Monday, July 31, 2006
I know its old but the 5 Friendlies - the Olympic mascots for the 2008 Olympics - have a lot to tell us about why China suceeds. They are commercial genius, what sells better than an olympic mascot? 5 Olympic mascots! They offer more choice (come on you have to like at least one!) and 5 times the cost to collect the whole set! Plus they illustrate true conceptual flexibility - snaps to the design agency for grouping a fish, bird, panda, antelope and um, fire together. And then naming them so when combined they spell 'Beijing Huanying Ni' (Beijing welcomes you). If it was tied up any neater I think I don't think you could actually take it all in. If you a look at the official site you can also note how they draw on ancient Chinese art forms as well. I can just imagine the brief-by-committee;
Mascot for Olympics must feature:
- chinese wildlife
- traditional Chinese culture
- seem welcoming
- Must also be modern
- look good in soft toy form
- and include the Olympic symbols; the 5 rings and the Olympic flame.
And someone managed it. It makes my head spin. True Olympic Stuff.
The 5 friendlies are also used to represent the various sports, so we're treated to:
fire on a bike!
and something else you rarely see, a panda with a gun. A friendly panda with a gun at that.
An internet survey from a local Chinese HR company (ChinaHRD) revealed recently that out of the 4,000 people surveyed 70% were suffering 'slight' symptoms of executive stress 'burnout', and 13% suffered from serious burnout.
China Daily published similar figures recently claiming about a fifth of executives were suffering severely from stress. Health officials have also explained that the long term effects of stress means that the life expectancy of the Chinese executive is now around 53 years, a considerable drop from ten years ago. It may not all be down to just job stress though, other health commentators blame poor eating habits, large unhealthy business banquets complete with heavy drinking and late night client-bonding karaoke sessions.
Eitherway, there's more white collar workers realising that success is coming with a questionably high price. Sound familiar?
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Catherine Zeta Jones - huge drop in weight after having her children, old unattractive husband
David Beckham - inspired footballer with disturbingly thin wife
Jordan - oversized fake bosom and blind child
These celebrities appear to have a level of global brand consistency most international brands would kill for, no doubt thanks to their easily understood product offerings.
I also wanted to mention this as it just proves that some things are the same the world over; subject matter of hairdresser conversations, celebrity gossip, attention around interesting plastic surgery choices, etc. I also want to make the point that while I like to talk about what makes China different there’s also plenty to cover about how life is similar too. There's a tendency to deliberately present China as the 'Mysterious East’ and it’s neither helpful nor accurate. I'm hoping to use this blog to chart areas where China is unique but also where people share similar issues and concerns.
So more updates on Jordan to come.
Ah, and if this has set your curiousity on fire about Asian celebrities and gossip mags, here's something that might interest.
Even though the founder was Nosferatu...
Actually that's a cheap shot as I do like his photo as he looks so jolly - the founder photos are usually a little somber, and closer to a funeral headstone or stele photo rather than one that makes you feel like you are in good medicinal hands.
But there are quite a number of 'heritage' ointment brands and just look at the on-shelf effect...
This 'White flower ointment' is looking quite plain in comparision but the whole box is only the size of a postage stamp. And its embossed, which is a really nice touch.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
even extra dense characters;
Thought of the day: How does this particular sort of density affect people and brands?
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Malls are now a familiar part of the western cityscape but in developing Asia they are still a new feature. This newness creates shopping tourism, people coming to malls just to look around, not necessarily to buy. After traveling through lower tier China for a couple of weeks and then stopping at a mall in Shanghai I realised that it was more than just about novelty, malls offer a whole of heap of attractions;
They are pristine. After you're used to buying from shops where everything comes with a fine layer of dust and dirt malls are sparkling temples of cleanliness. The mechandise is perfect too, no stains or tears or faults, a big change from most lower tier/lower end shops where you have to do your own quality checking before you buy.
