Saturday, April 25, 2015

Do Chinese consumers have an environmental conscience?

It is evident that Chinese consumers like everywhere else in the world reflect a consumption pattern that is governed by their beliefs, values and ideals. In a research conducted by GfK in 23 countries, 72 % of the Chinese consumers claim that they only buy those products which match their values, beliefs and ideals.  In fact, the ardor of this expression is one of the highest in the world and the Chinese consumers seem to surpass the consumers in most developed countries in the intensity of their expressed emotion. 

That concern for the environment is among these guiding values is clear from the fact that Chinese consumers in most research studies, as in this one, avidly proclaim a strong environmental conscience and also demand responsible behavior from companies. 73 % of them (7th highest among the 24 countries studied) say that they are plagued by guilt when they indulge in an environmentally unfriendly manner. Their demand from brands and companies is even more exacting - 80 % of them feel that brands and companies have to be environmentally responsible. Here again the Chinese consumers are ahead of most developed countries in their standards.

The key question, of course, is will the Chinese consumers pay a premium for an environmentally friendly product? On this, the results in the market so far have been disappointing and there is no evidence of consumers paying more for an environmentally friendly product - as we see them paying for a safe product. Chinese mothers are buying infant milk formula and other baby products from all over the world at the highest prices. However, they don't seem to reflect a similar enthusiasm for products which are less of a strain on the environment. Tesla, the premium fully electric car, which has become an environmental badge in the U.S. seems to have had limited traction on the Chinese roads so far. Even in terms of common environmentally friendly practices such as shunning plastic shopping bags or buying products with reusable or light packaging the Chinese consumers are not really holding a beacon to the rest of the world. 

What do marketers and policy makers need to bridge this gap between espoused values and actual behavior? The key to achieving this is to link the desired positive behavior to a clear consumer benefit. Consumers seldom pay to assuage their conscience, but invariably do when they see a clear and meaningful benefit. Less pollution and safer environment are clear candidate benefits that can be dangled in front of the consumers.  Benefits don't just need to be functional or tangible - emotional benefits could also hold a powerful sway.  The related emotional pay off in this case could be potent - particularly if it relates to the long term protection and health of their children. Chinese consumers will pay if they feel that the premium that they pay today will create a better and safer world for their children tomorrow. The key to a more desirable behavior and premium for environmentally friendly products lies in converting the guilty conscience into a powerful emotional benefit that the Chinese consumers can identify with.  

Written by Ashok Sethi

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Brand Divorce

In 2013 3.5 million Chinese couples filed for a divorce - an increase of 12.3% over the previous year. The Chinese marriage is in a crisis and more and more Chinese are choosing to part ways with their partners and live on their own. Of course many more, particularly educated women (often referred to as shengnu - leftover women or victorious women - depending on the character for "sheng" and your point of view) are choosing not to cast their lot with anyone at all. Similar statistics are hard to come by for the number of Chinese consumers who divorce the brands they have been using, often after years of relationship. However it is clear that the consumers' predilections in personal lives are also reflected in their purchase behavior and brand choice. Chinese purchase behavior is characterized by promiscuity and flirtatiousness, and often resistant to settling down in a faithful and long lasting relationship. What are the root causes of this Chinese detachment and is there a commonality between what is causing the Chinese to shed their bonds with their partners and with their brands? 

Why do so many Chinese marriages end up in a divorce? And do similar reasons prompt them to cast aside the brands they were once in love with? Research shows that there are four main reasons which prompt the Chinese couples to part ways. 

First and foremost it is an erosion of trust. It could be a lack of trust in the spouse's fidelity, or financial conduct or the single-mindedness of the devotion. The brand marriage is also rocked by a lack of trust. Chinese consumers are prompt in divorcing a brand which they feel cannot be trusted - whether it is in terms of safety, quality or honesty. Of special note here is the aspect of safety, where many consumers feel let down by brands which offered products which could harm the health of the consumers and their families.

