According to legend, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who first called China a ‘sleeping giant’. In the last 50 years, this so-called giant has not only woken up, but is forging ahead, dragging global economic growth with it. Its economy is second only to the US, and forecast to grow 4.8% in 2022. Its massive consumer market holds enormous potential appeal and interest to foreign brands, for good reason. It is, by far, the world’s largest e-commerce market, reaching ~$1.7 trillion in online transaction value in 2020.
However, technological, cultural, and regulatory hurdles have caused many foreign brands to put China in the "too hard" basket: a strong marketing strategy in China needs to account for all three. China has one of the most advanced digital ecosystems in the world, which includes apps and services unrecognisable in the west, and a sophisticated and hyper-competitive domestic marketing sector. Marketers need to also account for cultural and language barriers, in their campaign messaging, along with, sometimes, the product or service offering itself. A successful marketing strategy must also take into consideration China’s regulatory landscape, which restricts how you use Chinese consumer data, what you advertise, and the language you use to describe your product.
You know you have a product, service, or brand that has value. So, how can you make sure it finds resonance with Chinese consumers? Be prepared to adapt your marketing content as well as your overall strategy – your China marketing strategy must be more considered than simply a Chinese-language version of your domestic campaign. The main challenge to entering the China market is getting closer to where your targeted consumer is online. Tailoring your marketing strategy and digital presence to China is a critical first step and allows you to analyse your performance to refine your strategy further.
How is marketing different in China?
China’s marketing landscape was bound to evolve differently than in the West. One of the fundamental cornerstones of its evolution was the leapfrogging of China’s population online via mobile. The Western marketing from evolution from radio, to television, to PC and then mobile did not occur within China. The steep adoption of online services from 2000, when only 1.8% of the population was online, to 34% internet penetration a decade later, happened largely via mobile phones. As a result, China marketing has developed with a far greater focus on mobile-first content.
Another distinctive feature of China’s marketing culture stems from traditional differences in the Chinese consumer’s decision-making journey. Historically, they have been slower to trust retailers, according to McKinsey, because of “a legacy of fragmented trade, the lack of an established credit system, and an absence of appeal mechanisms when goods and services failed to meet expectations.” As a result, Chinese consumers tend to do far more research ahead of making a purchase and access a variety of sources during that research. Chinese consumers rely, to a far greater degree than their Western counterparts, on recommendations and reviews.
A number of trends within China marketing reflect this driving concern for recommendations, not least of which is the dominance of the ‘KOL’, or ‘key opinion leader’ as a vehicle for marketers. Chinese retail evaluation is also far more developed than the standard scoring or comments sections you may be familiar with from Western ecommerce sites. In China, product reviews can be rich sources of content, including images and detailed descriptions of the product.
There is also a far greater focus in China marketing on speed and responsivity, which has sprung up from hyper-competitive domestic growth. Growth in revenue, as opposed to concern for profit, is important to investors in growing economies. Because of this, the emphasis for marketers has been on getting it done, rather than getting it perfect. Speed is also a critical factor in how responsive consumers expect brands to be online. Social commerce is a mainstay in China marketing campaigns. Chinese mega app ‘WeChat’ lets brands post content and interact with customers one-to-one, to field questions and take feedback. China’s ‘on demand’ culture has driven brands to me much faster in how they respond to these interactions.
However, of all the challenges to China marketing, the ‘Great Firewall’ continues to be one of the main hurdles for foreign brands. International web giants such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are completely blocked. The absence of these services has wider implications for the performance of your digital presence which require you to completely rethink your digital China strategy. Your English (or international website) will use things such as Google Analytics tracking, Facebook pixel for remarketing, embedded YouTube videos and more. All of these elements mean that your website is most likely not going to be accessible behind China’s Great Firewall. Or if it’s not completely blocked, it will at least significantly impact your website loading speed.
China’s firewall has led to a digital Galapagos, with major services and apps that may be unrecognizable to Western netizens. A familiarity with this alternative digital ecosystem, and some of its unique features, is critical to your China marketing strategy.
China’s marketing mix
China parallel digital ecosystem features Baidu, instead of Google, and Youku instead of YouTube, and a host of other platforms that are virtually unknown in the West (an exception to this is TikTok, which continues to be a popular app despite being banned in the US for a period of time).
Many of the ‘top ten’ Chinese platforms, identified in a recent report by QuestMobile, will be completely unfamiliar to Western marketers.
Top ten’ China internet platforms
Monthly active users, June 2021
|Sougou Pinyin||526 million|
Baidu is a particularly important channel for marketers, being the largest search engine by market share, and the default search engine for most of China. Baidu analytics allows marketers to track many of the same website activity as google analytics, and can be used to help optimise the site as well as garner consumer insight.
