Chinese customers place a strong emphasis on brands that they have heard of, and those which are well established within the marketplace. Therefore building brand recognition is very important for newcomers in China who want to really make an impression.
Well-designed marketing materials are essential to help a product stand out from other similar products and capture people’s imagination. UK enterprises need to focus on presenting the uniqueness and specific qualities of their products compared with competitors and the advantages of purchasing them.
Brand names and marketing messages
Conventional marketing wisdom says that global brand consistency is important, but the Chinese language presents some very specific branding issues. In order to create a favourable impression of your company and your brand in China, it is essential to have a name that Chinese consumers can remember.
If a product name can’t be remembered, it is unlikely that many people will buy it. It is therefore essential to have a suitable Chinese company and product names in order to sell your products. If your target market is mainland China (as opposed to Hong Kong), it is not advisable to have a Cantonese translation of your company name, as this will not be readily understood outside Hong Kong.
The Chinese translation of Coca-Cola is an example of best practice and highlights the issues involved in creating a suitable name. Coca-Cola in Chinese is “Kekou-Kele” which not only sounds like the English but can also be translated as “Tasty and Joyful”, thus creating a name that is easily memorable for Chinese speakers while retaining some degree of global consistency. Another good example is B&Q, whose Chinese name is “Bai An Ju” and can be approximately translated as “Hundred Peaceful Homes”.
A translation of a Western company name that is perhaps not quite as good as it could be is the translation of Google into “Gu Ge” which, although sounding similar, means “Song of Millet”, and Microsoft originally translated into “small and flaccid”, but not surprisingly this was not the final meaning chosen.
The concept of symbols is emotionally important to many people in China.
Therefore, many companies make use of positive symbols and avoid those with negative connotations in order to maximise the success of their products. For example, the number 4 is regarded as unlucky and 8 is regarded as lucky, because when spoken they sound like ‘death’ and ‘wealth’ respectively. So many businesses avoid the number 4 and often use the number 8 in promotional activities, branding, pricing offers and telephone numbers.
Images and colours are also important. Red and gold are regarded as lucky colours, but white is associated with funerals and death. Images of animals are used to convey meaning and Chinese often use a dragon, phoenix, unicorn, tortoise (Buddhist symbol of learning), crane and fish to convey attributes such as vitality, strength, longevity, beauty, intelligence or versatility.
It’s advisable to spend some time getting this right. The name is, after all, the first thing your potential customers will see. There is no right or wrong way when translating into Chinese – the name you will ultimately end up with will be a combination of the translator’s recommendations and your own preferences.
Having a geographical focus
Almost the same size as Europe, with twice the population, China should NOT be regarded as a single national market, but as a varied region made up of over 30 different provinces and municipalities.
Coastal ‘first-tier’ cities in the east of China, including Beijing and Shanghai, have been characterised in recent times by rapid and continuous growth and vast consumer markets have emerged with rapid sales growth for international labels and luxury goods.
However, some markets within these first-tier cities are even becoming saturated and the emerging markets in inland second-tier cities such as Chongqing, Chengdu and Changsha cannot be ignored. The increasing middle class population has led to a sharp increase in brand awareness and consumption.
Apart from the increased buying power, there is a lack of globally-recognised brands in these second-tier city markets. Establishing a presence early on is an option that helps protect the brand from the fierce competition it would face in the well-developed regions.
Though it is often said that China is a land of regions differentiated by local languages, foods and customs, this is an oversimplification of the country and does not relate to the needs of companies. Issues relating to law, taxation, product quality and government procurement are certainly national. However, what is more relevant to business is the identification of sources of raw materials, supply chain and clients that can be most efficiently joined through a company’s manufacturing and sales bases and networks.
For companies who are able to define a client base, either consumer or corporate, within a “City Cluster” it is important to note that marketing activity to raise client awareness may be localised. Successful brand recognition in one “City Cluster” does not automatically lead to recognition outside that cluster. As each of these clusters is similar in size both by population and land mass to the UK, this leads to the potential of a more manageable market entry strategy, particularly for SMEs.