The second cause of marital discord and subsequent break-up is financial differences. Who should pay the mortgage or the maintenance, where and how should the savings be invested and who should command the household finances. Brand marriage is also rocked by financial differences. Chinese consumers decide to divorce the brand if they feel it is charging them too much and isn't really giving them a good value for their money. Value assurance is perpetual challenge for brands and they need to continuously monitor their perceived worth in the consumer mind.

Marriages also crumble and the couple become distant when their interests and needs start diverging. Brand marriages also crumble when the consumers' interests and needs change and the brands are not able to adapt to the changing needs. Consumer needs are evolving and becoming more sophisticated. Brands need to sharpen and contemporize their proposition to keep up with these changes.

Finally marriages flounder when the love starts to disappear and the relationship becomes a functional dependency and loses the emotional bond which brought the couple together. Couples keep their relationships vibrant and fresh by tender touches, emotional gestures and meaningful communication. Brands in China also need to learn to sustain the romance and keep the marriage healthy and long lasting. 

Managing consumer brand relationships becomes so much easier when we try to understand them with the metaphor of human relationships. Is your relationship with your consumers a healthy and stable marriage or is it a marriage-on-the-rocks?

Written by Ashok Sethi
Ashok is the Managing Director for GfK Custom Research in China

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chinese Manufacturing and Indian Service

The Ministry of Commerce in China recently announced, that the nation has toppled the US and taken the crown of the world’s largest merchandising trader.  Much of this achievement is based on an extraordinary success in manufacturing. China has clearly established its name for its manufacturing prowess. Half its gross domestic product is accounted for by manufacturing. Its plant and factories, churning out huge quantities of washing machines, refrigerators and mobile phones, cater to the insatiable demand of consumer goods in China and also cater to the global appetite for cheap goods. China is the largest trading partner of 120 countries, including India, and with most of them enjoys a favorable balance of payments situation because of successful export of its merchandise. China hence has developed capabilities to efficiently produce these goods not just to meet its own demand, and export to the whole world.

There are several factors which provided a fertile ground for the development of China’s manufacturing industry. China's manufacturing strength is due to its entrepreneurship, good infrastructure and efficient supply chain. The manufacturing boom also occurred at the cusp of huge urbanization, when millions of young Chinese villagers were free and eager to move out to supplement their meagre agricultural income and willing to work as cheap labour in factories. But the manufacturing industry also owes a debt to the fact that as a people, the Chinese are prone to follow instructions, stick to processes and work in a disciplined manner - exactly what manufacturing calls for.

On the other hand, services, though growing healthily, remain a weakness of the Chinese economic model. The Chinese tend to apply the same uniform standards and processes to services, which they employ to manufacturing. This often results in a sub-optimal offer, as services intrinsically have a higher variability in its demand. A three star hotel in China will nearly uniformly provide you clean rooms and sheets, a functioning television and a passable restaurant – but seldom anything more.  The Chinese service model is based on the principles of assembly line of the manufacturing process. The service is divided neatly into different processes and a standardized delivery of a basic quality is designed for each element. Standardization rather than customization is the goal. Airport staff at boarding gates in Chinese airports play recorded "thank you" messages while they scan the boarding cards. “If you have to thank every customer, why not have a recording to spew it out than leave it to the whim of fickle humans,” the Chinese think. 

Indians on the other hand are free-spirited, creative creatures of their own whim and will. They need variety and opportunity for creativity and extemporisation. Manufacturing is stifling for the Indians - it is the creative, on the feet servicing which is their forte. Unlike China’s manufacturing dominated GDP, it is the services which reign supreme in India, accounting for more than half its GDP.

