Trust, Tradition and Transactions: Digital Adventures in China

As Chinese New Year celebrations draw to a close, it is a great opportunity to reflect on what the Year of the Snake could mean for UK businesses looking to take advantage of the huge market potential in China.

Chinese wisdom states that the Snake brings good luck, and that the year ahead will be a period marked by ‘steady progress and attention to detail, where focus and discipline will be necessary for you to achieve what you set out to create’.

With this wisdom comes the reality that Asian markets, including China, present a growth opportunity for brands looking to diversify or expand internationally. KPMG’s recent International 2013 Digital Debate revealed that not only is China still a huge growth market, it is also one of the leading countries for digital media consumption with a ‘willingness to pay for it’.

Expanding into new countries of course brings new challenges. In China, the different cultural nuances that businesses need to consider are almost as complicated as the technological infrastructure.

Red Ant works to help western brands successfully expand into Asia.  Combining specialist on-the-ground local knowledge, with global digital best practice and technical expertise, is just the start. In a fast changing space, we are continually learning key lessons along the way.  I wanted to share some of our experiences and considerations for other CEOs looking to take the first step.

Western brands wanting to engage Chinese citizens and develop loyalty and trust to increase digital commerce, need to keep three key watch words front of mind: trust, transactions and Chinese traditions. Developing localised expertise in these three areas is central to success.  Here are a few other considerations before planning to take your business east.

Why China? Look at the facts: when it comes to shopping, Chinese shoppers spend an average of £2,000 every time they walk down Oxford Street. When it comes to the internet, China is the world’s fastest growing market. China has over 480 million people online, with 235 social network users, and recently overtook the US as the largest global smartphone market in the world.

China provides fertile ground for the digital development and promotion locally of global brand messages. The audience has an appetite for information, western culture, enthusiasm for digital engagement and a cultural acceptance of paying for online experiences.

Early adopters or Chinese Netizens? As we know the insight and understanding of a brand’s target audience is the starting point for any marketing strategy, be it online or offline – China is no different. The audience, whilst not changing on paper, will change dramatically in terms of their social behaviour and cultural influences. It is important for brands to spend time truly getting under the skin and learning the nuances of how to build loyalty in China.

Imagine a world where Facebook, Twitter and eBay don’t dominate: The opportunities open to brands in the Chinese social space are limitless and it is important not to underestimate the commercial nature of this environment. However, China’s social media landscape is three times more complicated than Europe’s. Each network is looking to monetise faster and further than its competitors, so they are evolving at a rapid rate, making it hard for brands to match their pace and make effective judgements on where to focus their resources.

Consider the much-reported explosion of activity on Sina Weibo and WeChat (each viable and growing alternatives to the likes of Twitter) particularly among western brands such as Coca Cola and celebrities including Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber. These home-grown platforms are a force to be reckoned with, and should figure in any brand’s digital strategy for China.

Trading online in China also has unique challenges and requirements. For example, TMall is the biggest player in China’s massive eCommerce industry. Solely dedicated to official brand stores, TMall allows vendors to sell their goods to the entire greater China region. In a country where the sale of counterfeit goods is an ongoing problem, its stringent rules surrounding authenticity are seen as arbiters of quality and part of the region’s long-term aim of improving both the image and the status of brands with digital commerce interests. It’s something we’re passionate about at Red Ant, too.

A culture defined by custom and tradition: Chinese websites in many instances are crammed with information, as opposed to the clean, minimal style that Western design illustrates. Depending on your brand and target audience, adaptation may be required. For well-known, high-end brands, however, users expect the corporate identity to be globally consistent and representative of the brand’s values, but with a ‘Western’ feel.

Scroll-over pop-ups are seen as a bit of a ‘faux pas’ nowadays on Western sites, yet they are still valued in China, and  Chinese netizens (particularly the younger demographic) love landing on a page where their movements trigger multiple actions.

Guanxi – the Chinese culture of relations over rules: The Chinese culture is very traditional, and it is important that brands respect this when expanding into this market. Applying our western expertise in developing unified digital experiences, we find the same rules of translating offline culture online apply in China. Content needs to be localised and relevant but, first and foremost, the language needs to have a ‘home-grown’, colloquial feel to it. The complexity of the Chinese language means that one phrase can be expressed in a number of different ways, using a number of different characters. However, brands need to be mindful that different characters can completely change the tone and emphasis of a word or sentence – often only the locals recognise this. This is where having access to local intelligence pays dividends – an on-the-ground team with insight into the subtleties of culture and language can help brands to avoid pitfalls and run successful digital commerce enterprises which feel part of the local transactional landscape.

In the Year of the Snake, China continues to offer an exciting opportunity for Western brands. Whilst there are technological differences, the Chinese digital landscape provides a powerful canvas for brands to create new experiences and engage a growing and affluent new audience.