“City Clusters” therefore offer a defined geographical perspective of what can otherwise be a vast and intimidating market. Most of the clusters are within the constraints of a single province and so the politically driven economic direction for the cluster can be more easily determined. As areas of large population, the size of the client base for either consumer or corporate markets supports a sustainable business model. Infrastructure, physical and business services are well established.
These individual clusters are areas where the marketing of a product or service can be launched and maintained. For all these reasons, for companies making a market entry and even for companies who have a presence in another region of China, adopting a “City Cluster” perspective offers structure to the modelling of their development strategy. See the “Choosing the right location in mainland China” section elsewhere in this guide for more information on regional cities and city clusters.
Once you have made contact with a Chinese company it's likely that your day-to-day phone and email communications will be in English with one of the company’s English-speaking members of staff.
If you do not think the standard of English in the Chinese company is up to scratch, you might wish to ask for parallel Chinese texts and get them translated; this could be a valuable investment. An important part of setting up arrangements in China is to ensure that communication issues are covered in detail.
If you are going to sign anything – as obvious as it sounds – make sure you get it translated first, and by an independent translator. Do not rely on your customers’ or suppliers’ translation and do not be pressured into signing anything that you do not fully understand. Most failures occur in relationships because of fractured communications and mutual misunderstandings.
If China is likely to become a significant part of your business, you should consider hiring a Chinese-speaking member of staff. There is a rich pool of talent in the huge number of Chinese students graduating from British universities, who are keen to have internships or short-term employment in the UK before returning to China. These students can also be recruited through specialist recruitment agencies.
You may also wish to take up the challenge of learning Chinese yourself – even having a basic level of communication will create a positive impression and will have the added benefit of making your trips to China more enjoyable.
However, even if you do attain a reasonable level of fluency (which can take over two years with dedicated study), an interpreter – or a Chinese-speaking member of staff – is still an essential in business meetings. See section on “Interpreters” earlier in this guide.
A note on numbers
Large numbers are particularly tricky and often interpreted wrongly, sometimes leading to a mistake between millions and billions. For example, 10 million translates into Chinese as “1,000 ten thousands”; 100 million has its own character as “億”and 1,000 million or one billion translates as ten times 100 million, or “ 十億”. There is plenty of scope for confusion. Get numbers written down in Arabic numerals.
Customer service and after-sales support
One of the core USPs for many UK and other Western companies is the provision of high quality customer service and after-sales support to clients in their domestic market. However, due to the geographic scale of the Chinese mainland it is difficult for companies to deliver high-quality on-site support. For those companies that do want to deliver after-sales service in China, one of the key solutions is to invest in training and management of partners in China to ensure that your business is represented in a way that reflects your brand values and also ensures the appropriate levels of services for your customers.
Developing a business development strategy
Outlined below are some of the key considerations and questions to ask before developing a market entry or business development strategy for China. CBBC can help you at every step learning about and targeting these middle-income consumers in China. See also the China’s middle-income consumers section earlier in this guide for an insight into potential market segmentation.
Market information gathering:
Local knowledge and insight:
Targeting and positioning:
Market entry decisions:
Product & service provision:
Branding & communications:
8Ps of marketing in China
For the context of China, ‘Partnerships’ has been added to the traditional 7Ps traditionally used by marketing managers. Researching and answering these questions will allow UK companies to make informed decisions on the market and create a strategy covering all tenants of the marketing mix.
Both UK SMEs and large corporates that have been successful in China have created long-term win-win relationships with local companies that have allowed them to understand the market better, create a channel to customers and gain the government and business relationships that are an important part of creating open access to the market. Developing and nurturing effective partnerships is important in creating an effective marketing plan in China and yet it creates an extra layer of complexity.
Key questions when considering creating partnerships:
China has traditionally been a very price-sensitive market and this is still the case especially in the less affluent regional cities. However, the growth of the more affluent and aspirational middle classes has created opportunities in niche markets where international companies can deliver premium products at a higher price. Chinese consumers will accept higher prices for trustworthy brands and high quality products.