The Indian service model, is based on the concept of customised service, which results in more tailor-made and specific solutions for the customer, often resulting in a higher level of problem solving and satisfaction. However, the Indian service also embodies a high level of variance.
 A three star hotel in India will show high variation with a quality of facilities and service which could, on one end rival a five star hotel, and on the other hand offer barely liveable accommodation.
Additionally, the Indian model is vulnerable to the whims of fancies for the people who are providing the service.  If you are lucky, you will be greeted with a beaming smile, solicitous attitude, and made to feel like a king. On a bad day (her bad day, which soon becomes your bad day too) you may be scowled at and blamed for interrupting her well-deserved rest.
But most of all, her behaviour and attitude will be based on what she feels the particular customer deserves. Coming from deep notions of a class based society, the behavior will often depend upon at what level or class of society does the person behind the counter pegs you at. Hence, if you are neatly dressed, exude an air of confidence and sophistication, you may be greeted with a smile. On the other hand if you present a bedraggled appearance and are classified as ordinary riff-raff you may be treated with perfunctory callousness. While flexibility is an asset for Indian service, extreme variability is a weakness. Indian model could do with a bit of standardization and learn from the highly homogeneous, low variance output of the Chinese

In this context India's software industry is clearly vulnerable to competition from China. In the long run Chinese are likely to prove themselves to be better in writing code than the Indians - though Indians may still hold an edge in the systems analysis and design. Surely this presents an obvious opportunity for cooperation and collaboration between the two countries.

Written by Ashok Sethi
Ashok is the Managing Director of GfK (a Global provider of market research and consumer insights) in China

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Digital year of the horse

China today has 618 million internet users. Internet has pervaded all aspects of life - from buying fresh vegetables, to seeking employment or seeking a life partner. The new year festivities, are on the other hand, one would expect would be seeped in tradition and celebrate the timeless customs. However in China the new year festivities, heralding the year of the horse, have taken a distinctive digital turn.

Firstly, the new year is a time for reunion with families, particularly for the 260 million migrant workers, who toil throughout the year, often away from their families and children. Hence procuring a train ticket to arrive home is of utmost importance. A few years ago, the Chinese  railway  went online and started offering tickets on its website The ticket sales would normally begin around a week before the commencement of the journey. Within a few seconds the system is bombarded with millions of requests, and the tickets are often sold out even before you can successfully log in. Local internet companies like came to the rescue with plug-ins which automate the process of trying to login and get into the system. Of course, many cried foul against such ticket snatching plugs, but not before millions were able to benefit from this software to secure a ticket for a ride home, prompting the website to take steps to block the intrusion from such rogue plug-ins. 

Then there is the practice of exchanging greetings, and wishing each other success, happiness and most importantly prosperity in the coming year. Mobile phone SMS became the de facto medium and 31 billion short messages were exchanged over the cellular network in 2013. 2014, however, saw a sharp decline in the use of SMS - only 18 billion SMS greetings were exchanged - an over 40% decline over last year. The exchange of greetings shifted online, particularly to WeChat, an online messaging platform akin to WhatsApp.

And lastly, the new year is not only the time to exchange greetings, but also more substantial hongbaos or red envelops, normally stuffed with a certain amount of cash, and dished out particularly to the younger and the junior. The hongbao gifting also made its way to the digital arena, with  the facility to gift a hongbao from WeChat. You do that by linking your bank card with your WeChat account, which allows you to gift money, just as it allows a host of other e-commerce activities. Tencent (owners of WeChat) claimed that more than 75 million hongbaos were gifted during the first three days of the Chinese new year.

Digital, hence, has conquered another area of tradition, but in true Chinese spirit, not by destroying what is precious and beautiful in the age old practices, but by further enhancing the joys and jubilations associated with this important festival of China.

Written by Ashok

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Innovation in emerging markets

Quite often when people think of innovation they think of Apple and the iphone. That such innovation is also relevant for emerging and developing markets is proven by the fact that China has already become the second largest market for Apple. But there is more to innovation in emerging markets that producing cute gadgets. 

