Advertising: Secrets of the East

Advertising guru Tom Doctoroff has spent the past 11 years living and working in the rapidly changing environment of modern China. He explains how to crack the market
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The Independent Online

ny first-time visitor to Shanghai will be stunned by the eye-popping glitter of the city's media landscape. The kaleidoscope starts to dazzle immediately after stepping off the plane; HSBC ads grace the off ramp. While pushing through Pudong International Airport's refugee camp-cum-immigration procedures, mobile phones are switched on and business is being conducted via text. Gigantic billboards for Vodaphone, Citibank and Asiaray (the outdoor media company that has snagged exclusive rights in airports across China) adorn an otherwise sterile arrivals hall. Billboards pitching everything from Pepsi to the Communist Party's latest propaganda push line the motorway to the city. At the Bund, the city's riverfront, huge neon signs crown every colonial edifice.

Advertising is impossible to escape. It bombards an optimistic new Chinese consumer class, triggering sensory overload. According to JWT's sister company, MindShare, Shanghainese are exposed to more than 200 different brand messages every day. Londoners, on the other hand, are subjected to only 65. Television screens are everywhere: in taxis, in office lifts and lobbies, on MP3 players and above toilets. Approximately 150 million mainlanders have logged on to the internet.

Three hundrerd million mobile phones constitute a powerful new medium. Mengniu yoghurt, for example, sponsored Supergirl, a Pop Idol-like singing competition during which four million votes were cast via text, surely the largest democratic exercise in China's history. Sales have skyrocketed. (Unfortunately, the buzz spooked the Communist Party into tightening regulations. Vote-driven promotions are now banned on all provincial and local stations; they can run only on CCTV, China's national television network.)

Magazines have mushroomed and range from men's fashion (Esquire) and fitness (Men's Health) to business (the Mandarin editions of Business Week, Fortune, Forbes as well as many local titles) to fashion (Marie Claire, Elle and many, many more). There's even a gay-leaning glossy called M Box. (Of course, the magazine's pink orientation is implicit; otherwise it would be quickly and quietly banned.)

Things have come a long way in terms of scale and sophistication. However, underneath all the tumult, China's media scene is filled with landmines. Rupert Murdoch's China's strategy, in vivid contrast to his Indian success, has hit a brick wall. His China management team is being downgraded, suggesting a belated realisation that the past 10 years' investment was, by and large, a colossal waste of money. It is hard to imagine how media companies such as News Corporation, Viacom, or Time Warner will ever be permitted to operate even quasi-independently. Instead, their presence will be constrained, limited to bland co-productions. A few foreign media outlets such as Star TV's Phoenix channel have obtained the rights to air in Southern Guangdong, but they are allowed only because the province already receives spicy "spillover" programming from Hong Kong.

Television is king and China's most powerful medium, largely because of its broad reach. There are more than 1,000 national, provincial and city television channels, all controlled by the government, up from two dozen only 15 years ago. China's untamed landscape requires forming brands from scratch; television fits this bill by being flexible enough to forge broad-stroke equity and brand character. TV advertising is absolutely imperative for low-involvement products - ie, those characterised by lack of an active search, as is the case for most fast-moving consumer goods such as shampoo.

Since competition is strictly controlled, television is also extremely expensive. On a cost per 1,000 basis (ie, CPM, or expenditure required to reach 1,000 people), prices are similar to those of many Western cities, despite dramatically lower disposable incomes. Beijing is especially pricey.

Over-delivery is the culprit behind high costs. Constrained by all-powerful censors and usually limited to a maximum of 24 episodes, Chinese programming is bland, a blur of politically correct shows that neither provoke nor intrigue. China's cable menu is not yet "nichified". TV shows regress towards the mean, resulting in tremendous waste. Although you may be targeting only college-educated men aged 25 to 35, your advertising will also be seen by their fathers, sisters and wives. And you will be charged for every eyeball. Print titles are more varied but over-delivery is still a problem since most buys can only be national, not regional or local.

Magazine print is especially appropriate for more complicated, information-laden messages, ones usually appropriate for expensive, higher-involvement products such as computers, cars, luxury items and insurance. First, the medium is more tailored to specific audiences than television. Second, print is an actively consumed medium. Reading a message is "elective"; the consumer, by definition, doesn't mind reading the fine print. Finally, it's worth noting that the reproduction quality of Chinese magazines has improved dramatically over the past five years.

Newspaper, on the other hand, is shabby; ink still sullies fingers. Relative to print, however, the medium boasts two advantages. First, the lead time required to purchase advertising space is quite short, often no more than a few days. Such scheduling flexibility is de rigueur for promotional and other tactical communications. Second, it is possible to purchase local newspaper space. This is a big plus for companies - mostly local - who maintain strong distribution in secondary and tertiary cities but not in glittering clusters such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Overall, despite the intoxicating buzz of newness that pervades the Middle Kingdom's media landscape, it remains oddly static, a bizarre counterpoint to the country's exploding brand universe.

Most fundamentally, consumer choice, while still a new phenomenon, has experienced a Chinese Big Bang. The marketing universe is dynamic but unformed. In most cases, "equity drivers" - intangible associations that reinforce consumer loyalty - have not yet been defined.

Brands are organising concepts that alleviate this disorientation. Traditional mass media are indispensable tools in new, untamed markets. Is it impossible to forge a brand without them? Not quite. For example, Nestlé has done just that with its 1 RMB (Renminbi, the Chinese "people's currency") chocolate wafer. And both Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs have created loyal franchises via savvy real estate strategies and enlightened in-store design. But, in general, if a marketer relies too heavily on "below the line", he or she faces an uphill battle.

Media liberalisation will proceed at a snail's pace, either depriving the market of innovations from abroad or heavily regulating the ones that do make it in. It is true that, according to WTO stipulations, China must increase the number of foreign films allowed in local cinemas. In addition, the state is no longer subsidising many small local and regional newspapers, mostly party mouthpieces. However, as long as the Communist government remains in power, control over mass communication will remain strictly controlled.

Print titles will continue to multiply but nothing provocative will appear at newsstands. The China edition of Maxim will be a tame affair. Newsweek's new mainland version is laughably lifestyle-oriented.

Newer, non-traditional choices are still in their infancy. Database-driven "customer relationship marketing" (CRM) is an unfulfilled promise, largely because target consumers' details cannot be identified. Most companies must generate their own lists from scratch. And other below-the-line tools such as retail management and event management have not achieved critical mass thanks to a limited pool of seasoned talent and highly fragmented distribution channels.

China's environment is dynamic. But the government's heavy hand, plus the unchallenged supremacy of traditional television, will narrow the bandwidth of the media revolution.

Tom Doctoroff is CEO of JWT in Greater China and author of Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer published by Palgrave Macmillan, £14.99