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Jun
2015

Now you see me, now you don’t! The pro’s and con’s of yoyo Chinese attention

You will have read in previous articles in Luxury Insights China that the country is one of complete contradiction; not only in the luxury sector do we see this, but in all sectors and all walks of life. Double standards are at home in China, and in fact quite the norm! Saying one thing and then doing another, is almost to be expected.

These contradictions will test your patience, but by understanding the culture and the simple fact that this is how things work, brands can use them to their advantage in a way they might not be able to in other global territories. The great challenge for any brand is to be flexible and to handle the situation they find themselves in when operating in China quite differently from the way they would elsewhere. The simple advice is to do what is needed even if this does not fit the standard company process; because in 99.9% of cases, it will not.

The example for discussion in this issue revolves around the short attention span of the Chinese, which for anyone in marketing obviously means that the brand has to constantly put itself in front of the consumer to avoid dropping off the radar. There is an argument that this is a common requirement globally no matter where in the world you work. Although this is true, there is no doubt that in China, as a result of more knowledgable consumers and the spread of digital technology, the effort required can be ten or more times that, simply due to the extreme nature of the Chinese culture.

The huge influence of social networking and state controlled media

Stating what is obvious to many, and saying that social media in China and the influence of the state media can make your brand or a perceived issue with your brand into a hiatus of comment is well known, but often many may not realise how quickly this can happen, and how focal something like this can instantly become. Once a machine the size of China moves, the combination of technology and central control gets up to steam very quickly, and yet surprisingly, it can also change direction very quickly; something that doesn’t happen at this pace elsewhere in the world.

The Chinese digital society can take a person or a brand from hero to zero, and back again in minutes, specifically because of the reliance on mobile technology and its integral importance in the peoples lives. If your brand is the subject of bad PR, hundreds of millions will know of it even before you have determined how to respond to it yourself. If the government for any reason investigates your business, the entire country will know about it within a day; such is its reach.

However, the PR value of a positive story picked up by social media platforms can throw an unknown brand into the spotlight at the press of a button on the right persons Weibo or Wechat, such is the importance of key influencers and a persons social circle. Social media and the media in general in China are a double edged sword as they can be in other countries, yet here the sword is enormous and the devastation it can reap is proportionally large.

So why bring this up? The simple answer is that good or bad messages can be distributed very rapidly within social groups and within social cliques, and have a proven profound effect as we have seen with issues related to baby food or even the meat used by McDonalds and KFC in their fast food, but this news is usually only news and the subject of public discussion for brief periods of time.

Why?

Because of the short attention span of the Chinese people and the national culture in general.

The yoyo of Chinese attention

For those who understand the way the attention of the Chinese people yoyo’s from one topic or subject to another, they generally don’t fear gaining negative PR because they know that its status in the minds, on the lips and in the social media messages of the Chinese people will be fleeting. It will be big news one day and completely forgotten the next, but the upside of this butterfly attention can be used to bring positive affects to a brand or individual if it is used correctly.

There has recently been a great deal of focus on luxury car brands and Jaguar in particular, who were targeted by the government for over charging for their vehicles, in the form of the sales price being set at a point that could not be justified even when high taxes and duties were taken into account. They are, as many car brands are also guilty of using a monopoly of the supply chain to make very large profits. The Business Review this month for luxury cars explains more.

If we look at what happened in this case, the government, which is in fact the cause of the situation having implemented rules meant to avoid chaos in the supply chain, did some simple calculations that probably every consumer could or has done for the past five years, and worked out that car prices were to high based on the costs and reasonable margins for a business in this sector. It then began to investigate a number of brands, the details of which were made public.

The investigation was on-going, and no specific findings were available, but because these facts appeared in the Chinese media which the majority still regard as reliable and trustworthy, social media discussion followed, and so did a PR challenge. In response to the feeding frenzy that resulted in this news, the car brands made announcements about reducing prices, but cleverly they principally focused on prices of spares and service, and only offered limited reductions on the purchase prices of what were the most expensive vehicles in their range.

This response worked as a breathing gap and deflected the attention from the brand for a short period, long enough for the yoyo attention span of the Chinese people to kick in, and for some other subject to become their focus. The price issue didn’t and hasn’t gone away, but for most, the issue is not at the forefront of their minds, so it’s not an issue. The brands made a tacit effort to demonstrate to the government and the people it was sincere and honest, and then carried on doing almost as it had previously.

The monopoly hasn’t changed, some prices have changed a little, but these car brands are still making far higher margins in China than they do elsewhere, by blaming high taxes and duties and using them to mask their activities.

Using the yoyo attention has been used in other luxury sectors, from clothing to accessories. Brands that have never clearly labelled their products as not being made in their home country when in fact they are made in China. When Chinese consumers, who had assumed that Italian luxury product was all made in Italy, found this out, they were upset and shared this on social media. The brand quickly announced that it did have some products that were made locally, and that these were to be labelled, which deflected the attention, and now nobody asks or appears to care about this issue any more, their focus is elsewhere.

Its not only luxury

Health scares are common in China, and by this I mean investigations into poor quality foods, cosmetics etc. And especially anything related to Children’s health. If you happen to be with Chinese when announcements in these areas have recently been made, they will be the sole topic of discussion at that time, and within a day, they are not mentioned at all.
One recent scare that McDonalds had to respond to was the result of poor quality/contaminated beef from one of its major suppliers who also supplied other fast food chains. The brand demonstrated concern by removing from sale all beef products in its stores, while the problem was ‘investigated’. The consumers and the government were happy by the reaction and the news ceased being current a few days later. Not long after this, beef products reappeared in the outlets. The beef may have come from an alternative supplier and had been perfectly safe, but by this time attention had moved on and consumers went back to buying burgers, and now nobody seems worried or interested in the subject.

A further more recent example of the yoyo attention span and double standards that affects all brands in China is the new government policy that is apparently close to being approved by the senior leadership that will force those celebrities and anyone endorsing brands in the media to have actually used them. Of course there is some logic behind this issue, certainly from a non-Chinese standpoint as we see the same celebrity putting their name to alcohol, cars, baby food and Chinese medicine.

Is this just the government caring that the public get a fair deal or them wanting to regain control of business that over the past few decades have grown enormously? Social media has been full of scathing comments, and suspicion that the government ought to get its own house in order before it cracks down on businesses marketing their products. When the policy is endorsed, the bigger question will be how far will it be enforced and will it become just another media frenzy that soon disappears when a more interesting topic hits the headlines?

React quickly and then become invisible

The contradictions across Chinese culture can be frustrating, annoying and incomprehensible at times, but they can also be beneficial if you know how to cope with them. We all want to be seen in a positive light by consumers in China, much of which we can control, but there are and will be times when an issue with your brand or product becomes highly visible in China and takes centre stage.

Reacting quickly is a necessity in China, because culturally this is what is required, even if you feel that you need time to make the best decision. In China a decision can always be changed soon afterwards. If by reacting, you are able to announce your move in public, attention will begin to wain often as quickly as it appeared. From this point onwards, you are now back in the driving seat, and you can then control your subsequent profile, and eventually spin opinion back in your favour.

The Chinese yoyo attention span will do the rest.


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