Tom Doctoroff

BEIJING — After more than two decades in China, Tom Doctoroff said he’s reached one conclusion about the country: it is decidedly not Western.

Which may seem obvious to some. But clearly it isn’t to everyone. Otherwise, Doctoroff, a best-selling author, advertising guru and former chief executive officer of J. Walter Thompson Asia-Pacific, probably would not have spent so much time on the topic during his presentation at WWD’s Global Fashion Forum in Beijing.

China is becoming modern. It is becoming international, but it is not becoming Western,” said Doctoroff, who recently relocated to New York. “The secret of success in China — whether you are targeting Millennials or a mature generation — is to make sure you bring a brand into alignment with a different worldview without abandoning that DNA or essence of the brand.”

While individualism is emerging in China, Doctoroff said it is “taking place in an executional framework that people want to have freedom inside of.”

This framework is predicated on the premise of stability and harmony, concepts that have been endemic to China’s culture for centuries, manifesting in Confucianism, for example, or in Taoist beliefs as well as the way in which the country has and continues to be governed.

The notion of individualism in the West, which is disruptive, the antithesis of stability, grounded on challenging established conventions or breaking barriers, simply does not translate in China.

“Stability is the only absolute good and chaos is the only absolute evil,” he said. “You have to have something solid in order to make progress. Every strain of Chinese thinking reinforces this fact. It is sociological order and yes, it is still relevant.”

Brands need to realize that there is a push and pull between projection of status and protection of the status quo in China. Within the innate desire for stability, there is also an innate desire to establish one’s identity within Chinese collectivism.

It is complicated.

“Projection and protection are always in tension with one another. Ambition versus regimentation, standing out to fit in, the ambitiousness of Chinese people has to be reconciled with a fundamentally conservative self-protection,” Doctoroff said.

“Projection is big and bold. Protection is much more conservative and guarded,” he said. “Projection and protection are what people want to reconcile.”

Against this backdrop, foreign brands should prioritize three key marketing strategies.

To charge a price premium, public consumption must be highly visible and dramatized, meeting the desire for consumers to project their social status to the collective. Doctoroff used Starbucks as an example, noting how the coffee chain created large spaces with big tables where “people come to gather to proclaim their affiliation with the new generation of professional elite.”

“This is a culture that does not like coffee, yet they pay more for a cup of Starbucks coffee here than people do in New York,” Doctoroff said. “How did they do that? They conformed to the public consumption imperative. Brands that don’t conform to this have a little bit of a problem. It is always harder to charge a price premium for goods that are consumed inside the house.”

Second, brands need to realize a product is a means to an end, with benefits that are externalized, and, that “need to pay off.” In other words, consumers here will not buy a bottle of expensive cognac just for the taste, but rather if it is consumed in a social setting where networking opportunities take place, rendering it useful in other areas of life.

In the West, spas are marketed as places to relax whereas in China, they are places to “recharge your batteries,” Doctoroff said. Travel has increasingly become the new social currency, with Chinese buying products on trips or posting photos to illustrate to friends their status in society.

“You need to have something pay a dividend over time,” Doctoroff said. “Experiences that just evaporate are not useful.”

Reassuring consumers that products are authentic and high quality is the third factor. This extends into retail spaces where reassurance is on a social level, becoming “an experience that is going to bring people into something that is more than just transactional,” Doctoroff said.

“The Chinese worldview is a Confucian worldview where stability is not only good, it is a platform on which progress is constructed,” he said.

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