Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid when Marketing To Chinese Consumers as a Foreign Brand

Taro pie, pepper salt big chicken cutlet rice bowl, Chicken cereal congee (porridge) – do these food items sound familiar to you? Even if you have never heard of any of them before, I would bet that you probably clued in from the rice and the congee that these are Asian food items.

But would you have guessed that these are food items from McDonald’s in China?

A large global corporation with retailers in more than 100 countries and over 36,000 restaurants, McDonald’s is a pioneer when it comes to offering localized items to their customers, no matter where they are around the world. (McDonald’s Chicken Cereal Congee)

Even with McDonald’s long history of massive growth worldwide, they are still not immune to some of the challenges that corporations face today when breaking into a new market.

With the highly optimistic speculated future growth of China’s economy, many Western companies have been finding ways to crack into the Chinese market.

The steady immigration by the Chinese have created large communities in some of the major cities of popular immigration countries like USA, Australia and China. This has made selling to the local Chinese, and in particular, the affluent Chinese a highly desirable market to tap into.

However, selling to the Chinese requires certain type of finesse, knowledge of the Chinese culture and etiquette.

Here are 5 of the biggest mistakes companies have made that you can avoid when targeting the Chinese market as a foreign brand:

1) Matching your products and services to local wants and needs of their target customers

I bring up McDonald’s as an example because of they are probably most known for their ability to match their products with their ideal customers. As successful as they seem, they are also no stranger to quite a number of failed product launches.

The finesse of it all is finding the right balance between product localization while keeping the integrity of the brand. Going too far into localization means the brand becomes at risk for devaluing its prestige as a foreign brand and thus losing its appeal.

2) Get an opinion from different sources when translating your products and services (and especially for your company name!)

In the first quarter of 2017, Airbnb announced their Chinese name “Aibiying”, or 愛彼迎, which translates to “welcome each other with love”. According to Airbnb, the name is intended to express their mission of bringing together people from communities all around the world.

On the surface level everything about their Chinese name looks great and backs up their mission statement. Except that once announced on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), the public’s reaction wasn’t quite what they had expected.

Airbnb was met with a flood of negative comments. The most common complaint was that when you say “Aiybiyi” just a little too quickly, it ends up sounding like “Aiy bing”, where “bing” means cookies or cake in Chinese, which turns the name into “love cookies/cake”.

The general public then came up with better alternatives names through volunteered crowdsourcing. While we might chuckle at corporate missteps like these, the unfortunate part is that these scenarios continue to happen time and time again, regardless of how well establish and how recognized the company brand is globally. This really goes to show prove how notoriously difficult it is to crack into the Chinese market even for large corporations.

Here’s another example: Mr. Muscle, one of the brands under SC Johnson had their name translated into Chinese in the most literal way, which is 肌肉先生 [jī ròu xiān sheng]. The problem is, the word ‘muscle’ is the homophone to “chicken meat” in Chinese. You can probably imagine the reaction from the market with a homophone like that.

By reacting quickly to anchoring the Chinese name to “Mr. Powerful” 威猛先生 [wēi měng xiān sheng], Mr. Muscle was able to retain the integrity of the brand while still being able to be in line with the product’s original meaning (and before it becomes an internet meme)

For now, Google translate is still far from reaching the same level of reliability as a native speaker with a strong understanding of the cultural aspect of the language. It is absolutely essential for companies that are planning to enter the Chinese market to have their names and labels checked thoroughly with native Chinese speakers.

3) Going too far with localization and adapting to local taste

A short personal story: I remember my first all inclusive trip to Mexico many years ago. My friend and I were excited not just for the weather, but also that we would be eating tacos, salsa and all types of Mexican food for a whole week.

When we got to our resort, we learned that in order to make us “feel like home”, most of the food served within the resort were Mexican versions of Western food. Hamburgers, fries, steaks and salad. Needless to say, we were hugely disappointed so we decided to eat outside of the resort.

We got a taxi and had asked the driver to take us to any place that would serve authentic tacos – and after driving for 15 minutes, we were dropped off eventually dropped off at a…Taco Bell.

When consumer go for a certain brand (or in my case, a specific country) they have a set of expectations in mind. McDonald’s can pull off serving chicken congee with a hashbrown as a breakfast meal, and skewers of grilled chicken wings with corn as their afternoon snack menu (the Chinese just love chicken wings), but would they be able to do well if they went all out serving pan fry noodles, steamed buns, red bean soup dessert and hot pot?

Foreign brands need to remember to maintain their appeal but staying true to their brand and its uniqueness compared to the local brands. Going too far with localization could mean crossing the line of lacking authenticity (why eat fry noodles at McDonald’s when I can go to an actual Chinese restaurant) and losing brand prestige and identity.

4) Missing the mark with pricing strategy

The Chinese culture is big on “face” and social status, and they are particular sensitive to price and name brand.

In the minds of most Chinese consumers, pricing is directly correlated to quality. While they might be disgruntled about paying more, more often than not they will pay a bit more for “better” quality because they would rather not regret it later. The psychological strategy involved with pricing is a huge factor in the Chinese market.

When it comes to luxury goods and services, anything that is deemed to be priced too low would set off an alarm to Chinese consumers. “Is the brand going downhill?” “Has it become a cheap brand?” “Have they cut back on the quality?” To most, the more expensive the items and services are, the higher the perception of quality.

5) Knowing all the different marketing channels available

Some of you might have heard of WeChat and Wiebo, but have you heard of Zhihu, Miaopai, Baidu and Youku?

Chinese consumer are now spending more and more time on the internet, but it’s across a wider spread of platforms compared to the Western counterparts. Different platforms are targeted for different results – Do you want to build a brand presence and generate awareness? Do you want to build an audience through content? Or perhaps you want to find a celebrity spokesperson, or a KOL (Key Opinion Leader) to generate a huge push for your products and services.

( Picture: Papi Jiang as the ambassador for New Balance, one of the top KOLs in China with over 40 million followers)

Whatever your company is looking for, each one of the Chinese social media platforms function differently and could give you different types of results.

Author: Victoria Mui /

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