They are ordered; the products are displayed neatly and clearly, unlike the crowded and bundled stores you usually see. They also all have clear and fixed prices which, though out of reach for many, have an authoritative and definite quality to them versus the shifting and shifty pricing of the average street shop.
They are an education. There’s row after row of interior design ideas, latest fashions, new brands, electronic goods to look at, new food, pop music, young trendy assistants, it’s one big product demo for advanced living.
They are comfortable they are well-lit (unlike many homes, shops and streets which are poorly lit), they are air conditioned too – which is bliss when its 35 degrees outside and there’s no air con at home. Then you also have as a bonus that soporific swimming pool sort of noise distortion, a relief from the chaos outside.
It's easy to overlook malls when the sort of things they offer are commonplace and even seem banal but after a little deprivation you begin to appreciate their qualities and their attraction, enough to make it a destination that doesn't even have to involve actual shopping.
update: "AC Nielsen conducted an on-line survey involving about 22,000 Internet users from 42 markets around the globe, 74% of whom admitted that shopping was a hobby to them, and they would like to go shopping even when they had nothing to buy. That is to say that many people today choose window-shopping to kill time. 99% of the responders from Singapore even said that was what they went shopping for. 75% of shoppers on Chinese Mainland and 20% of the Indians picked buying clothes as their favorite pastime.
The survey, which also covered the question how often the responders went shopping, found that 7 Asian markets were on the top-10 list. The top-3 were Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, where people went shopping twice a week on average.
However, people from the Western countries are not so fond of shopping as Asians. Only 68% of Americans said they would like to go window-shopping, while most Europeans hated window-shopping". (source: China Daily, July 28th)
Lex, please get in touch - I replied in the 'comments' to you but have just realised it didn't appear. To your question about being an illiterate planner at work - well it depends on how international your agency and prospective clients are, the more local they are, the more Chinese language based they, their data, meetings and presentations are. That's very hard and you have to just really step back and become a facilitator rather than a producer. If your clients are international then the operating language tends to be English and most resources and meetings will be English. Of course, what's harder then is keeping up with pop culture and following trends and opinion. I hope I'm proving that you can still be current without understanding written Chinese but its definitely harder work, no more quick media ethnographies to give you a feel for the audience at least!
And Cheek2001, loyalty programs can work in China but I can't think of any smashing case studies right now, I'll chew on it. I don't think the Chinese consumers' reaction to loyalty programs is hugely different than it is in west but the one big thing you do have to think about is logistics which can be nightmarish here. If its a small scale and local affair that makes things easier but as general rule keep mechanics as simple and analogue as possible, the rewards useful and make sure they are quickly won. People are also understandably wary of scams and underhanded manufacturers so be careful not to be intrusive and do stress your credibility. Of course scale, category and audience will all have a big influence so please do email if you want to disclose a little more I'll try to be more specific. Also, my agency has a sister agency who are BTL marketing wizards here, if you need a local partner or would be interested in talking to them just let me know.
Monday, July 24, 2006
Interesting interview in the China Daily the with the principle of a boarding school (as pictured above). She sums up the Chinese parenting style neatly;
"Chinese parents always compare their own children's shortcomings with others' achievements, so they are never satisfied with them. They spoil their children in as much as they try to provide them with a comfortable life but when it comes to study they want to be strict. What really needs to change is the parent's attitudes toward education."
Chinese parents are often conflicted about their behaviour as they know they are inconsistent and unfair to the child but can't help still pressurising and hectoring them to compete with their peers. They then over compensate for this pressure with presents, food and indulgence. It's a topic of debate but peer pressure is strong and with so many families having only one child to succeed for the family it doesn't look like its going to improve for many children soon
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Begging? Homeless? Distressed? No, they are just having a quick nap.
opportunistic napping is a common thing to see in China and while we may all like a nap how often do you choose to nap at the side of a road? This is a great illustration of the blur between private and public spaces in China. In part this is due to how crowded and communal Chinese homes often are. When space or peace isn't offered at home life tends to spill out into public spaces. Want some time with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Find a park. Want a nap? Help yourself to a pavement before work starts. Want to practice your trumpet playing or Chinese opera singing? Go down to the street. Private, demarcated space is a luxury that comes with a certain standard of living, if below that you do what you gotta do wherever you can find the space to do it.
