Wednesday, August 30, 2006

blue sky thinking

A couple of mornings ago I opened my curtains to see Beijing in all its glory, including surrounding hills:

It's an unusual sight as mostly I see something like this:

Now this second photo was taken on a warm summer day and the lack of visibility is down to pollution rather than bad weather. Increased car traffic, coal burning, construction and mongolian sand storms all add up to create this. Beijingers in a recent survey put pollution as one of 3 top gripes about the city but it's actually been improving, at least officially. Back in 1998 there were only 100 'blue sky days', last year there were 234 blue sky days. The target for 2006 is 238 though we are lagging behind having only managed 107 so far. And where do brands come into this? Well, how does this sort of environment effect people's sense of well-being and how can brands answer this through product, communications, corporate citizenship and their own manufacturing processes? Considering the government's 11th 5 year plan's focus on the environment, brands also have more opportunities now to work alongside or complement government initiatives. And in a John-Grant-cultural-branding sort of way is there ground for brands to bridge the tension between this environmental cost versus the economic progress which is creating it? Research suggests that around 50% of Chinese consumers would be prepared to pay for more environmentally friendly products, and two-thirds of smog-bound Beijingers.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

future technology

Chinese notepad manfacturer Gambol promises their notebooks are "made with future technology, for tomorrow's outstanding achievers". I love a brand that isn't afraid of reaching for the stars. Also a great example of the aspirational pull of technology in Asia, reaching even into the realms of spiral-bound notepads.

romance, chinese parent style

While I'm happy to admit my dating life has had its ups and downs at least I can say that my parents never had to go down a park and hunt for dates for me. Or at least not with my knowledge. Others cannot say the same, as Sunday in Shanghai means parents meet in the city's main park go looking for potential marriage partners for their children. The parents come armed with hand-written ads (as seen above) which rather tellingly, focus on the key facts about their child: age, height/weight, education, profession and salary. No GSOH, or other personal ad frippery here. Other parents cruise them, discussing details and flashing often rather stern graduation photos of their offspring. This photo was taken at the end of the afternoon so its looking rather quiet but its usually packed, creating a definate 'market day' feel. These parents are taking matter into their own hands as long working hours keep their children from meeting potential partners. The solution seems to lie somewhere between free market economy trading, and traditional matchmaking.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

start-up anarchy

In China's boom economy you get a whole new type of entrepreneurship developing. This is a spam text message advertising, as you may be able to guess, an MBA/DBA program. Text spamming is rife in China and offers range from the usual phone company, restaurant, shop etc promotional offers, to more unusuals ones such as services of assassins. Yes, SMS spam for 'private detectives' offering a range of services ranging from intimidation to assassinations have been widely reported (my colleague even received one such SMS the other week).

This is a good example of the anarchy of market development here. Chinese consumers have all sorts of experiences now on offer; in Guangzhou there’s a bathroom themed restaurant with diners seated on toilet seats, serving food resembling excrement. Others include a company farming butterflies to be released at wedding ceremonies, a restaurant specialising in rat-meat cuisine, speed dating get-togethers for asexuals looking for a celibate marriage and a bar where you can insult and attack the staff to relieve stress. This may all be at odds with the idea of developing markets as conservative in tastes, or restricted in options. While that's often true if you look for a standard repertoire of facilities, services and behaviour, what you can find in its place is more fragmented and anarchic development. This is being fueled by a generation of entrepreneurs unfettered by traditional business planning ideas about sustainibility, acceptability and sometimes, morality. The sheer population size of China helps this enormously too - when your local market is around 5-20 million people there'll be a good chance you can find a critical mass to help even niche ideas take off.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

the joy of detail

One of my favorite things about Japan is the attention to detail you see there. This is one example, a series of miniature convenience shop items sold in a collectable series.

This is the contents of the one I bought:

The biggest of these items is only about half the size of a stick of gum. It's brilliant, all individual pieces and painstakingly detailed. Look at the detail on those faux Pringles! Each collection of goods is themed, this one is 'Let's have a party' though I'm not sure anyone would be flocking to a gathering with cans of 'Cocktail Party' on offer. Other themes include 'Necessities you forget to buy' (umbrellas, light bulb, thank you cards) and 'coming home at midnight' (corn dog, tea drink, instant noodles, i.e. drunk munchies). It's a cultural educational tool in its own right, a miniature look inside Japanese convenience store life. These are aimed at young doll house owning demographic but are popular with adults as well. I have to say, though there is no good reason for me to buy a box of tiny junk food, I find it really pleasing.