While pricing must reflect the quality and attractiveness of any company’s products, it must also be attractive to Chinese consumers. As in all market pricing it will be set based upon the perceived value specific to the customers in that market. Naturally, marketers must take into account both their international competitors that can deliver high-value products and their new domestic competitors that already have strong and entrenched relationships within the market.
Key questions when considering pricing strategies:
There are markets in China such as Shanghai and Beijing that have become crowded with a wealth of imported products available to customers. It is therefore important that UK companies differentiate their product in these competitive markets, which may involve customisation.
Alternatively, some companies have chosen to focus on less-competitive areas of China. Regional cities in China are developing strongly and represent areas of opportunity for UK companies who want to get their product in early.
Key questions when considering product strategies:
Understanding the nuances of the Chinese market and Chinese consumers, and balancing that with the strengths of your business, is going to be useful for your China strategy. For this reason, many international companies choose to hire local Chinese staff to assist in creating and executing their marketing plan in China. This way your company can leverage the knowledge and relationships of their local team, gain realtime feedback on how the business is developing and also deliver hands-on relationship management with partner companies within China.
By using an incubator service, SMEs can gain the benefits of having representation in the market at a lower cost, but the team must be managed effectively and remotely from the UK.
Key questions when considering people strategies:
As mentioned in previous sections, it is helpful to view China as a country of many different markets rather than one large market. One of the keys to success for many businesses is researching and understanding where to focus the company’s resources for maximum impact.
Many successful SMEs focus on one particular area to build deep relationships with partners and customers first. If they are new to market, they often test the viability of their product first on a small scale. Once confident that their products resonate with the Chinese consumers they then look to expand quickly.
Key questions when considering strategy and plans for place:
As businesses develop internationally they need to understand how they can expand their quality control and core standards internationally too. This creates an extra layer of complexity working with partners in a market as far away as China.
While it is important to put your new Chinese customer at the centre of your marketing planning, the processes side of the business cannot be overlooked as this will be the backbone of providing consistently high levels of quality and service to your clients.
Key questions when considering processes:
Focusing on a niche client and a core geographical area will help you create a communications strategy that is effective and manageable. The use of television or other mass media for communications is often regarded as expensive and not targeted enough to be effective. Social media is regarded as a very powerful tool; however, a clear strategy needs to be created to create positive messages of your brand and to manage any messages that may be detrimental to your business in China.
Naturally, all communications need to be translated into Mandarin and/or Cantonese and managed in Mandarin and/or Cantonese too. Although many young Chinese consumers speak English, if you are aiming to create a message that really has impact and resonates with a Chinese audience it is often prudent to use Mandarin/Cantonese or a combination of these as well as English.
Be aware too, that although the written characters may be the same (with simplified script in mainland China and traditional script in Hong Kong and Taiwan), there may sometimes be a few localised words or nuances too.
Key questions when considering promotional strategies:
8. Physical environment
The northern part of China is extremely cold and the southern tip of Guangzhou is tropical, seasonal trends vary, lifestyles vary and businesses operate and staff work differently in many different ways. The major cities are often congested with traffic and many major cities suffer from environmental issues. It is important therefore to ensure that your product is relevant to the lives of those who live in the area where it is going to be sold. Physical promotional materials must also be prominent and remain in good condition, whatever the physical environment has in store.
Key questions when considering plans for the physical environment:
Technological change & social media
The acceptance and usage of technology and mobile devices in China has grown exponentially. According to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s April 2013 China Country Update, China has the highest total number of internet users in the world, with nearly 600 million users (over 40% of the population), over 400 million of whom are mobile internet users.
The internet therefore has become a key source for finding information on products and services, communicating with communities of interest and engaging with customers across China. Channels such as Facebook and Twitter that Western communities may be used to are not widely available in China; however, there are Chinese equivalents such as ‘Weibo’ and ‘WeChat’ which are widely used with Chinese consumers.