Friday, July 21, 2006
"As a general rule there maybe an extra charge for baggage."
So will I be charged or not for my baggage?
Vagueness is an official skill in China. Chinese Government rulings, regulations and guidelines are all couched in this sort of language. It provides built-in flexibility because you never know when you are going to have to make an exception or change your mind about something. Ambiguity allows for case-by-case assessment, the attitude being that there are too many possible variations to cover in one defined rule so it's better to stay flexible and decide what's best to do when you need to.
Of course, the taxi rule is just some fine print no one pays attention to but it is rather different when this is the case for company law and civil legislation. How do you think it would change your behaviour if you're not sure what you can and can't do or you know your well-being rests on the interpretation of that day's adjudicator?
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Below is an entry from the Superfuture shopping guide to Shanghai today, this covers only a few blocks of the city's Xintiandi area.
spot the difference eh? Thought it was interesting how this illustrated how Shanghai has changed but also how tourism has changed. Once a fancy hotel and a monument were attractions now its bars, clubs and shops.
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
One thing living in China has helped me to understand is illiteracy. I can only recognize about 100 Chinese characters and you need 2000 to qualify as basically literate. China's adult illiteracy is just under 9% according to government statistics while the Global illiteracy rate is estimated by UNESCO at around 25%. Finding myself suddenly illiterate has helped me understand how not being able to read affects your behaviour;
I rarely buy anything unless it has English or a really clear picture of the product. I don't switch brands or varieties unless I'm sure of what it is. I've just bought a new camera and although I wanted to change brand I bought the same as before as I'm used to operating it. I also knew I wouldn't understand the instructions for a new one. I don't experiment with the camera either as I'm worried about breaking it or getting it stuck on underwater party photo mode permanently.
2. Needing pictures
Obviously visuals clues are really important especially on packaging, preferably pictures of the product itself and if appropriate, ingredients. I don't appreciate ambiguous graphics - there is nothing more upsetting when you really want a cup of tea and then finding you've brought yoghurt instead of milk (please note Chinese dairies, a white tidal wave = milk. Put the yoghurt in a bowl, milk in a tidal wave). Simple brand logos that also give you strong product clues are very welcome.
2. Disruption to routine is bad
I can just about guess what my bills are for and I can pay them at certain local shops but if I miss a payment I have to go to the company' office which is a nuisance as I can't understand their directions or the addresses. If shops or companies move I'm stuck as their new location is rarely posted in English. I like restaurants with predictable things on the menu that I can recognise too. Basically I like things to stay the same.
3. Learning specifics to cope
If I take the train I have to learn my location names in advance so if I miss the English signs I can still identify my stop. The same goes for restaurants or houses that might only have Chinese names so I know characters that will help me guess I've arrived (like the restaurant sign above).
4. Loss of privacy
When I need to read a note or an official letter I have a range of friends and colleagues I can ask but it has its limits and it makes me nervous not know what I'm divulging - maybe its my cleaning lady writing about me being a hopeless slattern? Or the government ordering me out of the country? Luckily bank details and contracts are often available in English but what if had to go flashing them around to understand them? Privacy isn't just a nice emotional hygiene factor, its also connected to security, personal freedom and self determination.
Being illiterate, if you'll excuse the expression, is proving to be a real education.
But enough of that, back to me. Or rather me and you. Please do leave a comment, and especially if there's something that interests you or you want to know more about (concerning China that is, no tricky questions about why the sky is blue or the meaning of life please). It'd be good to know what you think.
