By  on November 15, 2006

There is an innate conflict inside every Chinese woman, and Western brands have to recognize it if they are to succeed.

Tom Doctoroff, Northeast Asia area director and greater China chief executive officer of JWT, warned that companies should not attempt to market Western ideals to Chinese women because it won't work. They want to become modern and international, but they don't care to adopt the conventional standards of the West.

Doctoroff traced the conflict within Chinese women to the Confucian system that still dominates the country, despite its Communist structure. Women in China have traditionally been told they are to be soft, loving and mother figures. But the idea developed under the Communist system is that they are to be warriors, protectors of the family and strong. Their constant struggle is how to marry the two sides of their femininity. Marketers, in many cases, have to decide which side they are appealing to.

For example, while American women visit spas for relaxation, Chinese women go to spas (which are located on virtually every street corner) to "recharge their batteries" so they can go out and be more productive.

"Everything has to help women move forward, but never sacrifice feminine gentility," said Doctoroff.

Another example is plastic surgery, which is all the rage among Chinese women. Western females use plastic surgery to make themselves look and feel better, while Chinese women use it as a tool. "It's not for self-esteem," Doctoroff said. "They do it to land a better husband or get a better job."

China is a largely Confucian society (which began in 500 B.C.), consisting of regimentation and ambition. At its core, this type of society presents conflict, he said, and the two female archetypes are the "wife/mother" and the "warrior/achiever." He pointed to a commercial from one of the most successful brands in China, a Procter & Gamble soap called Safeguard that has been positively received by the wife/mother set because it targets germs, a major concern among this group.

"It's one of the only markets in the world where germs are a danger that a mother has to [fight] because she is the protector of the home," he said.Doctoroff also played a De Beers jewelry commercial that is targeted to the ambitious woman. She is driving a sports car through a European city while her husband desperately tries to read a map and figure out where they are going. The hapless husband grows more and more confused, while the in-control woman suddenly zips the car down a street and out of the city, ending up in front of a huge estate that is their destination. Throughout the ad, the camera shows that the woman is wearing a diamond ring — but on her index finger, to shun convention.

Another ad, for a hair care brand, showed a woman with long, straight silky hair (the Chinese ideal) continually flipping a much larger male opponent in judo or karate. The man is distracted by the woman's hair and, at the end of the ad, she graciously helps him up from lying flat on the mat.

During the past 10 years, Chinese women have been liberated more than ever, a phenomenon that began during the Nineties. "Women are kissed by the aspiration of ambition," Doctoroff said. "Women want to succeed and they want to move forward."

And the Western ideal of individuality is slowly gaining traction. "China is an entrepreneurial society that is powered by the private sector," he added. "Women own 56 percent of all private businesses."

Women continue to develop their own self expression. "Chinese women are tough," he said. "They typically speak with the back of their hand."

He also warned marketers not to ignore the phenomenon of the single-child household. Previously, Confucian society mainly honored men, but now, there is an entire generation of 30-year-old women that the family is investing their hopes in. "For the first time, you have the concept of ‘me' coming forward," for women, he said.

JWT produced a Nike ad for these women, which shows that a woman can reject what society tells her to be. The commercial shows she is conflicted by her diet, going to work and balancing her social life. The tagline is, "Do sports and take control of yourself." The successful advertiser, Doctoroff said, will speak to the challenge of finding balance. "It is a fantasy," he said. "Make brands more empowering by resolving these conflicts."According to Doctoroff, there are five themes that marketers have used to be successful in China:

  • The golden rule of marketing to a woman is to always have her moving forward in some aspect of her life. But if she is going to succeed in her job, she is not going to wear power suits and pound her fists on the table. "[Women] are as hard as steel inside, but as soft as Hello Kitty on the outside."
  • Ads must speak to lifestyle sea changes. Doctoroff said the number-one challenge with women in China is to get them to become more pragmatic. "Before marriage and after graduation, women are dreamers." A typical commercial aimed at this set is focused on liberation, he added.
  • Show social endorsement as a motivator (such as, receiving applause from co-workers).
  • Emphasize the material basis for marriage (there is a de-emphasis on romance for Chinese women — financial stability is more important). "The sexiest guy in the class is the smartest guy in the class," he said. But love is the glue that holds the marriage together. Doctoroff said if a guy forgets Valentine's Day for his girlfriend, he will no longer have a girlfriend.
  • "Self as the escape" (women want a massage, for example, to give them more energy for another round of power shopping). Chinese women want indulgence, but in the form of a release. He described a recent commercial for Nescafé, which shows a woman taking a break from a long day of shopping by drinking the coffee, which is supposed to give her the energy to finish her shopping extravaganza.

    "Marketers can reinforce brands in achieving balance," he said. "Beauty is a tool. Give her everything that helps her move forward."
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