It's also a reminder for me that while the temptation is to upscale (package sizes, campaigns, media, ideas, statements etc) little things can make a big impression when they are unexpected, or demand scrutiny, drawing you in with detail.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

intermediate product 2

I've mentioned before how intermediate products plug gaps between basic products and more advanced, expensive options by offering an affordable compromise. Here is another example from China: the electric bicycle.

The electric bike sits half way between a push-bike and a motorcycle, it's battery powered but you can also still peddle. Some even are styled to look more like motorcycles, with cosmetic casings that mimic motorbikes with 'go faster' colours.

This is also a cycle for two - kitted out with a cushion at the back so a passenger can ride side-saddle in comfort (or at least more comfortable than sitting on the plain metal supports which is the case for most). When did someone last give you a lift to the office on the back of their bicycle? Or offer to drop you off at a meeting as they are cycling in that direction? It's still a standard form of commuting for many in China. This also illustrates how personal use items in the west are often shared in China; bicycles are used to give lifts, mobile phones can be jointly owned between friends, family members or colleagues and scooters are regularly overloaded to act as the equivalent of a family car or company van.

Monday, August 21, 2006

more public/private blur

I've noted before that the often seen opportunistic napping in China illustrates the blur between private and public space here. Wash day also illustrates how public spaces host domestic life. Drying washing is a common sight, often found on improvised pavement washing lines:

but really any supporting structure will do, such as trees,

or even a pedestrian crossing push-button:

Another illustration of what you can't do in the house, you do where you can. But also illustrates a certain trust, it would be quite easy to help yourself to a free pair of socks/jeans/curtains etc but people feel safe enough that no one will.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

reappropriated services

In China you often find that services and products are reinterpreted by users to suit new or unanswered needs. For example, pawnshops are a hit with students as safe storage service for valuable items during university holidays. They are also pawning items like digital cameras for cash to tide them over until they can find holiday work, redeeming the products later. Others like to shop at pawnshops as they offer bargain-priced good quality second hand products, especially for electronic goods (pawnshops being more stringent in their quality checks than the usual second hand stores).

Cartoon above from the China Daily.
(Note, even the women interviewed by the paper were shopping for tech goods in the cartoon its the girl who's thinking of baubles and trinkets - some good ol' fashioned sexism there).

notebook technology

Nothing is too small for an aspirational spin; here is a paper notebook that references a PDA in its packaging:

well, they both have pen-input, right? and at least the paper version won't crash.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

meat on coat hangers

Common to see meat, and occasionally fish, hanging up outside older-style housing. Indicative of a modern lack of refrigeration but also an echo of older ways to keep food preserved - 'wind-drying'. Having said that, 'wind-drying' may not be the right term when suspended over busy, polluted city roads. Maybe 'smoked' would be more appropriate.

airport distractions

Beijing Airport bookshop offering Communist Party history and a George Bush biography - though note the display's eye-line hierarchy, Dubya's at the bottom right. Putin fans will also find lots of reading options.

But look who was browsing the political and military history section:

Teenagers! Not your typical western Yuff behaviour. There's English teenagers who don't know the dates of the World Wars, here in China we have teenagers with a good grasp of Maoist and Tang dynasty military tactics and thorough knowledge of The Long March. Of course there's a lot of force-fed history through schools and university but there's also PC games and innumerable historical TV shows that also help keep interest and cultural relevancy high. But its also motivated by national pride, young people here have a strong and uncomplicated sense of national pride that may be surprising to many Westerners.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

whimsy with a whiff of insight

Some of my favourite headlines from today's China Daily:

Man jailed for porcelain pilfering

Man bikes around city with coats on, says no to chill out

Soybean grows out of boy's ear

Frankly, I'm doing this just because I found them amusing but in an attempt to draw out some insight:

1) porcelain is worth pilfering

2) although the Chinese tend to painted as one homogeneous conformist mass there are eccentrics, just like other nations

3) the difference in the Chinese diet leads to children sticking locally specific foodstuffs in their ears

opening hours


Hong Kong

One thing common to China and other Asian countries is late opening. In Europe you rarely find shops open past 6 or 7pm. In Asia its business as usual til 9 or 10pm.