Monday, July 17, 2006
the Biscuit city at Selfridges
The view from my apartment window really reminds me of Song Dong's 'Edible City', the model city made from biscuits hosted by Selfridges back in February. To quote Song Dong:
"The purpose of my work is for the city I build to be destroyed. ... As cities in Asia grow, old buildings are knocked down and new ones built, almost every day. Some cities have even been built from scratch in 20 years. ... My city will be built of sweets and biscuits, making it tempting and delicious. When we are eating the city we are using our desire to taste it, but at the same time, we're demolishing the city and turning it into a ruin."
It's an interesting point as high rises are generally seen as a symbol for China’s progress. There’s some dissenting voices about the loss of heritage as old neighbourhoods are cleared to make way for the new but generally China’s shiny new constructions are seen positively as The March of Progress. Mr Song’s quietly moral view reframes this progress to something a little more problematical. In a recent article, a young Chinese student architect noted that the architecture in Beijing was “being driven by money, not designers", producing flashy and garish buildings for the few rather than pleasing buildings for all, so it would seem that Mr Song isn’t on his own about this.
Sunday, July 16, 2006
My friend is leaving Shanghai and has given me this as a memento. It's from Afghanistan, bought just after the war and yes, it's a miniature burka. As a recognised symbol of the Taliban's oppression I think it makes an uncomfortable souvenir.
And especially when its also a wine bottle cover.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Its existence is a train wreck of kitsch and evoked human rights abuses. It is sitting in my kitchen like some sort of post-modernist commentary on national identity, gender, religious belief and consumerist culture. It is impossible to put it anywhere without amplifying this. In a drawer? Shutting away uncomfortable history. In amongst the bills? A comment on petty everyday concerns versus others' real struggle. It's just too big a symbol to sit in my knick-knack pile.
I'm sure it was very simple commercial sense and opportunism that created this but I can't help feeling its existence is really some sort of indictment of the world today.
update: in a rare moment of social consciousness I remembered this organisation is defending women's rights in Afghanistan; Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, please have a look at how to help them. Sadly, there's plenty of work left to be done.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Now, I'm no auto enthusiast but I'm sure Ferrari hasn't recently launched itself into the Chinese low-end scooter market. If I'm right, then [gasp] this must be a fake.
But Ferrarisation of low-end vehicles isn't confined to China. How about this eBay offering from the US;
or this low-fi DIY attempt, as featured on a French website:
It would seem that young men with Ferrari tastes but scooter money is a global phenomena.
Do they appreciate the mis-match between their favourite brand and its new location?
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Now, if you tried to brief this - "a shareable and portable dispenser for individually encased fresh sunflower seeds, with natural design cues and full biodegradability please" - it would be completely impractical to make. But here it is, straight from Mother Nature and ready for shipping.
So here I am going on about China, but, in an attempt at fairness, I'm going to regularly share Chinese views of the West and Westerners here too. And how better to kick this off with than a quote from "Westerners through Chinese Eyes"? Published by the Beijing Foreign Language Press this is a great, if slightly random, collection of stories that do actually manage to reveal quite a lot about both the West and East and how people approach foreign cultures. In one chapter a contributor defines American character traits:
"Enter and exit human relationships quickly
'Go for it' is a moto
Impatience is a trait
Penny wise and pound foolish in value judgments
Nosiness is tabooed
Quest for influence
Risk is the foundation of the firm
Teasing is a sign of being liked
Vulnerable to temptations
Woo fame and fortune
Yen for yen, the Japanese currency"
Of course, this was published back in 1990 so this probably needs updating now as Americans yen for the Renminbi these days and I'd suggest a lot of Chinese now have a 'Go for it' attitude, but when I've asked Chinese friends and colleagues about their impressions of Westerners/the West I've heard similar things. I particularly love how this highlights key differences in attitudes towards things such as privacy ("Nosiness is tabooed"). It's quite common in China for people to ask you about how much you earn, how much rent you pay, why you aren't married/ don't have [lots of] children and other personal topics but obviously the author noted that this wasn't welcomed in the US. The individualistic versus the collective mentality is also highlighted ("Me-first attitude"). Its also telling that "Teasing is a sign of being liked" is such a revelation but laughing at yourself or others is a trickier thing when maintaining 'face' is such a big issue. "Enter and exit human relationships quickly" is also an interesting one, and says quite a lot about how attitudes towards friendship differ.
