Thursday, February 28, 2008

New slogans for the new times

The 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China took place in Beijing late last year, with over 2000 delegates attending from all over the country. In his two and a half hour address to the delegates, President Hu Jintao described several important achievements as well as several significant challenges facing China today. The speech clearly exhibits the pride that China feels in its achievements as well the candid concern for the current issues and problems. However, it was interesting to see that while China has made immense strides in many spheres, the tradition of the rhetoric and the use of slogans is firmly in place. Of course, the old slogans have been replaced by the new. The current rage propounded by President Hu Jintao is “harmonious society”. Some time ago when the government abolished the agricultural tax, the move was accompanied by a slogan of “new countryside”. Also talked about for quite some time is China’s ambition to achieve a “moderately prosperous society” (xiao kang). President Hu added a few more in this congress – scientific outlook on development (implying balanced and sustainable development) and socialism with Chinese characteristics (implying that China is different and outsiders should stop telling it what it should do!).

Slogans or biayo yu as they are called in Chinese, have been integral to life in China since the communists took over in 1949. In fact during the earlier days of communism, the country was practically wired up through public address systems which incessant broadcast of slogans, exhortations, party doctrine and even threats. Prominent slogans from that time are – down with imperialist running dogs, suppress counter revolutionaries, serve the people. From time to time new slogans made their way and the one which really changed the country and paved the way for rapid economic strides was the one proclaimed by Deng Xiao Ping when he said “to get rich is glorious” (or words to that effect).

With the opening up of China to the rest of the world in 1978, the scale and shrillness of slogans substantially decreased. Over a period of time political slogans have been replaced by commercial advertising and messages of indoctrination gave way to messages of inducement of unspeakable joys of consumption or unthinkable relief on usage of various products. Coming from the tradition of sloganeering, it was not surprising that the initial advertising often resembled the tone and form of traditional slogans. Even now a large proportion of advertising seen on the Chinese television comprises models holding the brand to the camera and ecstatically recounting its virtues.

It was thought that the Chinese consumer is a simple soul and can not understand the subtlety of soft advertising which attempts to endear the brand through use of emotions or clever creative devices. Direct communication of the benefits in unambiguous terms was considered the safe route of communication. As a result while advertising in many other markets is as much entertainment as brand communication and attempts to engage the consumer through subtle creative devices, in China it is often a direct onslaught with the core benefit – often repeated several times within the same advertisement.

However, research done in China shows that this direct route does not have to be the one that an advertiser needs to embrace to succeed. Emotional advertising works and so does humour, endorsement or any of the other genres of advertising practiced elsewhere. The success of advertising in China, as elsewhere, depends on the ability of the advertisement to address the key consumer concerns, to overcome the deterrents for use and offer persuasive motivations for adoption of the brand. It also depends upon the extent to which the advertising portrays a social imagery that the target group can identify with and its ability to reflect consumer culture and aspirations.

It is interesting that it is not only the commercial world which is changing its attitude and strategy of communication. The Chinese government’s adoption of the one-child policy in late 1970’s was accompanied by strident and heavy handed communication. The slogans at that time included – “one less child is one less tomb”, “have less children and more piggies” or even "houses toppled, cows confiscated, if abortion demand rejected". In an effort to reflect the modern times, the National Population and Family Planning Commission in early August decided to begin replacing offensive slogans with new, more gentle communication. The new messages revolve around positive motivations of "healthy childbearing," "reproductive health," "rearing better children," and "care for girls," and focus on expressions like "life," "health," and "happiness". The new kinder messages like "Mother Earth is too tired to sustain more children" and "Both boys and girls are in parents' hearts" reflect the changing mood of the nation and a population which is demanding and getting more and more respect, consideration and a distinct voice.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Guanxi on the Net

From China to Spain is a team buying website in Spain. Consumers who want to buy a particular product, register on the website, the group of consumer interested in the same product then flexes its muscle and wrings the retailer’s arm to secure unimaginable bargains. is managed by Sonia who lives in Alicante in Southern Spain. However you will not find the word “tuangou” in the Spanish dictionary – nor in fact in the Catalan or any of its variations heard in Spain. You will, however, be able to locate “tuan” and “gou” separately in a Chinese dictionary, meaning “group” and “buy” respectively, which have come together to mean group buying, which combines the power and reach of internet with the bargaining power of a group.
Tuan gou (team buying in Chinese), emerged from China in online chat-rooms, and graduated to more organized websites, such as and Tuangou marries innate Chinese propensities for social-networking and haggling in a contemporary bundle to the advantage of the consumer. This has now spread to Spain, indicative of the fact that not only are the Chinese consumers exploiting the power of the Internet to the hilt, they are also setting trends and examples for the rest of the world to follow.
The power of Internet in China