If we define the purpose of innovation as the process which leads to a better satisfaction of consumer needs, or an improvement in the quality of life of the consumers, we need to firstly look at the profile of the target population of the consumers in emerging markets and see what kind of innovations can they benefit from. While luxury goods may be booming in emerging markets, they also house over a billion people living below the poverty line. Even the emerging middle class in these markets has much more modest spending power than the middle class in the West. This implies that while the Western style innovation of smart technology and slick designs is still relevant in the emerging  markets, there is also a totally new kind of innovation required for consumers who are actively seeking improvements in their lives it terms of basic aspects such as clean and safe drinking water, affordable housing, better education for their children and basic services such as banking. It is not surprising then that m-pesa a mobile phone based money transfer service emerged in Africa and not from the developed markets.

Jugaad innovation

We often use the term "jugaad innovation" in the context of emerging markets. Jugaad innovation is normally used to describe, relatively low cost, problem solving, basic, grass-root level innovation that is often the result of consumer and manufacturer ingenuity, directed at solving some problems and improving the quality of life for consumers. In the Western context, innovation is expensive as it involves expensive R&D, scores of Ph.D's pouring over their microscopes to discover new magical formulas. Innovation is normally a long drawn process with very little short-term return. While companies like Lenovo and Huawei are engaged in this Western style investment, only the most successful companies can afford to put in these kind of resources. For most companies in emerging markets the only route is frugal innovation.

Secondly, most innovation in the Western world is top-down - as the consumer needs in most areas are actually well satisfied and  it is the companies, who in search of higher profits and beating the competition are looking for ways to provide that extra stimulation and thrill to the consumers. However in the emerging markets, innovation often starts at the grass-root level, as the consumers have unsatisfied needs and often resort to cheap and crude but still workable solutions to seek solutions for their problems.

Chinese digital innovation

While the Western companies lead in innovation for technology products, one of the most active areas of innovation in China is the technology services in the digital and mobile arena. True, the Westerns platforms of Facebook and Twitter are not accessible to the average Chinese- but they have something much more suitable to their needs - Weibo. Just as twitter, Weibo allows you to express anything in 140 characters. Of course in Chinese, each character is actually a word, and hence you can say a lot more in 140 characters in Chinese than you can do in English or most other languages. Weibo has attracted more than 300 m users within a few years and has become a platform for discussion of everything from brands to social issues to corruption. Through Weibo urban young Chinese have found a relatively open but still an acceptable way to express themselves. Weibo has emerged and evolved in a uniquely Chinese way to satisfy the needs of the Chinese consumers.  

Similarly while Western companies like eBay and Amazon have made little headway in China, the Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao has 600,000 vendors selling everything from tablet PCs to freshly slaughtered chicken. Taobao was able to innovate to address several resistances towards e-commerce in China - which included a mistrust between sellers and buyers, low penetration of credit cards and extreme price sensitivity. Both Weibo and taobao have developed not through top-down innovation but through their users who have moulded the platforms to best satisfy their needs.

Innovation in emerging markets is extremely important. Not only can it add to the coffers of corporations, it can change and even save lives. Of course, to be effective it needs to be anchored to the consumer needs and a discovery of what can enrich their lives.

Written by Ashok Sethi

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The emergence of seamless retail

The juggernaut of online shopping

It is just to state the obvious that the Internet has totally transformed the world for both the shoppers and the retailers. Shoppers have taken to online shopping with gusto and entrepreneurs and businesses are straining hard to exploit the opportunity. In the early days of Internet, it was common to consider the web as a resource or an aid to shopping, and it was expected that consumers will rely on the Net to look for information about products, to locate a store where they can buy and to perhaps look for advice and assistance on how to make the right choice. It is indeed true and nearly all agree that the Internet has become a very useful resource for shopping. However clearly it has gone far beyond that and has become a gigantic marketplace - consumers are buying everything from luxury goods, shampoo, automobiles and freshly slaughtered chicken on the Internet. 