But, more on these big subjects later as I've just run out of patience and need to go off and quest for some influence.
Sunday, July 09, 2006
Here's an old Private Eye piece from the 1970s, spoofing the butter ad campaigns of the time which focused on the artificial and unhealthy nature of margarine. The 'ad' describes the magarine manufacturing process as
- old magazines melted down to a pulp
- treated sewage added for protein
- solubles drained into rusty oil drum
- tobacco ash added as stablisers
- animal glue added
- yellow paint for colouring
- crushed deadly nightshade seeds for preservatives
- huge rats make their home in the bottom of the drums
- millions of bird droppings fall from the roof into the vats
- margarine is poured into plastic tubs to poison you
This reminded me of the food quality scandals in China. My favourite was the fake eggs story. Allegedly made in China but selling in Vietnam the fake eggs were created from borax, alum, glue and "several organic acids" (i.e. nearly as bad as British sausages). But exotic examples aside, food scandals are a regular feature in the Chinese press. Issues include dangerous levels of pollutants and carcinogenic dyes and manufacturers' extreme bad practice. Established brands are no exception to this; a big local dairy last year was exposed for 'recycling' expired milk back into fresh batches and even international retailers often leave expired food, sometimes years past sell-by dates, on shelves. Profit is the obvious motivation but speed of growth in the food market is key too. The food industry in China has grown by 1000% in the last ten years but this boom is unstructured and poorly regulated. Even setting obvious and scurrilous abuses aside, the government reports that 64% of food suppliers surveyed last year were found to be below even basic hygienic standards.
And on that note, I'm off for lunch.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
On a trip to Xian the other weekend I saw a Chinese undercut in action. We were on a complimentary bus from the airport into town. It was a very kosher operation but there's obviously some sort of kick-back scheme ongoing on because the conductor spent her time with her captive audience undermining their choice of hotel in many different ways. It was poetry in motion. The bus takes you to two unspecified city destinations so people have to ask where they should get off and so volunteer their hotel choice innocently. That's the cue for lines as, "do you have an internet booking? oh, those never work!" and "that's so far away from all the sights!" and the hardest hitting of all:
"Oh, you're staying there? Oh, that's so expensive! Are you sure you want to pay so much? There's a much cheaper place we know..."
Stealing away trade with a price cut is an old standard but I particularly like the way she compounds that by implying that your current choice is pure folly.
Many international brands go for the price premium in China as it fits their often better performing product and strong brand image. It also fits wth prevailing trends as the majority of Chinese middle class consumers now say that they are more willing to pay for quality than ever before (thanks CMMS for the data). So it's often confusing and hurtful for marketers when their customers stay thinking highly of them but buy less well thought-of local brands instead. Yes, its price undercutting but its also that little voice of doubt about the validity of a price premium. Brands need strong arguments or prompters about value for money at point of sale to silence those little voices and close the deal.
In the end we changed to their suggested hotel because the location was actually better and yes, it was about half the price of our original choice. On the way out later we hailed a taxi and as we got in the driver exclaimed, "You're not staying there are you? Its far too expensive!" .
You can't win.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
I'm inclining towards the western horoscope as I've started this blog so everyone will realise how smart and talented I am but then again, the Chinese horoscope is playing on my deeper fears that I squander any success I have, however meager.
And let's face it, you have to trust someone who has 'His Holiness' as a title.
