Marketing in China: a five-step guide

Simon Kemp

The Guardian recently published this article by me about five key points to consider when communicating with a Chinese audience. They’ve been kind enough to let us reproduce it in full below.


To say this hasn’t been the greatest couple of months for China would be an understatement. But, despite the current gloom, innovation still stands strong. Regularly unique, sometimes surprising, often completely different to anything you’ve seen in the west, China’s approach to marketing and social media has been an incredible journey over the last few years. We’ve been following this progress closely with the team in our Shanghai office, and we’ve recently published a report into the digital, social and mobile landscape in China.

There were some big numbers in there, with the headline stats focused predominantly on mobile and social growth. There are now 574 million mobile social media users in China, up 15 million since this time last year, as well as the fact that there are now 659 million social media users – more than the US and Europe combined. But what does all this tell marketers about China, and how to approach it? Here are the five key points to consider when communicating with a Chinese audience.

1. China is different
It’s obvious that the platforms that dominate in China are markedly different to ones that marketers are familiar with elsewhere – even those in their Asian neighbours. However, it’s not just the platforms that are different; the ways that Chinese netizens use social channels is also markedly different, and marketers need to carefully adapt their approaches for China’s cultural and societal idiosyncrasies as much as for its technological differences. One size does not fit all when it comes to China.

2. A personal approach makes a difference
In particular, the growing popularity of chat apps in China presents a new set of opportunities for marketers. Many of the conversations that take place on these platforms are more private in nature, taking place between individuals and small groups (versus the public environments that western marketers will know from Facebook and Twitter).

In order to take advantage of the intimate nature of these one-to-one conversations, marketers will need to explore new approaches to social media and content marketing, ensuring that the tactics they employ make it easy for audiences to find and consume content on one platform (eg video-sharing services like Youku or Tudou), and then share that content via chat apps. This will require greater emphasis on highly engaging content and organic sharing, rather than an approach that relies on paid media to push mediocre content to the masses.

3. Get to know the calendar
While western marketers gear up for the big pre-Christmas shopping days of the year, Black Friday and Cyber Monday at the end of November, the big dates in the Chinese calendar happen at different times. Singles’ Day, a shopping festival that also happens in November, targets people who are single (as you might have guessed) and offers them an excuse to buy themselves gifts in celebration of their single status.

It’s already become hugely popular among young Chinese people, and is now the country’s largest shopping day of the year, despite the fact that it’s not a cultural tradition, but the recent commercial brainchild of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Sales on Alibaba’s various sites exceeded $9.3bn (£5.85bn) in just one day last on Singles’ Day last year, and there’s every chance that number will pass $10 billion on 11 November this year.

Retailers start marketing Singles’ Day at least a month before the day, and on the day itself, offer big discounts (sometimes up to 50%) on products to draw consumers in. Think of it as a bit like a Boxing Day shopping mentality, but without the hangover and leftover turkey. Meanwhile, lunar new year is another big commercial festival in China, and inspires the sort of commercial activity that western marketers would associate with Christmas.

4. Social selling
As with any market, peer-to-peer recommendations are the holy grail of marketing, and China is no different in this respect. Indeed, given the highly regulated nature of the country’s more traditional mass media, word-of-mouth is even more critical in China – a fact supported by McKinsey research.

For this reason, recommendations both offline and on social networks such as WeChat, QQ and Sina Weibo have become “the most important factor in the online shopping decision,” according to another McKinsey report featured in China Daily.

Given this behaviour, marketers must start to explore how the dynamics of social referral work in China for their specific audiences and industry, and use that to move from social engagement to social conversion.

5. QR codes are critical
In addition to general online purchases, one trend that our report picked up on is the willingness to buy products on mobile – 20% bought a product on a mobile device over a month (2% higher than the UK and US), with 15% claiming to have researched a product to buy on their phone. M-commerce is clearly big, but what are retailers doing to help spur this along?

Despite their poor standing in the minds of many western marketers, the QR code is a daily essential for brands in China, and the distinctive black and white images can be found on billboards and products all over the country. This is partly thanks to WeChat’s adoption – using a QR code and a WeChat wallet, consumers can buy goods from physical stores in China instead of using cash or a credit card. This year, Alibaba launched “dotless visual codes” for brands to place on product packaging so that consumers can use their phone to check a product’s authenticity and get information, discounts and recommendations based on their preferences. Just because something is out of fashion in the west, don’t assume the same is true for China.