Digital marketing in China
So, what do you need to consider when creating a great China digital marketing campaign? A China-optimised website is a critical first step into the Chinese market. Your China website will need to:
- Load (quickly) within China. A China website is a cornerstone for building brand recognition and authority and cultivating trust with consumers. It also supports offline activity, like trade shows and networking events, and establishes a foundation for your paid media campaigns. However, it’s a first step many organisations get wrong. Sinorbis research into 2,000 companies showed that 94% of Western websites are not visible in China.
- Be optimised for Chinese search engines. Sinorbis found 84% weren’t optimised for Chinese search engines. Chinese search engines favour different SEO strategy and activity. Taking these differences into account is critical to building a websites SEO performance.
- Be mobile responsive. A website that is mobile responsive should have text, navigation and call to action buttons that are large enough to read and use without zooming in, so you can navigate the site with your fingers on a touch screen.
- Host content specifically developed for your Chinese consumer. A Chinese translation of your current content may not gel with your targeted consumers. In developing Chinese website content, you should take into account cultural differences, netizen languages (which differ across different platforms), as well as local marketing regulation restricting your use of data and the language you use.
Consider its integration with an official WeChat account. Social apps are an essential consideration for any China marketing campaign, and the king of all social apps is WeChat.
For more, our detailed guide takes you through the process of building a China website step by step.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of WeChat-- a messaging, social media and e-commerce mega app, and China’s number one platform. There are three types of official accounts business can utilise: domestic, international, and official account. A verified, official account is a great way of establishing trust with your WeChat followers, although takes more initial work in the set up. Verification requires Tencent, the company that owns WeChat, to run through a series of checks to ensure the credibility of your business. For more information on setting up and running a WeChat account, click here.
Cultural difference in China marketing
Some of the biggest foreign brand failures in China have resulted from a lack of local knowledge, and cultural faux pas. More foreign brands than ever are relying on China-based teams to develop and execute marketing campaigns, and partnering with Chinese influencers, (like the famous "Mr Bags", who curates luxury bag content).
Marketing laws in China
There are a number of key pieces of regulation that you must comply with in order to run a digital marketing campaign in China.
Amended advertising law that came into effect in 2015 included several key restrictions on the kind of claims advertisers could make about products, as well as what items may be marketed in China. Ads for health foods, for instance, couldn’t lay claim to medical benefits. Tobacco ads were banned, and infant milk formula ads weren’t allowed to call themselves breast milk substitutes. Children under 10 are not allowed to endorse products, and alcohol consumption can not be featured in ads. Claims using "extreme" words, which includes superlatives like ‘best, most, and ‘world renowned’ were also banned, amongst others.
Data privacy laws
China’s new data privacy law, meanwhile, changed the digital ground rules for marketers. The Personal Information Protection Law, which came into effect on 1 November 2021, includes stringent regulation that encompasses organisations both inside and outside China, utilising Chinese citizens’ personal information. The new regulatory hurdle proved too high for some: the day the law came into effect, Yahoo announced it was pulling out of China because of ‘challenging’ business conditions. Meanwhile, ships dropped off the grid in Chinese waters as domestic data suppliers cut off tracking data. However, the risk posed by the law, and the road to compliance, varies organisation-by-organisation. Some of the regulation will appear familiar if you have already undertaken compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Key differences, however, which stem from China’s national security concerns must be taken into account by businesses.
Benefits of marketing in China
Entering the Chinese market holds challenges, but also rewards. Its massive size and strong recovery from the pandemic have cemented its position as a key market globally. Its economy’s bounce back from the pandemic has been staggering, growing 18.3% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to 2020. It seems increasingly likely that China may, one day, develop the same economic clout as the United States.
Companies that spend time and effort making inroads into the Chinese market stand to not just benefit from business now, but also benefit from the insights they gather well into the future. Our team is ready to help organisations on this journey with:
- China website creation. We can build you a website that loads within seconds and is optimised for the China digital ecosystem.
- China landing page creation. Our Shanghai-based team understand Chinese design and content, and can build a site that gels with your targeted consumer.
- China SEO foundations. We can help build your SEO strategy, develop target keywords for your target market, analyse your China website performance, and help identify critical issues.
- WeChat account creation. We can help guide you through the WeChat verification process, and our platform allows you to streamline your WeChat publishing process.
- Creating WeChat content. Our Shanghai team can help produce engaging WeChat audience that vibes with the expectations of the platform’s user.