The golden rules of marketing in China – according to Prophet’s Tom Doctoroff

Brands looking to succeed in China need to find a balance between projecting high status and acting as a safety net against downfall, one of the country’s leading ad men has said.

Prophet senior partner and ex-JWT veteran Tom Doctoroff said that despite China’s growing population of young, tech-savvy consumers, old-world traditions still remain crucial for marketers trying to reach modern audiences.

Unveiling his ‘three golden rules’ for marketing in China at Mumbrella360 Asia, Doctorff said brands need to understand the Confucian “tension” between climbing social hierarchy and protecting oneself from social or economic failure.

“What Westerners fail to remember about Confucianism is that it is the first socially mobile, meritocratic system,” he said. “In order to climb that system, you needed to master convention, not bucking against tradition. Even now there are no Steve Jobs in China; it is a different kind of innovation. So there is a timeless tension between projection of status – which is big and bold – that’s meritocratic and reaching for the stars. 

“But there is also a [sense of] protection in that society has not been developed to protect social and economic tension. And this is what consumers want resolved in their lives… this tension exists solely in Confucian culture.”

Doctoroff, a fluent Mandarin speaker, who worked at JWT in Hong Kong for 22 years, said in order to navigate this philosophy, the first rule brands should obey was: ‘Maximisation of public consumption’.

Giving Starbucks as an example, Doctoroff argued that the American coffee brand had performed a “Houdini act of marketing” by becoming successful in a “land of tea-drinkers”. He said: “There are now 2700 stores in China and guess what? The Chinese really do not like coffee that much. It’s a land of tea drinkers. They did this by conforming to the public consumption imperative and changed their business model. There, stores are larger, tables are longer: people go in there to proclaim their affiliation with a new generation of elite.

“Their coffee, which is emblazoned with the Starbucks label, is more expensive by 30 per cent than in the States, but their food, which has no branding, is cheaper. Things that you can consume in public are charged a price premium.”

Speaking of the second rule, ‘externalisation of benefits’, Doctoroff claimed brands need to be a “means to an end”, while Western advertising keywords of “comfort” and “feel” matter less to audiences concerned with tangible results.

For sports brands, such as Adidas, this marketing strategy hinges on the idea of the consumer becoming “the new you” rather than just simply feeling healthy.

In tourism and hospitality, he said: “It’s not just about enjoying the purity of New Zealand, it’s about acquiring experiences as a citizen of the world.”

However, on the final rule ‘reassurance’, said brands that reinforced safety and security were just as important especially following China’s milk scandal in 2008. According to Doctoroff, ‘reassurance’ underpinned the rise of Alipay and e-commerce malls in China by making them “safe” ways of shopping and transacting.

He added: “Reassurance does not need to be boring with e-commerce malls. It can morph into a mark of national pride. Singles Day started as a day for the lovelorn, but is now a projection of Chinese spending power… This year they are expecting $25 billion to be spent in 24 hours and this is basically saying China has a very strong economy.”

When asked by an audience member about the role of China’s digital and social media in its marketing, Doctoroff said that online campaigns tended to be much more emotionally charged compared to their Western counterparts.

He said: “The efforts that marketers that do build their brands online tend to be emotionally powerful because what you have in China what I would consider repressed offline identities because of the regimentation of society. Online, because you are protected by avatars and by distance, you can really release yourself online in the way you can’t in the offline world.

“[With] Western people, of course there is that dynamic too, but it is not nearly as strong. So everything from shopping being about price commerce to being master and commander in the virtual gaming world is ultimately addressing the need to let ‘the dragon in the heart out’. You see it. The centre of gravity is more emotional in China and more functional in the West.”



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