Online shopping has not just established itself in the developed markets, it has firmly established itself in the developing markets and e-tailing already accounts for 5-6 percent of 2012 retail sales in China and about 5 percent in the United States. In China online sales recorded an astonishing estimated 60% year-on-year growth in 2012 (Source: McKinsey. MGI China e-tailing report)

Last year online shoppers grew by 25% in China, with nearly 50 million new shoppers added to the fold (Source: CNNIC January 2013). The growth of group buying or tuan gou (which actually originated in China), also continues. We also see that consumers are losing their fear on online payments. In the initial era of online shopping, cash on delivery used to be a common method of payment, but thanks to Taobao (the largest online shopping platform in China with more than 6 million merchants listing their products), and the escrow system of payment known as Zhifubao, which protects both the buyers and the sellers, online shoppers are now ready to pay online.

The circuitous consumer journey

For the consumers the two worlds of online and offline shopping are now intrinsically intertwined. In the initial days of online shopping the consumers often looked for information on products online but the then returned to the comfort and security of the familiar bricks and mortar environment to lighten their wallets. While this is still a reality, the other phenomenon is more prevalent and on the rise - consumers today often touch and feel the product in the traditional stores, but come back to their comfortable chair at home, where they sit in front of their favorite computer or the newly acquired tablet and enjoy in-home retail therapy by clicking the "Buy" button.

The fact is that today the Internet is as much a part of the retail scenario, as is the supermarket or the hypermarket. Whether you are a retailer or a marketer of brands, it is no longer a question of developing an e-commerce strategy - the task really is to entirely reshape and develop a retail strategy for the digital world.

Online, offline and seamless..

This juggernaut of online sales has huge implications on the online as well as the traditional retail industry. It is not possible to understand the implications for e-commerce unless we simultaneously look at and compare the respective roles that online retail and conventional retail are carving for themselves. And to understand that we must understand what consumers expect in an online environment and what are their expectations in a traditional store.

Consumers are very clear when they think about what is important to them in an online store – ‘saving money’, ‘more payment and delivery options’ and  ‘better selection and delivery’ top the list. The needs from an offline store are very different. ‘Ability to touch and feel the products’, ‘satisfaction of immediate delivery’,  ‘better service’ and ‘enjoyable experience’ top the list. So the two channels have very different strengths and at this moment at least, it is too early to proclaim the demise of the traditional trade, though some change in its role is definitely in the offing

According to Deloitte’s Store 3.0 Survey among retail executives, it is apparent that the role as well as form of a bricks and mortar store will inevitably change. Today the executives say that he role of in-store employees is largely in providing basic purchase service and assistance and display some product knowledge. But this is expected to be totally transformed five years from now, when the most important skill of the workers will be to be able to leverage technology to enrich the customers' experience. Another important role of the sales staff will be to act as brand ambassadors. In fact retail executives indicated that in five years, providing customers with a compelling brand experience will become the primary role of the store.

So what does it augur for the future of online and offline trade. Online retailers need to clearly understand, that they lag behind the traditional trade when it comes to providing immediate gratification, intimate touch and feel, the immersive experience and the joy of shopping. They need to look at innovative ways of providing that intimacy - can technology be used to provide a better virtual touch and feel of the products, can virtual reality be used to help consumers come closer to the product? Can they collaborate with traditional retailers or can they establish their own limited brick and mortar presence (as some of them are doing already)? 

For offline retailers, the task it to zealously guard and enhance their ability to facilitate human interaction with the consumer. The store's function is not just to act as a convenient transaction center, it is to provide a valuable and important experience to the customer. For brands it is an opportunity to develop a relationship and bond with the customer, which is more of a challenge in an impersonal online environment. The most successful retailers will be those who can offer the best of both offline and online shopping and in fact offer a seamless shopping experience in which the shoppers can effortlessly move from online to offline, back to online then again to offline if they so desire .

This article is based on FutureBuy 2013 - a research study conducted by GfK in 14 markets across the world – which focuses on understanding shopping trends across the globe.

Written by Ashok Sethi

Spring festival blues and commercial opportunities

The Chinese new year is a festival of joy, family reunion, fun and celebration. However when 1.3 billion Chinese decide to celebrate and get reunited with their families during the same seven day period, it generates unprecedented competition for limited resources and ensuing hardship. At the same time it generates a commercial bonanza. According to data from the Ministry of Commerce in China, total retail sales during the week long festivities reached 539 billion yuan ($86 billion)- 14.7% more than last year. The commercial opportunities do not just exist for the big retailers and manufacturers, this special time of the year generates some rather niche, ingenious but also sometimes dubious commercial activity.

