Built upon the opening of the government and the economic boom of the past 30 years, 2008 looks like a watershed year for consumer activism in China. Sparked by the unprecedented relief efforts for the Sichuan Province earthquake and the renewed global scrutiny leading up to the Beijing Olympics, Chinese consumers have been vocal about their renewed nationalism, concern for social harmony, and corporate expectations. As a result, corporate citizenship, cause marketing, and strategic philanthropy are on the rise.
The Chinese have surpassed the US as the largest Internet population and, after the earthquake, they flooded the Web to criticize China Vanke, one of the country's largest developers, for the 2 million Yuan ($288,000) donation it made to relief efforts, which was viewed as too low when compared to its corporate earnings. And, after what was deemed an inadequate apology, they called for stockholders to dump China Vanke stock and stop purchasing homes from the company.
Though many factors contributed, bloggers claimed credit for the company's first-ever fall from the top capitalization ranking on the Shenzhen Exchange and a 6 Yuan drop in share price on June 3.
When Sharon Stone implied the earthquake was karmic retribution for China's mistreatment of the Dalai Lama, consumers called for a boycott of both of her films and Dior, the fashion house she represents. China's Xinhua News Agency followed, lambasting Stone as a “public enemy of all mankind.”
In contrast, when MSN China encouraged instant messengers to put a red heart on their signatures to show support of China and the Games, 3 million chatters adopted it. And, after the earthquake, MSN responded with a rainbow icon and reported 6 million-plus adopters.
What's more, Wang Lao Ji Iced Tea became an overnight sensation when it announced a 100 million Yuan donation to earthquake victims – considered very generous, based on the company's size. China's citizens not only cheered the company, but some vowed to buy as much of the tea as they could even if they didn't need it, while others jeered Coke, which had not widely communicated its contribution and was seen as not doing enough.
This outpouring of consumer passion and purpose is changing the ways corporations should conduct their corporate citizenship activities in respect to China. Key considerations for outreach include:
Contribute at levels relative to your Chinese consumer base and business size.
Tap into “China Pride” and the popular Confucian notion of harmony where all members of society take care of each other.
Monitor online discussion threads and become part of the dialogue.
Understand that there is no one single Chinese consumer.
Know that it's best to communicate citizenship efforts, if they are substantial and relevant.
Kristian Darigan is VP at Cone.*
*This Op-Ed was previously attributed to Carol Cone, chairman and founder of Cone. It was, in fact, authored by Kristian Darigan