We exit the metro at Shangcheng Road station and walk along Pudong Road in a southerly direction until we reach a branch of Häagen-Dazs. “Here it is,” I say, pointing at the ice cream parlour. It is busy inside, but we manage to find a free table. It is our second day in Shanghai and Tom Doctoroff has invited us to meet him here. An expert in Chinese consumer behaviour and branding, Tom came to China in 1994 and never quite made it back to the United States. He has just published his insights, gathered over two decades, in a book, What Chinese Want.

Meeting Tom Doctoroff - What Chinese Want - CoolBrands Around the World in 80 Brands
Meeting Tom Doctoroff – What Chinese Want – CoolBrands Around the World in 80 Brands

“That’s an interesting topic,” I said to him over the phone. “Can we meet when we’re in Shanghai?”

Maarten joins the people queuing to order butter pecan or chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. “Not all brands have been so successful,” Tom told me. “As one of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, China is highly attractive for global brands. But many have failed to win over Chinese consumers. Amazon, for instance, has struggled to compete with local online retailers, and the electronics chain Best Buy has withdrawn from the country altogether.”

“I wonder what the secret to success is for businesses entering the Chinese market,” I say when Maarten comes back with something that looks like mint chip. He doesn’t respond because he is looking over my shoulder at the man making his way towards our table.

“It gets even busier when couples come here at weekends,” Tom says, after introducing himself and sitting down. “In Chinese culture, the family or group is more important than the individual. That’s one of the fundamental differences between China and the West.”

He points out a couple that is taking photos of each other and posting them online. “People like public consumption. They eat ice cream together and share the pictures with friends on Renren.com. Brands that appeal to individualism won’t succeed here.”

“Great,” I think to myself as I make a note on my iPad, “Chinese will spend money on things that provide face.”

“The golden rule of marketing in China is to maximise public consumption,” he continues. “That’s why certain categories, such as cars and luxury goods, are growing so quickly.”

He indicates another couple. “The girl over there is carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, but it’s unlikely she has any luxury goods at home, such as bedding or appliances, because no one can see them. Louis Vuitton and Häagen-Dazs are two Western brands that have succeeded in China because they have understood the importance of maximising public consumption and adapted their business models accordingly.”

“Which is not easy for every brand or product,” I say.

“True,” Tom says, “but what is perhaps even more important for Western brands to realise is that the Chinese will remain Chinese. They will change and modernise, but they won’t become like Westerners – nor do they want to.”

“That sounds like a good thing,” I say. “The world would be a boring place if every culture was the same.”

“I agree,” Tom says. “There are enormous opportunities for Western brands in China – as you can see in this Häagen-Dazs – but it means embracing multiculturalism. That isn’t always easy but it can be exciting.”

“If we wanted to start our storytelling business in China, what would the first step be?” I ask.

Tom thinks for a second, then opens his bag and takes out a copy of his book, What Chinese Want. “The first thing to do would be to read my book,” he says with a big smile while handing me a copy. “Let me know what you think of it.”

© 2012 CoolBrands – Around the World in 80 Brands


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By Maarten Schäfer – By Maarten Schafer