Xu Jinglei, a popular Chinese actress and film director, has the world’s most visited blog ( with 86.97 million clicks in 18 months. Blogging is popular in China as it allows an easy avenue for expression, which has traditionally been hard to find in China. Blogging has caught the imagination of the Chinese who use it to express their views, share their feelings and express their personality. Not surprisingly, the Chinese government felt compelled to make some efforts to contain this phenomenon. In an attempt to tighten its grip on bloggers, it demanded that they register in their own names – a move that the authorities quickly reversed on facing the crying protestations from the blogging sites and the bloggers.

Currently a little over 10% of the Chinese population has access to the internet. However this translates into over 130 million internet users, making China the home to the second largest group of internet users in the world. The penetration in the big cities, rivals that of the Western world and internet has gradually become an integral and all-pervasive part of the lives of the urban Chinese. Today the Chinese buy on the net, sell on the net, watch movies and television on the net, seek employment on the net and look for romance and marriage on the net. The recent stock market boom is greatly fuelled by millions of Chinese betting their savings through their accounts on the net.

Need for information

The explosion of the net and the overwhelming acceptance from the Chinese populace needs to be seen in the context of the enormous amount and the incredible pace of change which has taken place in the Chinese society. Change implies an increase of opportunities, a multiplication of choices and the concomitant need for information and advice to exercise these choices. Unlike the countries which developed gradually over a longer period of time, the traditional Chinese information systems could not keep pace with the change. The traditional information network and media was anyway designed to pass the party doctrines to the citizens, and inculcate values of moderation and conformity, not to inform them about how they can improve their consumption of product and services. In other societies, consumption and choice is guided by experience of others, word of mouth, and experience passed down in families and friends. Today multitudes of Chinese are going abroad on holidays, buying automobiles, buying apartments, and have no one to turn to for information and advice in their immediate family of close circle of friends who have done these before. It is not surprising then that the internet fills this vacuum and takes the role of the source of information and the guide.


To the marketers, the phenomenon of internet offers both an opportunity and a challenge. Clearly no manufacturer can afford to be missing from the net – and that holds true whether the company is a manufacturer of a consumer electronics, household cleaners or a provider of financial services. The presence on the net is required to inform about the products, to advertise their advantages and to encourage user feedback. With the advent of Web 2.0, the flow of information between the manufacturer and the consumer has truly become a two-way phenomenon, and manufacturers need to tap into the enormous bag of consumer creativity and power for innovation. Companies are already using the net to encourage user contribution to the development of the brand, its communication and the product portfolio. The net offers the opportunity to use the consumers, not merely to test products and brands, but to participate in their creation.

Guanxi for sale

It is amazing how China adopts the new while retaining old habits and practices. Guanxi is a much touted concept, and refers to the Chinese predilection for depending upon relationships and connections to move files and get things done. Gaunxi is now for sale on the internet through websites that puts you in touch with the person who could get your child into the best kindergarten in the locality, help in getting an approval secured or a payment expedited or any other similar tasks, both dubious and legitimate, where your normal, unaided efforts may be expected to face difficulties. The opportunities offered by the net are only limited by your imagination – and possibly, your scruples.

China's View of the World

In 1773, King George III dispatched Lord McCartney as his ambassador to China to present himself at the court of the Qing Emperor, Qianlong. Emperor Qianlong, widely considered as an enlightened ruler, dismissed the ambassador by saying, “As your ambassador has seen for himself, we possess all things. I set no value in objects strange and ingenious and have no use for your manufactures”. It is not without reason that the Chinese name of the country means the “middle country”. Chinese have traditionally considered their place right at the centre of the universe and historians and commentators often ascribe to the Chinese attributes of an enormous self-pride, bordering on xenophobia. However, if there is one attribute which a modern historian will ascribe to China, it is “change”. China has changed beyond recognition since Deng Xiao Ping opened its doors to the external world, while at the same time proclaiming that “to be rich is glorious”. The change is not only evident in gleaming new highways and sky caressing towers, but also in the people’s minds. TNS set about to investigate the contemporary urban Chinese view of the world, and also their own place in it.