Chinese social media have become an important part of many companies’ marketing communications and sales strategies in the China market. International marketers are keen to engage with influencers within these social media communities to increase awareness of their brands and communicate marketing messages.
Some brands have done very well by using these platforms, and if these tools are utilised effectively, they can be a low-cost alternative to traditional advertising.
Social media is an important tool when a UK business promotes its products in China, and there are several reasons why even SMEs should consider embracing social media in their marketing:
Cost Efficiency: Registering a social media account costs nothing. But companies can use it to respond to consumers directly, promote products and build up a community.
Enabling Peer-to-peer Dialogue: Social media allows companies interact with consumers in a real-time dialogue, which can increase brand loyalty.
Bigger Reach than Email: Social media encourages information-sharing on the Internet.
In 2008 China surpassed the US to have the largest internet user base in the world, and it now has the largest population of online shoppers. There are now over 240 million Chinese e-shoppers and, together, they are spending an average of USD $40,000 (app £25,000) every second.
Online shopping in China is expected to see exponential growth over the next five years. According to McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020 China’s e-tail market could be as large as today’s markets in the US, Japan, the UK, Germany and France combined. Both Business-to-Consumer (B2C) and Consumer-to- Consumer (C2C) transactions have seen a very recent and substantial jump in transaction volume, with B2C e-tailing only maturing more recently.
In August 2013, the central government announced ‘Broadband China’, a new strategic policy for increasing public use of the internet. The main aims are to facilitate the construction of a new internet infrastructure, popularise online applications, enhance service innovation and assist in the coordination of internet-related industries.
According to state media outlet Xinhua, by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan later this year (2015), the ‘Broadband China’ strategy will have attracted RMB 1.6 trillion (app. £162 billion) of government investments, and broadband internet’s prevalence is expected to increase by a further 10%. This will provide a significant boost for China’s e-commerce sector.
The Business-to-Consumer (B2C) / Online Retail Sector
The expansion of internet usership and online shopping penetration rates has provided a solid foundation for the development of the Chinese online retail industry. According to the China E-Commerce Research Centre, in the first half of 2013 Chinese online retail market transactions topped RMB 754 billion (app. £77 billion), accounting for 6.8% of total retail sales of consumer goods – an increase of 47.3% year-on-year (YoY).
Tmall is undoubtedly the No.1 in the online retail market. However, in recent years its dominance has been challenged by Jingdong (AKA 360Buy).
The main reasons for the steady growth of the Chinese B2C market since 2010 are:
Mainstream B2C platforms have been waging 'price wars' in order to compete for market share
Traditional enterprises have increased their online operations
The increase of online customers
As an internet-based industry, Chinese B2C companies have spent a lot of resources in supply chain management and they are also experienced in front-end services.
Currently, ‘price war’ remains the core competition model at this primary stage of development in the Chinese B2C market. However, in the future, the competition will focus on providing differentiated products and services, not just pricing.
According to a 2012 survey of online shoppers by Bain Analysis, an increasing number of consumers are motivated to shop online by convenience and product variety, rather than pricing.
Brick-and-mortar retailers are now developing strategies to direct shoppers from the physical store into the online store and vice versa. According to a recent speech by Dr Yuanyue, founder of the Horizon Research Consultancy Group for durable consumer goods, Chinese consumers prefer to compare the range, brands and product features online but eventually purchase the item in person. This is especially in cases where high reliability and after-sales services are required.
Retailers need to improve online brand awareness and both the online and offline shopping experiences in order to influence shoppers through multichannel marketing and direct them back to high-quality offline services.
The Consumer-to-Consumer (C2C) Sector
In previous years China’s online C2C sector, driven by amateur shopkeepers, dominated the nation’s e-commerce market. However, the Chinese B2C e-commerce market is now growing rapidly and is providing tough competition.
