China is proving an attractive proposition to many UK businesses.

Not only are tremendous success stories like Alibaba emphasising to British companies the opportunities and commercial success which is resident in the region, but as Brexit looms, seeking firmer footing and audiences overseas, especially those with strong economies, is an enticing prospect.

Rakuten research recently found that Chinese shoppers tend to spend an average 193% more than British counterparts, so many brands could be forgiven for looking East to find new potential.

One of the natural places to start on this journey is with social media to gauge the size and appetite of a potential audience, but here there are some common misconceptions that need to be addressed. While the Tangle Teaser hair product may have launched in China from the strength of a single influencer’s post, not all companies can prove so lucky.

What marketers need to know about China

Much has already been written about China’s social media landscape, especially with regard to the state control. What does strike me is how frequently smart businesses are rushing their social strategies into China, or simply getting it wrong. Simply approaching the market as a huge single group of potential consumers is doing the region a huge disservice.

While the middle class is growing in China, there is still a large discrepancy between urban middle-class consumers and rural ones. Just look at the runaway success of Pinduoduo, which in just three years has risen to become China’s third-largest ecommerce company by sales share, driven in large part by its popularity with rural shoppers in China’s third- and fourth-tier cities – a demographic left uncatered-to by ecommerce giants like Alibaba and JD.com, who offer luxury goods to China’s burgeoning middle class.

So simply seeing the whole country as a single group, as with any country, will ignore important local consumer needs and characteristics.

A woman shopping at a food market in China

The differences between China’s rural and urban consumers are often overlooked by marketers who see the country as a monolith

Language and culture can also add perceived barriers. All too often Western businesses have simply looked to a Chinese work experience placement or short-term hires to handle Chinese feeds, a move which not only lacks strategy and oversight, but can also result in a fragmented and disparate experience for brands and consumers alike.

If marketers are seeking to run feeds and content into China from the UK or any other market, it is essential that there is consistency, not to mention well trained and ideally natural language speakers in the driving seats for those campaigns. These skills should be in high demand, as they are the only way to ensure that genuine approach which is absolutely necessary on social.

A nation in demand

It’s an in-depth, native approach to language and culture which can also pay dividends and make the necessary connection. For example, we recently ran a campaign for the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group which was seeking to attract more Chinese tourists to the city.

The first character of Edinburgh in Chinese is the same as the character for ‘love’. The resulting ongoing campaign on Weibo and WeChat featured information about Edinburgh and its highlights, and used key dates like Valentine’s Day to take advantage of topical discussion. It proved phenomenally successful and helped to drive up Chinese visitors by over 40% in just over a year, through 66 million impressions and 60,000 new followers.

The often problematic misconception about marketing in China, especially social media campaigns, is the volumes of people you can be dealing with, all within nominally one country. Shanghai and Beijing have a combined ad reach of 38,567,000 million people on WeChat.

Many still consider social marketing within the region to be a quick, cheap win, when sadly nothing could be further from the truth. This is a nation in demand. There may be millions of people within China, but they are also highly desirable to a wide range of brands. They can also have surprisingly low brand loyalty, precisely because of this desirability. That makes targeting and connecting with them on a genuine level difficult to achieve with any real meaning.

If you adopt ‘stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ marketing methods, you need to stand out to the 7 million people who are actively using Weibo in Beijing. But being blinded by the volumes of consumers potentially within reach in China is risky.

To be able to build worthwhile relationships with these consumers, which can deliver for brands in the short and long term, you should consider and treat them with care and concern if you’re truly looking to crack the Chinese market.

Chinese marketing trends in 2018: What Western brands need to know