Did you also notice the Ox horoscope? They can't move any bedroom furniture around this month and will be suffering from 'gossips'. Tougher for some. But suffering from 'gossips' is an interesting point as I'm trying to think how many times rumours/being gossiped about/bad mouthed comes up in western horoscopes and I'm struggling to think of examples outside teenage girl mags. I've seen it mentioned regularly in Asian horoscopes which makes sense considering the more collective nature of Asian society and the emphasis on face. Funny, but I think if you need to get a quick sense of a culture horoscopes are often a pretty useful starting point as they are such a simple and unselfconscious reflection of societies' priorities.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Sign outside a Shanghai bar
One of my favourite things in China is the chinglish. Found commonly on products and signage in China it is an attempt at English marred by poor translation and misspelling. I particularly like this example as it features a classic mistake - the bizarre word substitution (unless they really are selling bishops) but also the more unusual use of anachronistic language. Where on earth did they find 'nosh'? Are they avid readers of The Beano? Personally I blame electronic dictionaries for this but more on that later. But don't worry, the Chinese government is on it. The English language press in China routinely call for people to send in examples of chinglish in an attempt to clear up these discrepancies. Beijing Today goes further, tackling the signs with gusto any English teacher would be proud of:
The sign reads "Any assistance?" We can help you with our pleasure". The author acknowledges that we get the gist here but points out the grammatical errors and that "the sentence structure is sloppy".
I have to wonder at why we are getting this language lesson. Beijing Today is an English language newspaper so if you can understand the article you'll already appreciate the mistake. On the other hand I doubt if the authors of this sign are regularly scouring the papers for tips on English grammar so this is a pointless exercise. Unless, the real purpose of this exercise is to illustrate that the powers-that-be know that chinglish looks amateurish and 'sloppy'. I suspect that's the real message here. This is an exercise in restoring face, that someone feels that these signs reduce the national 'face' and this a way of reasserting credibility and expertise. Just a thought.
More fun can be had at www.engrish.com. Its mainly examples from Japan but with China's determination to be first at everything they are coming up fast on the site. Below is one of my favourites from the site.
This is a banana from my local coffee shop. I find it enormously poignant that they wrap bananas up in cellophane. It's not a country wide craze, just my poshy coffee shop. I find it poignant, as i struggle with the three yards of transparency they bind it with, because it's entirely unnecessary as bananas come with their own coat. It's also environmentally unfriendly reflecting, in its own microsopic way, the horrors of Chinese industrial pollution and waste. But its also because I think this is meant to be added value, a guarantee of pristine quality. To be fair, polluted and dirty food is an issue in China, but again, bananas aren't really the thing to be worrying about. It's quite touching really, going to that effort but it is so unnecessary. Reminds me of too many brands' added value programs - well meaning but just generating more rubbish.
Monday, July 03, 2006
This is a screen grab from an MMS message circulated for the momentous birthday. The comrades at Danwei.org have identified that she's karaoking along to a song popular a while ago whose lyrics feature the immortal lines:
"Singing The East is Red, we get ourselves together and stand up/It's spring time, we're reforming and opening up/And we're gonna get rich!"
It's struggle for me to reconcile the CCP and a cute pink haired cartoon character but that is obviously just my problem.
Here's another take on cute from Asia. Perk are two up and coming designers in Shanghai who have already been pounced on by various mags as examples of the avant-garde young. And rightly so, below is a pack of their pin-badges. Beautifully disturbing.
Reminds me of Murakami's upsetting KiKi character:
It's interesting that so much of Asia's pop culture can appear saccharine to the West and devoid of rebellion but there is a definite streak of real darkness to it all that often gets over looked.
There are a few examples of category overlap but am still looking for that natural sounding powerful international name. That sweet spot is yet to be taken but I have my eyes open and I'm lookin'.
Of course, if you need a quick guide to the varied aspirations of the mid-high Chinese consumer these names give you a pretty good idea. A more natural and relaxed life, obvious undeniable status and a taste of the international living.
Check out Thames Town at www.thamestown.com/english/default.htm
Truly authentic, only missing the sulky teenagers hanging around drinking cheap canned lager and a queue of Volvos backed up from Waitrose's car park.