The Unique Cultural Challenges Of Marketing To China’s New Middle Class

China’s middle class, a modern force with timeless cultural imperatives, will reshape the world. To harness its spending power, marketers must realize that becoming modern and international is not tantamount to becoming Western.

The Unique Cultural Challenges Of Marketing To China’s New Middle Class


China’s middle class, a modern force with timeless cultural imperatives, will reshape the world. To harness its spending power, marketers must realize that becoming modern and international is not tantamount to becoming Western–Chinese consumers exhibit a unique combination of motivations and conflicts.


Broadly speaking, the Chinese middle classes believe that with the right competitive tools, they will find an opportunity to transform their lives, in contrast to a blue-collar laborer, who sees his social and economic status as more or less fixed. It’s the difference between basic needs of survival and physical safety and a need to satisfy social status requirements. The middle class engages with society to get recognition for financial success. It’s important to note, though, that this is not about arrival, it’s about being on the right journey–they see theirs as a continuous struggle upward, and there is an acute awareness that all could be lost in the blink of an eye. Civic institutions are unreliable; there is no political representation; wealth is not protected institutionally; the safety net, particularly health insurance, is incomplete. People say that all they want is to be happy and to be in control of their destiny, but at the same time they understand that this ideal is not truly practical. 

More subtly, on an emotional level, there is a sense that there are certain essential rites of passage to middle-class status, such as homes, diamond rings, education, and car ownership. But these items are expensive, and disposable incomes remain low–so how does one decide what to buy? Above all, the middle class seeks to create something sustainable, reducing the chances of falling off the middle-class pedestal. 

While China’s middle class is becoming more modern and international, it is not becoming more Western. A brand’s success is rooted in an appreciation of people’s fundamental motivations—and in China this means that a premium-priced product must be a tool for social advancement. And the range of product categories perceived to achieve this objective has expanded significantly.

In the fifteen years since DeBeers entered the market, the penetration of diamond engagement rings has risen from 8 percent to 80 percent. The company achieved this by understanding that marriage is perceived differently among Chinese than Westerners. While the latter like to believe that passion and romance last forever, the former see commitment as persistent, not love as such. De Beers gave the Chinese man a tool to demonstrate his reliability.


Most Chinese consumers are still loath to purchase expensive foreign appliances because they are used only at home and the quality of local brands is acceptable. However, products that have high visibility or can be displayed have made great strides. Siemens, despite an average price premium of 40 percent versus Haier, is the second largest refrigerator brand after Haier.

The bottom line is that the product is a means to an end. The Chinese have no excuse for buying luxury goods, given their level of income, but luxury is so externalized it enables inconspicuously conspicuous consumption–that is, the ability to show off without being seen to do so. It is all about convincing consumers that the product will help them climb the social ladder. If there is a craftsmanship to selling products in China, it’s communicating how a product will help the owner solidify status while avoiding clichés.


Today, the middle- and upper-middle, as well as wealthy classes have all achieved critical mass. The strategies of brands targeted to each must shift accordingly.

Acceptance. Young college graduates are unproven, in search of acceptance. They need acknowledgment of their potential, not admiration for their achievement. Wrigley’s Double Mint chewing gum asks, “Are you really ready?” and presents fresh breath as a shield against coworker alienation. For individuals just out of the starting gate, brands can sharpen their basic survival skills—to pounce on opportunity or demonstrate their potential. Rejoice shampoo links dandruff-free hair to having the confidence to approach the boss when a chance to translate English arises. Ariel detergent links clean, white shirts with an ability to “rise and shine at the office.”

Recognition. Once strivers are in mid-career, they must be recognized for both their past achievements and their capacity for further advancement. Products play an active role in their winning the game by demonstrating their advanced survival skills. In one ad, Sony Handycam associates digital transmission capabilities with resourcefulness by, somewhat ironically, enabling a vacationing professional to delay returning to work. Technology brands from Motorola to NEC to Hewlett Packard are productivity weapons, competitive advantages deployed on the business battlefield. As people scale their work hierarchies, it also becomes increasingly important to them to sharpen their internal tools—for example, “determination to face the future” (China Mobile’s Go Tone network).


During the middle stages of advancement, a happy family is an important factor, a necessary-but-not-sufficient prerequisite to being taken seriously as an adult constructively engaged with society. That’s why many automobile ads targeted to business people feature parents with their (only) child and Epson commercial printers dramatize color accuracy by depicting a father educating his daughter.

Admiration and iconization. Toward the top of the hierarchy, the laoban, or boss, requires unanimous respect and deference. Given the ubiquity of rival factions and impatient upstarts, power is conditional. Authority, therefore, must be self-evident—hence premium Ballantine scotch’s tagline, “When success speaks for itself, there is no need to show off,” or BMW’s call to “Reflect your inner leadership spirit.”

In China, iconic stature is the best defense against corporate maneuvering. Icons are paragons of wisdom, masters of the system. They are revered because they both lead and teach. This is why the most premium products often base their appeal in “shared mastery” and “artistic connoisseurship,” potent demonstrations of internalized confidence. 

The middle class is on a perilous journey of advancement, both material and societal. In this context, brands should enable strivers to achieve surer footing every step of the way.

Excerpted from What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff. Copyright © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.


[Image: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]