Take me home

The most intense competition during this period is for transportation to go back home. According to popular estimates in the media, the Chinese will make 3.4 billion trips during the peak 40 day travel period around the Chinese New Year, of which 3.1 billion will be road trips. 220 million are expected to take a train ride during this period. Online ticketing, which started just a few years ago, was expected to make the whole process relatively painless - however it turned out to be a barrier for migrant workers in buying tickets to go back home during the spring festival. According to a survey by the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade, more than 90% of the migrant workers preferred taking a train to go back home and almost 80% of them said that they would do so by buying tickets from a ticket office. 70% of them said that they were not familiar with the online ticketing procedure and only 18% had tried using the online ticketing service. A kindly couple who was offering the service for online ticket purchase at a small fee to migrant workers was apprehended with the accusation of touting. 

For those who are internet literate the task of making a booking is no less arduous. The average daily number of hits on the website has topped 120 million during the peak days. Online sales are now responsible for over a third of total tickets, accounting for as many as 6 million tickets a day. The buyers often face interminable waits while the overtaxed computers cope up with the deluge of booking requests. In an exhibition of ingenuity, three internet giants - Qihoo360, Kingsoft and Sogou - designed plug-ins for browsers to automate the task of repeatedly trying to login and buying  train tickets on the overloaded train booking website. Critics opined that the software gives the internet savvy an unfair advantage to secure the much prized tickets.

The road less travelled 

Many consumers are taking the "road less travelled" with one entrepreneur from Hangzhou choosing to take 48 buses to reach his home in Linyi in Shandong. Another enterprising soul undertook the arduous journey back home using 8 train tickets and transfers from Shanghai to his home town in Sichuan. As direct tickets are most difficult to secure, this segmented approach worked well for him and he was able to get home smoothly and relatively quickly. In fact the train enthusiast is offering consultancy to others on identifying circuitous routes back home where ticket purchase is still a possibility.

Meet your future son/daughter-in-law

When the young city workers go home, the parents are solicitous about their quest for marriage partners. Those who have not achieved success in this area, are worried about creating anxiety among their parents and persistent pressure on themselves. Taobao, china's online megastore, which offers everything from the latest iPad to freshly slaughtered chicken, comes to rescue on this count also. For a few thousand yuan, any unattached youth can hire someone who would pretend to be his or her future life partner during the golden week that is spent with the parents. Things do not always go as smoothly and dispassionately as planned, with a genuine spark of affection for the hired companion. 

Happy meals

Those who have already tied the knot and are the sole bearers of the family name and hopes for their parents ( as a result of family planning) need to make the difficult decision of with which set of parents should they have the nianyefan or the New Year's Eve dinner. Restaurants have come to the rescue urging the young from hosting the dinner at their premises, including both set of parents and even grandparents. The service is popular and the good restaurants are often booked months in advance.

Packaging for 'face'

Of course, when you go home you must carry gifts. Migrant workers who have left their children in their home towns and villages in the custody of their elders, have no dearth of what they can buy, and go back home loaded with toys for their children. The elderly are often rewarded with health foods, which will provide them with even more energy and stamina to look after their grandchildren. Marketers often exploit the gifters' need for face and desire to be seen as someone who has done well in the city and has come back with generous and valuable gifts. The often modest gifts are made to look more alluring and grand through excessive packaging. The authorities have taken notice of this and are coming down or deceptive and wasteful use of extravagant packaging.

Sleep well while you travel home

A product named "sleep support" has gained popularity on the internet as a sleep support for sitting upright sleep. The gadget provides head and chest support to the users, while sleeping upright on a train. a netizen suggested that if the instrument can also provide a place for comfortably holding an iPad its value will be considerably enhanced.

Written by Ashok Sethi