Thought for the day: how does this affect the shopper's mindset?
How does shopping after dinner on a Tuesday night differ from a Saturday morning tour of the shops?

heavenly brands

This is a shrine to the Jade Emperor in Stanley, Hong Kong. On the offering table there were the usual incense and food offerings - including Fox's Glacier Fruits.

(Glacier Fruits are a perfect choice as they offer the traditional altar gifts of fruit and sweets but combined in one handy, long lasting format).

In Asia, brands' influence doesn't just stop in this world. In Singapore during the Hungry Ghost festival people leave food out for the wandering ghosts to 'eat'. It's usually traditional things like rice flour cakes but one shop I regularly passed would leave out a McDonalds Fillet o' Fish. Coca-Cola and various beer brands would also make an appearance. In Japan it's traditional to leave out the deceased's favourite indulgences on the grave so its not unusual to see OneCup sake and various brands of cigarettes sitting out in cemeteries. In Chinese funerals its also common to burn 'grave goods' - replicas of goods the deceased may want in the afterlife and I've seen grave replicas of BMWs and Nokia phones. Gives a new meaning to 'lifecycle' marketing [rimshot SFX]. But I do find those blurs between the sacred and the mundane interesting as it gives a homely feel to proceedings, a sense of proximity and familiarity both to the rituals and those being remembered. Also another example, if needed, of how brands have permeated modern Asian life and after-life.

Monday, August 14, 2006

i can read my own blog now

Although able to post I haven't actually been able to read my own blog as Blogger has been a barred site in China. A couple of days ago Blogger was unblocked so today, for the first time, I can see my blog without having to use a foreign proxy server. I presume this is a reflection of Google's renewed relations with Beijing but these things can change, last time blogger was available it only lasted two months. Typepad has been available for a while but wordpress and many other western blog sites seem still to be blocked. China has many home-grown blog sites that are flourishing so the thing to remember here is that blogger's (re)appearance is more significant to ex-pats than the Chinese blogsphere majority who are busy uploading pictures of their weekend and bitching about celebrities, understandably oblivious to the see-sawing fates of western blog sites. Of course, blogs and censorship is a big topic and I'll be chipping away at it later here, promise, but now I need to go and prepare for the deluge as China en masse rushes to view this.

point of view

Flying back from the UK yesterday I passed through Heathrow Airport in full security lock-down. As I was boarding I passed a series ads from the HSBC's 'point of view' campaign, and one in particular struck me:

"Wouldn't the world be a dull place if everyone shared the same opinion?"

Considering recent events, both in the UK and the Middle East, that point seemed more debatable than usual (not to mention rather ironic).
It also occurred to me what a western presumption that was. In consensus or 'middle way' driven Asian cultures the societal ideal is that everyone shares the same view.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

fake made good

This is 'salty water', a Chinese carbonated soft drink made with salt, sugar, lemon and carbonated water. Orginally it began as a sort of fake Coca-Cola, or at least a cheap local version of the expensive western fizzy drinks exported to Shanghai in the 30s and 40s for the foreign community there. It is now a product in its own right with several brands producing it. Interesting how a fake gained its own ground - how many of today's alternatives and fakes will make it in their own right?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

green tea rules

A nice cup of green tea, green tea biscuit and green tea chocolate chip cookies from Japan.
Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry may be the heavy hitting sweet flavours of the West but green tea (along with red bean) rules in the East. Green tea is also a popular ice-cream flavour, especially with Chinese women, not only because of its 'cooling', light taste but because green tea is commonly believed to aid slimming. Now, I'm no nutritional expert but I would question if this is still the case once its mixed with loads of milk, fat and sugar.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

chinglish technology

This is an ad for an electronic English/Chinese dictionary. They are very popular here but I have a personal suspicion of the things as I think they are the main cause of Chinglish (as previously discussed here Chinglish is the mutant language created when English is mashed up with Chinese syntax or inaccurately translated).

