Friday, August 22, 2008

China, the promised land?

China, the land of opportunity. The promised land of retail. The soon-to-be biggest market for consulting in the world.

Be it leading executives of world-class brands, expensive reports by international research agencies, or small-time entrepreneurs venturing out into the world’s biggest developing market, they all seem to agree on one thing: China is the place to be.

With a middle class growing by double digits annually, millions of spend-happy consumers trying out anything new at any price, a youth culture increasingly built on brands, and a growing need to project personal achievement through material assets, China does indeed seem the place to be to bring in the big wins for companies in many industries.

But the question remains how to do it.

Our consulting company came to China last year. After concluding that also for us marketing consultants, China is the promised land, we set up shop in Shanghai and got out our forks and knives, ready for devouring some major business.

Because marketing is the next big thing, right? After being the world’s factory for decades, China is ready to step up the value chain. Beijing is increasing investments in R&D, emphasizing innovation as the way forward, even setting up the somewhat obscure China Top Brand quality label. China is consciously building 200 homegrown brands that are set to conquer the world (much like the country’s top athletes are bred and trained to top all Olympic charts). The next Sony, Nike, Nokia and McDonald’s are sure to be Chinese, and these companies have a long way ahead of them.

So the cake is huge, but how to get a piece of it?

The very first thing I read in different books in preparation to coming to China, is that you can’t just copy a successful business model and paste it in the Chinese environment: it never works. After 6 months in Shanghai, building up a marketing consulting business in an intercultural team, I can truly say that I’ve experienced this learning first hand. In order for something to work, it’s just not enough to “adapt”, “translate” or “Chinese-ize” your product, service or business. You need to throw everything on the table, distill the real essence of your business model, and then rebuild it, taking into consideration the specific Chinese market environment and business givens.

On top of the business-related challenges in redefining your added value towards Chinese companies, are the everyday interpersonal challenges of cross cultural communication. On the surface, modern Chinese life seems very similar to what we know in the West. Under the surface however, the differences are huge. I’ve experienced that the Chinese have another perspective of time, timing and deadlines. A deadline is set and worked towards, but if it becomes clear that the deadline will not be met, it is simply delayed, hence losing all its intrinsic purpose. I’ve also learned that the Chinese are very process oriented as opposed to task- or result-driven. It is the way something is done, the way people interact that is important, not the result that is or must be achieved. The Chinese have a greater appreciation than me for power distance: the boss can never be wrong, can never not know something, and must always be pleased, even if this is impossible. Straightforward reporting and honest feedback become rare luxuries in this context.

It’s clear that there’s no guaranteed recipe for success. The hundreds of self-help books on how to become a millionaire overnight only slightly overshadow the number of titles written around how to be successful in China. But the naked truth is this: it takes courage, hard work, patience and perseverance.

For my colleagues and me, every day sheds new light on the mystery of success in China, and brings us closer to our goals. Let’s hope our hard work and patience will pay off. And in the meantime, you can follow my experiences of living the economic boom in the fast evolving Chinese communism, in a city that for me is the most capitalist I’ve ever seen, where the essence of marketing is ever-changing.

Catherine Crevels works for the Belgian marketing consulting firm The House of Marketing out of its Shanghai office.

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