Regularly, myself and Resonance China, Rand Han, meet our clients in Shanghai, looking at ways we can help them launch, repositioning, or simply grow their brands in China. As part of these meetings, before we get to particular challenges to be addressed, we are often asked a number of questions about China and her digital scene.
We thought it would be useful to share some of these questions, and a sense of the answers we give. I hope you find it useful, we always pride ourselves on avoiding stereotypes and easy answers, and cutting to the chase.
So from 1-5 top questions we often get asked by our clients – let’s go!
1. Is Shanghai representative of China?
Yes, and no. Shanghai is arguably representative of where much of urban China is going. The sheer volume of capital that has flowed to the city has meant it has leapfrogged the rest of China in terms of development and consumption. So Shanghai is in one sense China 2022.
On a cultural level, Shanghai is multi-cultural and international city. But the core Shanghainese culture and language is still distinct from other parts of China. Stereotypes abound, about “Shanghainese being obsessed with money”, “Shanghainese husbands being hen-pecked by their dominant Shanghainese wives” – but the reality is that Shanghainese are as different to people in Beijing, Guangzhou and Chengdu, as New Yorkers are to Californians, at least. So it is certainly a factor to consider if Shanghai is informing your view of China.
2. Do I just need WeChat now?
An increasing question that pops up is – am I ok with just WeChat? At one level, the popularity of the phone app WeChat has exploded in the last two years, reaching a substantial proportion of China’s mobile population.
While it is possible to achieve consumer engagement and brand growth through WeChat, particularly with the integration with H5 and CRM systems, it is valuable to include our platforms in an overall digital ecosystem in China.
Compared to WeChat, the micro-blog Weibo is enjoying a comeback with Chinese netizens. In terms of amplifying brand messaging, its “broadcast” logic still reaches a lot more people simultaneously, and can create a viral effect very quickly. Weibo is still the key platform for celebrities and KOLs, who if strategically selected and leveraged, can create strong awareness, engagement and sharing of your brand online.
As part of this question, we always use the term “digital ecosystem”, emphasising that each brand requires a specific strategy, that includes WeChat, Weibo, and specific e-commerce and niche platform engagement, depending on the brand.
3. Why do local Chinese drive so crazy?
Yes, this one pops up quite a bit, especially if our clients have just survived a harrowing taxi journey to get to our offices. There are two reasons that explain the seemly “chaotic” nature of Chinese traffic.
Firstly, China does not have ‘two-dimensional’ road rules. There are literally just green and red, and the use of lights for turning lanes, only at major intersections. The result is essentially a game of “chicken” when the light goes green, drivers turn across zebra crossings, and directly into straight-moving traffic.
The result of this game of “chicken” is that pedestrians have to allow cars to cut across them, and drivers start to ‘feel entitled to’ to cut across. This goes back to a recent cultural understanding in China created by the explosion of car ownership, that the car is a “bubble” that protects and gives you a special status – a socially accepted form of “special right” to drive as you please.
The next question from our clients is often – what about the environment? That is one we are currently working on for a major energy brand, and it is not an easy one to crack.
4. Are local Chinese consumers always looking at their phones?
This is often a question from our international clients, possibly as a result of that same taxi driver was looking at his mobile while he was driving.
The simple answer to this question is – yes.
Using and interacting with your mobile phone has become an intimate part of contemporary urban Chinese culture. Our answer is that the interaction is more ‘seamless’ here in China, where there is almost zero guilt or offence taken by using a browsing a phone in official or social contexts.
This behaviour is essentially defines what it means to be a modern Chinese – a point of pride even, and an explanation of the explosive local success of many platforms and apps. It also explains to an extent, the amazement that people outside of Mainland China have in terms of what you can do with your phone China – quite a bit more.
5. Is China facing economic meltdown?
Clients seem to ask this because they had jotted it down before arriving in China. But as we tell them, the key to understanding China, is the development of the new consumer class is now a key social feature of urban China.
The key growth and energy in China, is now longer created by lower production costs, but instead by the consumption of consumers. A step many nations have taken in the development ladder previous to China, but none have reached it as fast as China.
A urban family in China spend prodigiously on education, travel, food, fashion, entertainment, and gifting. Their weekends are spent often in newly designed malls, created with them in mind. This is becoming the new urban culture, similar to what happened in post-war America.