The subprime debacle has rattled retail sales in the U.S., forcing many companies to downgrade sales estimates as consumers shy away from checkout counters. Luxury retailers and credit-card companies in the U.S. have recently reported bearish projections for the coming quarters.
China, however, is a retail market on the rise. In 2007 China posted 17% growth in retail spending. Electronics retailers Guomei and Suning posted record numbers, and both paint positive pictures for the future as Chinese consumers continue to buy LCD TVs from LG Electronics and mobile phones from Nokia (NOK).
Much of this continued growth is fueled by Chinese under the age of 32. My firm, the China Market Research Group (CMR), conducted in-depth interviews with 500 Chinese between the ages of 22 and 32 in 10 cities to gauge whether fears of a global slowdown would influence their shopping habits. The answer was a resounding no. A full 90% of interviewees said they expected to "spend considerably more" in 2008 than they did in 2007, and the vast majority was "very optimistic" about salary potential in the next two years, with the majority expecting salary increases of 10% to 25% in next year.
No More Lazy Localization
As selling to Chinese consumers becomes more important to multinationals' bottom lines, the key to winning in China is to understand the needs and motivations of Chinese youth. Many multinationals find their core target market in China is much younger than in other countries. Companies, therefore, need to rethink the products they introduce to China, the sales channels they use, and the marketing-communication strategies they employ. It is no longer acceptable to take what worked elsewhere and transfer it here. China is too important a market for such lazy localization.
Companies must develop winning strategies that capture the hearts, minds, and wallets of Chinese youth. Our interviews suggest they are influenced by different advertising media than older generations. While older generations are still influenced by TV ads more than any other medium, Chinese young people turn more and more to the Internet to learn about products and to shop.
More than 70% of the young people we interviewed said they use search engines such as Baidu (BIDU) to find out more about products. They are also more likely to trust product recommendations on a stranger's blog than from salespeople in stores or traditional advertising. As one 23-year-old in Wuhan told us, "I like to first read blogs of people who post about items I want to buy. If they give a thumbs up, I am more willing to buy. I do not trust salespeople because they push the brands they represent and get a commission on a sale. They will say and do anything to get me to buy something."
Focus Marketing on the Right Sites
The Chinese youth we interviewed say they're less influenced by TV. Respondents said they watch "very little" TV. Instead, they watch pirated DVDs or surf the Web. Chinese youth in cities like Shanghai and Beijing spend almost 20 hours a week online, while American young people spend only about 12 hours.
For companies to be successful targeting young Chinese, they should focus marketing efforts where their consumers are. Males often play online games from Netease (NTES) or Shanda (SNDA), and buy DVDs and electronics on Alibaba's consumer-to-consumer site Taobao. Females navigate to blogs on Sina (SINA) or Tencent's portal QQ to track their favorite celebrities.
Digital marketing plays a critical role in China and most companies should allocate more than the 5% to 10% they do in the U.S. Right now, most foreign companies' efforts have focused on Internet advertising. In the near future, mobile-phone advertising will become critical as the number of mobile-phone users in China grows to 600 million by the end of 2008, well over 50% of the world total.
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