Due to the rise of the online B2C sector, the total number of individual online C2C shops has declined by 27.8%. This trend suggests that customers are becoming increasingly concerned about quality and service and have higher expectations for the online shopping experience.
In the online C2C retail market, Taobao remains the strongest player, claiming 95.1% of the entire C2C market, leaving only 4.7% to PaiPai.com and 0.2% to Eachnet.com
Business-to-Business (B2B) Sector
As of 2013, the value of China’s B2B e-commerce market transactions reached approx. RMB 3.4 trillion (£345 billion), an increase of 15% YoY. Among those B2B e-commerce service providers, Alibaba.com continues to rank first in terms of revenue. According to e-commerce specialists EBRun, Alibaba has 43% of the market share, followed by MySteel.com, GlobalSources.com.cn, HC360.com and Made-in-China.com.
Chinese internet has witnessed a very recent rapid increase in mobile e-commerce. China’s state media outlet Xinhua stated that in 2013 the size of China’s mobile e-commerce market reached RMB 53 billion (app. £5.4 billion), an increase of 44.1% YoY. As this statistic indicates, the momentum of this market remains strong.
In the Chinese market, mobile e-commerce is focused on retail, entertainment and personal finance needs. Compared with the other online services, the data flow of mobile e-commerce contains more private data and its business models are closer to the inelastic demands of individuals.
According to CNIT-Research’s report published in August 2013, the number of mobile e-commerce users in China at that time was as high as 370 million. This figure had increased dramatically since 2009, when there were just 36 million users. CNIT-Research estimated that users of mobile e-commerce will have reached 500 million by the end of 2014*. The roll-out of 4G networks, with higher connection speeds, combined with more consumers switching to smart phones, will further stimulate the growth of mobile e-commerce.
(* Although not necessarily all users of mobile e-commerce, in February 2015 there were about 1.29 billion mobile users registered in China.)
Getting Access to China’s Online Consumers
For British businesses trying to access the Chinese e-commerce market, the first step is to work out a practical and reliable e-commerce strategy. In the past, the only way to directly handle the online shopping demand from China was to establish an online store in Chinese e-commerce platforms, meaning that domestic business registration and tax reporting were essential.
Many SME producers of consumer goods tend to use Amazon China as their first step in China because Amazon China provides the same management tools and interface globally. However, Amazon China has limited market influence and low traffic compared to its competitor Tmall.com. Moreover, Amazon China requires a full set of domestic business registration and taxation information in order to open a seller account. The actual operational cost of running such an online store in China is often higher than expected.
Another option is to set up a dedicated e-commerce access point for Chinese target customers, which is physically hosted outside of China (for example, Google chose Hong Kong to host its server clusters for Chinese visitors). For British SMEs, hosting Chinese content in the Asia-Pacific region means Chinese customers could get a faster connection, which is very important in the e-commerce market. The latest cloud-based hosting services provide reliable solutions at affordable prices.
Before entering the Chinese e-commerce market, it is important to understand frequently changing government regulations and the local business landscape. CBBC recommends UK companies visit China to meet local partners and potential supporting staff. A good local partner can act as a sensor of industrial trends and as a guide to building business relationships. In addition, the success of e-commerce activities is heavily dependent on pre-sale consultation and post-sale support services. A local partner would be in the best position to handle these issues.
Top 10 Tips for Chinese E-Commerce
1. Know your friends, clients and enemies
2. Establish clear directions, combine online and offline development
3. Choose the right platform for your business
4. Maintain an e-commerce workflow of high efficiency
5. Improve communication with customers
6. Do your research on local business culture
7. Catch up with the trend of mobile e-commerce
8. Understand government regulations
9. Never underestimate the importance of logistics issues
10. Keep innovating and keep up with e-commerce trends
Selling online to China
Watch CBBC’s video on selling online to China at: www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLv_tMYysg7ROD-n2hCkPWBaYTRyxzMpFL (series 2)
Also UKTI’s e-Exporting Programme can help you reach Chinese consumers through e-marketplaces. See: www.gov.uk/e-exporting
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