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5 Big Mistakes Foreigners Make when Marketing to Chinese Consumers

“We all make mistakes, but learning how to avoid them is what separates best from the rest.”

China is the land of opportunity for many businesses, but accessing this market isn’t as easy as most businesses think it is. Just showing up with your product in hand isn’t going to be the miracle solution your business is looking for, but if approached with a well thought out strategy and plan of action it can certainly present your company with new opportunities for expansion.

Marketing to Chinese Consumers can be incredibly difficult due to the language barrier and differences in culture. We’ve compiled a list of 5 mistakes foreigners make when marketing to Chinese to help your experience in China easier, so take a look below.

1. Failure to Match Their Product with Their Target Consumer

A Forbes study found that among 300 high level executives of multinational companies 63% believed that they needed to change their product to meet the needs of the average Chinese consumer. While companies don’t need to completely revamp their product, or their brand for that matter, slight changes are often necessary to show that they truly understand the needs of their target customers.

Even making slight changes or adding new varieties to existing products can allow a brand to take off in the China market. You can see these slight changes in the products of many brands throughout China. McDonald’s, for example, offers types of food in China that Westerners would certainly find bizarre, like taro pies and shrimp burgers.

If that’s not making changes to your product offering I don’t know what is. In that same study by Forbes, mentioned above, they found that 2/3rds of the executives surveyed believed that companies that refuse to change their brand cannot survive in China.

Take the time to find out what Chinese customers want, and determine whether or not your existing products meet these wants, if not, it would most likely be beneficial to make some changes.

2. Quadruple-Check Your Translations (Don’t trust Google Translate)

Many people think translating from their native language to Chinese is just as easy as with most other languages, but talk to people who’ve tried to learn Mandarin and they’ll tell you direct translation isn’t easy. One of my American friends studied Mandarin for a few years and he still struggles to directly translate some things.

In these situations, it’s crucial to have a native speaker on your side. There are plenty of examples of companies making bad translations with disastrous results for the company’s reputation.

Take Pepsi, who was marketing the slogan “Pepsi brings you back to life” upon their entry into China. When Pepsi began marketing to Chinese consumers with its newly translated slogan they quickly found out their translation had a different meaning. It turns out their translation actually meant “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.”

KFC had a similar issue for Chinese localization in its slogan, “Finger Lickin’ Good,” was mistranslated to read “Eat Your Fingers Off,” in Mandarin Chinese. Although both these campaigns were able to quickly correct their mistakes it no doubt damaged their reputations in China.

So, before you start a marketing campaign in China, make sure to run all your translations by a native speaker to ensure you don’t end up like Pepsi.

3. Advertising to the Chinese through the Wrong Marketing Channels

Marketing to Chinese can be especially tough, as it can be hard to determine where Chinese consumers are spending most of their time. For marketers in the West, we’ve grown accustomed to appropriating advertising resources into TV, radio, billboards, and more recently social media based on our target customer.

In China, deciding how to appropriate these resources can be much more difficult. One thing that is certain, however, is that digital and social media marketing must play a crucial role in any company’s marketing campaign in China. China’s internet users grew last year to approximately 731 million people, yet China’s cable TV subscription base by comparison has grown to only 313 million as of 2016.

While multi-channel advertising is certainly effective it is clear to see where most of your advertising budget should be spent when marketing to Chinese consumers. Pay-Per-Click Advertisements on Baidu, Banner Ads on popular websites, and social media marketing on popular platforms like Wechat and Weibo are the most cost-effective methods for establishing your brand in the China market.

4. Going Full Native (When Chinese localization is taken to extremes)

You’ll find dozens of articles out there saying that localization in China is key to marketing success, however this can have its own downsides. Chinese consumers tend to like foreign products due to the notion that they are different than things made in China. Many brands have attempted to make Chinese New Year themed products specifically for the China market only to find that Chinese consumers have no interest in these products, as it’s simply a more expensive version of something they can buy from a Chinese company.

While companies need to make serious efforts to understand their target market, in the end they have to stay true to their brand’s core values and competencies. Minor localization changes to your product offerings and brand image can and should be made for each market your company services, but the underlying message should remain the same both at home and abroad.

5. Entering the Market without a well thought out pricing strategy

There are two important things you should know about China regarding price.

The first thing is the median income in China. China is still developing in many parts of the country so the median wage is still low. In 2015 the average yearly salary in China was 8983.07/USD, compared to $55,575/USD in the U.S. Citizens of China’s cities tend to earn far more than the median income, but there are still large differences in salaries even between tier 1, 2, and 3 cities. With such a wide range in income pricing should be adjusted based on location. Western China, for example is much less wealthy on average than the East, meaning pricing cannot and should not be the same in these areas for your product.

The second thing is that Chinese consumers tend to be very (and I mean very) price-sensitive. Products at all price-points generate some sentiment towards a brand in the mind of a consumer, but this effect is multiplied in China. If your product is priced inappropriately you will quickly see the effects of this phenomena in action.

For example, luxury brands that price their products too low, will quickly find out that Chinese consumers don’t consider them to be a luxury purely based on price. Most Chinese consumers believe that price is directly correlated with quality. Thus, when they are buying something important to them, they will most likely choose one of the more expensive options to be safe. Pricing your product incorrectly can lead to a bad first impression upon entry into the Chinese market, so make sure your pricing strategy is well thought out and tested before doing something you’ll regret.

Related read: “Everything You Need To Know About The Chinese Middle Class“

Final Words on Marketing to Chinese Consumers

China is a very different market compared with most of the Western countries. Before entering the market, you should do your research thoroughly on the Chinese consumer behavior or let an experienced Chinese marketing agency help you. It will take massive work, but it definitely worths it.

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