World leadership

On the criteria of economic development and world leadership the US towers above all countries in the Chinese minds. Chinese clearly acknowledge America as an economic powerhouse, a world leader and an influential country – far ahead of any other country, including their own. As an economic power they place China at the third place, just a little behind Japan. However as a “world leader” and an “influential country” the Chinese place their own country at the No. 2 slot, after the US, but far ahead of any other country. It is evident that the Chinese are proud of what they have achieved (justifiably so, if you look at the 8%+ growth rate for 20 years in succession) and clearly place China far ahead of any other as a country “with a fast growing economy”.
The Chinese do not have a high association of any country other than their own as “peaceful”. The Scandinavian countries come next – though at a significant distance from China. Only 9% consider the US as “peaceful” – the same as the UK. Japan, a country against which China still harbors historical grudges, is rated even poorer.

German machinery and American computers

On the commercial front, the Chinese have the highest opinion of Germany - with a 38%association with “a country which makes excellent quality products” . US has the second highest association (33%). Japan and Scandinavian countries also do well, followed by Korea, China itself and UK.
US industry is seen to excel in many areas – ranging from quality of high tech products (No. 1 position), health care products (No. 1), and quality of drinks (No. 1 again). Germany is seen to make the best automobiles and machinery. Despite all the trouble facing the American automobile industry, Chinese still hold the American automobiles in high regard – next only to the ones made by the Germans.
But when it comes to perfumes and luxury products, no country can match the allure of France – a perception which extends to personal products in general and in fact also garments (though Chinese feel they themselves make pretty good garments).
In the field of computer hardware and software, US is the clear leader – with no other country anywhere near it (India a distant second in software). In general, American products have a perception of being technologically advanced, innovative and modern. Germans and the Japanese do better on products with good craftsmanship, good detailing and products with a long life. Quite understandably, the Chinese consider themselves as the country offering products with the best value for money (followed by Japan, and the US not doing too badly at No. 3 slot).

Fashion leader and trend setter

America is seen to combine the best of science and art, and is not only seen as a centre of technological excellence but also as fashion leader and a trend setter. US is far ahead of anyone else in producing good popular music and good movies and drama. Chinese express their appreciation of this by lapping up the pirated DVDs and downloading from free file share sites – though not as the US would like them to express - by paying the full price that the Americans normally pay.
Not only science, technology and art, the Chinese recognize American excellence in education and sports. American Universities are considered as the best, with UK not far behind.

While in pop art, the US reigns supreme, when it comes to serious art and culture, it is France which takes the place of pride, and specifically on the quality of museums, UK takes the top spot. As a country with rich culture and traditions, the Chinese are proud of their own place – India and UK are a distant second.
The Chinese feel that the US is the best country in the world to go and work in (China included). However, much to the relief of the anti-immigration American lobby, most Chinese still prefer to settle and finally retire in their own country. They would, however, like to visit America as tourists – though in this US competes strongly with several other destinations such as France, Australia , Scandinavia and Italy.

Cuisine and people

In spite of the fact that the Chinese consume large quantities of Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s burgers (or perhaps because of it!), the Chinese do not hold the American cuisine in a high esteem. On this aspect, Chinese show extreme patriotism, though some have positive associations with French food.
Finally, there is one area that the Chinese men need to seriously work on. Only 12% of Chinese women consider men from their own country as handsome (Japanese men rate the worst here). Many more Chinese women seem to be drawn towards the French, the British and the Italians (all above 20% association). However, the Chinese men are most drawn to their own women (40%), though some acknowledge the charms of the French ladies (23%). With a serious gender imbalance coupled with the poor evaluation from their women, Chinese men may find attracting suitable spouses an uphill task.
Based on an online research among 398 Chinese, aged 18-44 and living in key tier 1 and tier 2 cities of China. The research was conducted by TNS, the largest marketing information provider in China, and the second largest research agency in the world.
Written by Ashok Sethi. Ashok is the regional director methodology and analytics for TNS and is based in Shanghai.