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Consumer surveys in China: Reliable facts or questionable fiction?

Reading the Chinese consumer is the goal of every luxury brand, to know what they own, the way they think and what they will do next, have and will continue to be the holy grail for every marketer that wants to connect with this very important consumer group. The greatest challenge to this objective is that the luxury sector in China is constantly in a state of flux; so how can valuable and reliable data actually be collected? 

In a rapidly changing market like this, nothing stands still for long; particularly consumer attitudes that are transient and can literally change day by day. Compounding the challenge in China are cultural habits that are not exclusive to this country, but are arguably more extreme here than in most other global luxury markets. In particular, embellishing the truth and in some cases, white lies among the population are a fact of life and the result of social pressure to appear more successful than you actually are. When a Chinese meets another person they don’t know well, they will always assume the other may not be telling the truth, quite possibly as a result of the fact that what they themselves are saying has also been puffed up to sound better.

With such a high probability that any ‘surveying’ of Chinese consumers will result is information that may well be far less accurate than we might assume, so what is a marketer to do to get closer to the truth?

Online surveys: demographics and motivation

Reaching a large sample of consumers in China is always going to be the goal of any brand, and setting up an online survey is relatively simple and low cost. However, experience would show that people here are unlikely to complete a questionnaire unless incentivised with a gift or money, and those that do are on the whole students, or those of lower income who have the time to allocate and a need for the money. Middle class consumers and middle earners are not attracted by the small incentives, and consider themselves better than those who might complete a survey of this type.
This brings into question both the reliability of the data from online surveys and the authenticity of the respondents to provide answers even if they were true. When I read about surveys of 10,000 Chinese these can only realistically be carried out online, as the cost of face-to-face interviews would be huge, and actually finding the right type of people willing to spend 30 minutes to an hour answering questions difficult. These issues begin to indicate that from any information gathered it may be possible to pick up some basic trend data, but to gather detail of real value is unlikely.

What most of us want from a survey of luxury consumers in China is genuine answers from those who buy luxury products with regularity, and not random guesswork from people who recognise some brand names, and can tick boxes quickly in order to win a prize. Although we must all accept that online surveys are not entirely accurate in whichever country they are run, the culture and incentives here are such that their influence on the final results is considerably higher than many other places in the world. When surveying online, questions need to be relatively quick and easy to answer such as ‘do you prefer to wear the colour red or blue?’ If the question required them to describe something, the Chinese interviewee would find it hard to respond to this, because processing the question and thinking about the answer requires effort and honesty.

Getting closer to the truth: it’s down to those you know

So if online surveys are likely to deliver varied results weak in value, do face-to-face interviews deliver more reliable results with more depth and meaning?

Embellishment of the truth exists in China whether a question is asked online or face-to-face, so don’t assume that by sitting in front of someone or speaking to them by phone is necessarily likely to increase the accuracy of the answers you are given. The potential loss of face that could come by admitting one’s real situation far outweighs the risk of being found out for telling a few white lies.

This issue is particularly prevalent where to interviewee does not know the interviewer or has no means to verify their status and hence establish a level of trust. Either saying what you think someone wants to hear or claiming to own certain luxury products or have experienced other luxury services would be used to protect yourself. It’s also not uncommon for those of wealth in China to either use a false name or refuse to give their true identity when they are when being interviewed. They don’t want to be investigated or quizzed by others or the authorities as a result.

So in order to gain maximum benefit from one-to-one interviews, the interviewee should ideally be somebody you already have a personal relationship with, or a close friend or business associate of one of your close friends. This may sound like a tall order and it can be, but if you want genuine quality data, then this is unlikely to come from a large quantity of people. In order to let you into their world, Chinese people must trust you and be sure that you are what you say you are, and that the information you are asking for is not going to embarrass, or be used against them.

This need to have a personal connection to the interviewees does mean that those carrying out research on behalf of the brand must be trusted themselves by the interviewees, and know how to talk and question them in an appropriate manner. The right technique will result in more and much richer detail than might be attained through basic questioning, but it does very much depend upon the interviewer, their attitude and experience, often one or more of these are weak points in research organisations, particularly using students or recent graduates with no experience to ask questions of wealthy people.

Interpretation of the data is key

The last point to be made on the subject of surveys and consumer research in China is the key aspect of data interpretation. A great deal of data is gathered about luxury consumer habits, ownership, preferences and interests, yet for all this data, its real value lies in its meaningful interpretation and contextualisation in terms of the rapidly changing Chinese luxury market. Much as it is important that any person interviewing wealthy consumers does so as much by listening to the answers they are given as by asking the right questions, taking that data and using current and expert market knowledge to put into context is critical. Valuable information can be completely misconstrued in the wrong hands.

Because, as previously mentioned, it is often difficult for the Chinese to explain how they feel about something, their answers may fall short in terms of precision and the analyst will need to read between the lines, or probe more carefully to explain the meaning to the reader. Understanding the current dynamics of the luxury market is the only way to interpret the data correctly, and the same understanding can play a big role in the preparation of the questions and interview process, the two go hand in hand and cannot be separated. If those gathering the information have the right experience and understand exactly what the data will be used for, they can select the right people to interview, the right questions to ask, and deliver the right value.

There is no real alternative to experience

The rate of change across China and within the luxury market will continue at a pace, even if spending has currently slowed. Consumers are still learning and developing new attitudes and opinions making keeping up with them a huge challenge for any brand. Mass surveys may provide general overall trend data, or confirm that a trend that has been identified is in fact the case. However, consumers no longer fall into one homogenous group, and cannot be dropped into the same box or category. Realistically, getting to really know more about a select group of consumers using one to one interviews will provide more valuable and practical information. But this must be collected by people who have real experience of the market and consumers, the right connections, understand how to ask the right questions and as importantly, know what this information actually means specifically to you the brand.


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