What the Chinese Want

In the Wall Street Journal, Tom Doctoroff, a China-based advertising executive and author of “What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China’s Modern Consumer,” gives his perspective on what Chinese consumers want and what foreign companies need to do to win a following in China:

The speed with which China’s citizens have embraced all things digital is one sign that things are in motion in the country. But e-commerce, which has changed the balance of power between retailers and consumers, didn’t take off until the Chinese need for reassurance was satisfied. Even when transactions are arranged online, most purchases are completed in person, with shoppers examining the product and handing over their cash offline.

Chinese at all socioeconomic levels try to “win”—that is, climb the ladder of success—while working within the system, not against it. In Chinese consumer culture, there is a constant tension between self-protection and displaying status. This struggle explains the existence of two seemingly conflicting lines of development. On the one hand, we see stratospheric savings rates, extreme price sensitivity and aversion to credit-card interest payments. On the other, there is the Chinese fixation with luxury goods and a willingness to pay as much as 120% of one’s yearly income for a car.

Every day, the Chinese confront shredded social safety nets, a lack of institutions that protect individual wealth, contaminated food products and myriad other risks to home and health. The instinct of consumers to project status through material display is counterbalanced by conservative buying behavior. Protective benefits are the primary consideration for consumers. Even high-end paints must establish their lack of toxicity before touting the virtues of colorful self-expression. Safety is a big concern for all car buyers, at either end of the price spectrum.

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