A New Silk Road for New Marco Polos

The Marco Polos of the business world are overwhelmingly optimistic about China's promising future, believing in the opportunities and dynamism the country has to offer.

However, many fall victim to the illusion that China is one singular market and often overlooks the immense geographic, economic, and cultural complexity of this 5,000 year-old country of 1.3 billion people. Businesses entering Europe appreciate there is not one European market but many regions each with their own cultural differences. However, many people do not realize that the same is true in China.

How to Understand the Hidden Agenda
A common puzzle for international marketers is that, despite there being more than 10,000 print media and 700 TV channels providing news in China, it is very difficult to get their clients' message across. The reason is that they often fail to recognise that the Chinese media's main responsibility is to serve government communication objectives. This means that the new services and products of a foreign company aren't a top priority for these media. The general 'What's In It For Me?' rule, which works in western media simply isn't enough. To make sure a story gets picked up and the news spreads, the rule in China is more 'What's In It For The Country?'

The environment, public health and safety, corporate social responsibility and sustainable development are all the cornerstones and drivers of long term growth for the Chinese society. By recognising and leveraging China's relevant social issues, companies can secure a prime position to get their messages heard.

This is well demonstrated by one of Hill & Knowlton's clients, a key player developing diesel technology in the automotive sector. While diesel is clean, economical and widely used in Western countries, in China it is regarded as dirty, polluting, and 'low-tech'. To help our client change the public's negative perception of diesel energy, Hill & Knowlton positioned clean diesel technology alongside the Chinese government's latest initiatives to promote energy conservation and environmental protection. Through a series of integrated communication campaigns involving the media, government relations and NGO endorsement, the advantages of diesel fuel became widely accepted resulting in our client being viewed as the industry leader.

Managing 'Word of Mouth'
Globalization has fuelled China's growth, but fast growing economies also create fast-changing climates for companies to work in. When faced with international companies, the Chinese media become more nationalistic. Multinationals are under much greater public scrutiny than their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese media have higher expectations from multinationals in terms of product, service and corporate governance.  A scandal generated by a local company may be easily forgotten, but the same issue facing an international company is more likely to linger and can sometimes lead to a public outcry.

It is, therefore, vital for multinationals not only to have a sound corporate and marketing communications strategy, but also to have a clear roadmap and established crisis and issues management system in place. Failure to respond quickly to a potential crisis issue will be interpreted as arrogance by the public and invite further hostility from the media. Moreover, the internet has become an emerging media power with 100 million Chinese 'netizens'. Any misjudgement on the company's part can easily snowball on the internet.

It is no secret that multinational companies are rushing to spend fortunes in marketing, advertising and promotions in China. However, unmanaged word of mouth can easily put your investment and business plan in jeopardy.

A New Approach of Guan Xi
Many old and new Marco Polos are often fascinated by the immensity of the so called Guan Xi (literally translated as relationship in Chinese), but few endeavour to examine the social meaning and impact behind it. Guan Xi in China nowadays is more than just developing a handful of personal relationships.

Hill & Knowlton's clients in China have been actively participating in a corporate social responsibility programme: 'Project Hope', commonly acknowledged as China's most influential public welfare campaign. This initiative, run by the China Youth Development Foundation, helps millions of children and teenagers from poor families to continue their schooling in China's rural, poverty-stricken areas and our clients' association with it has notably improved their companies' images in China.


Article by David Zhao (MD) and Nelson Ren (account director) Hill & Knowlton Shanghai

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