These electronic dictionaries and the common Chinese/English translation pc software mean anyone can translate easily with full technological confidence. Of course, translation is never that straightforward and the results are often rather bizarre as the software can be overly literal or offer some very idiosyncratic word choices; I've looked at research reports fed through this language technology and had to wonder whether a health brand's ability to 'prolong mortality' is a good or bad thing and question whether so many consumers are really buying a product for their 'concubines'. I often point out discrepancies to the translators and frequently am overruled, my protests that 'weald' does not mean guerilla marketing or the English call wasabi 'wasabi', not 'mustard' are ignored because the software says that is what it should be. What can i do? Technology's shiny newness just exudes authority. I, on the other hand, am just a foreigner with an obviously poor grip on her native language.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

i spot a national metanarrative

Recently I was in Xian, home to the tomb of Emperor Qin (also known as Shi Huangdi), the first Emperor who unified China. While the tomb is most famous for its terracotta soldiers the Emperor was also buried with a whole range of other figures and belongings, including figurines of the ethnic minorities who live in the outlying regions of China. These were included in the tomb to illustrate the extent of his domain and the variety of peoples he had unified (and would rule again in the afterlife). Two thousand years later minority figures are still appearing as part of the iconography of the wide reaching united Chinese nation, employed in diverse materials such as revolutionary communist artwork and a even recent Wrigley's brand ad:

In this ad they are used to illustrate that all sorts of people, all across China love a bit of western chewing gum. (Does this make China's ethnic minorities the oldest advertising property ever?) This is also a small illustration of the immense continuity in Chinese culture. Confucianism, Taoism and traditional medicine are all part of this same continuity and it creates a sense of innate heritage and wisdom that the Chinese understandably see as a unique national strength.

Monday, August 07, 2006

mummy can i have a cricket?

This man is selling crickets in bamboo wicker cages on a Shanghai street. Crickets have been a popular summertime pet since ancient times. They are kept in homes and shops for their therapeutic chirping, a sort of seasonal cheap variation on the caged song bird. The crickets will be hung up in their wicker homes or be decanted into tiny bird-cage style casings. I think this goes into the 'ways in which China is different' pile. Also an example of the sort of traditional home industry that many people still rely on, even in developed Shanghai.

Friday, August 04, 2006

weigh your books

Sign in Xian, advertising books sold by weight, offering the equivalent to a kilo for about a dollar. Something Borders may like to think about.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

have a good look

One of my favourite things about China is being able to have a good gawp. It’s quite ok to stop and watch something of interest in the street, as demonstrated here. In this example the car in the foreground has bumped into a taxi and the traffic cop has just arrived to sort things out. As you see, the crowd is intently watching the action. This was in the middle of the rush-hour and people made a point of stopping and coming over so they could get a good view of the proceedings. There was very little drama and a few minutes later the issue had been settled and everybody dispersed on their various ways. Sometimes the watchers become arbiters, weighing in on one side or the other, but often there’s no audience participation, it's just about satisfying curiousity.

I think this is a good indication of how social boundaries, privacy and communal space are often different. We all like a gawp really but whether its socially permissible in our culture is another matter. I think you could probably divide most cultures up into staring and non-staring cultures; India and China are on the have-a-good-look side for example, UK and Japan on the want-to-look-but-can't side...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

grey area

Walking through Beijing airport the other day I noticed there were two Shanghai Tang shops within only a few metres of each other:

Except one of them wasn't Shanghai Tang at all. The first picture is actually their old store which has been taken over by a new tenant that happens to be selling very similar Shanghai Tangesque products. This is a good example of the degrees of fake-ness you get in China. Officially they aren't doing anything wrong as the original branding is covered up, and they aren't calling themselves something like 'Shanghai Fang' but its certainly implying similarity every other way; their product and clothing display style are highly suggestive of Shanghai Tang, especially when framed by the original Shanghai Tang shop fittings. It's operating in a branding grey area.

To make matters worse the real store has updated its look so, for a moment there, I thought it was the copy as the 'grey' store had registered as the real Shanghai Tang because it looked more familiar. This might not be a life-or-death issue for Shanghai Tang here in Beijing airport but imagine you are a leading brand who is trying to update its image in the Chinese mass market. Aggressive local competitors unconstrained by IP protection are ready to steal your old and more familiar image to sell their own product and while your brand is in the limbo of establishing a new look they may even manage to position you as the fake.