Today’s Chinese Customer: Living at the Speed of Light

The following is a guest post from Future Buzz community member Ernie Diaz.

Confusion reigns around the question of engaging today’s Chinese consumer. The question holds lucrative promise for those who can answer it, as China’s Internet economy is rivaling America’s in terms of scope, and eclipsing the West’s in terms of growth.

Thus the classic marketing approach in China, taken by both native and foreign organizations, treats the Chinese as consumers first. The result has been the same media-saturated, mind-numbing environment we have in the West: jingles, neon logos, photo-shopped models from subway to street to magazine on desk.

The inefficiency is unfathomable, but understandable –current marketing practice is stuck in the Gutenberg galaxy, where print is the chief medium, creating the context in which even pictures and videos must fit. Meanwhile the marketers themselves, and the 630 million Chinese online, are living at the speed of light, the Internet an extension of their entire nervous system.

Life at the speed of light is no explosion into hyperspace, but rather an implosion, as we turn from mechanization and its discontents to a circumscribed environment where we withdraw from natural, political, and community life,  to a fixed spectator existence for which distance has little meaning, and time’s properties are malleable.

Thus the irrelevance of lip service paid to understanding the Chinese consumer as a product of ancient culture, family values, and other non-factors. Life at the speed of light is life experienced as information. Print media made possible nationalism and individual impact on society. Our new electromagnetic information environment makes us collaborative by default. Now we re-tribalize.

So if it can be acknowledged that today’s Chinese consumer is living at the speed of light, via the same omni-connected electromagnetic information environment that we experience, it follows that the Chinese consumer is a digital, or global consumer. She eschews traditional information environments (school, community organizations, religious affiliations) and effortlessly tunes out irrelevant information – advertising chatter, happy billboard families, bus stop stickers.

Yet she does consume, continuously. Money, private experience, and social activity are no longer discrete systems, thus her consumption is her chief, if not only form of self-expression.

With that understood, all of the western brand success stories in China can be understood. Ten years ago Starbucks bears still got airtime, advising that coffee culture clashed with China’s tea culture, that the chain would only get traction in sections of first tier cities with customers sophisticated enough to venture out. Now the Starbucks saturation point in China has grown past bemusing to downright disconcerting. Chinese F&B companies scramble vainly to create similar chains of wifi cocoons, the multisensory information replicated in every outlet, the preferred destination for any Light Speed Lifer with 20RMB and hours to spend with her smartphone.

High school Chinese who would be hard-pressed to name the capitol of each province can rattle off the starting lineups of their favorite NBA teams. Not just Yao Ming, but Alan Iverson and other non-Asian stars are idolized by millions of young Chinese men. The NBA’s merchandising arm, Nike, and Adidas have built long-term market share in China by building an environment in which buying shoes and jerseys is buying into a rich multisensory mythos, one in which the Chinese consumer feels a tangible identification with the rebellious, confident, fluidly dynamic NBA star.

For the western company without the iconic brand or corporate resources to create multimedia myths or caffeinated cocoons, Life at the Speed of Light still informs best marketing practice. Marketers must understand that man was not designed to experience life in this manner, and that adjustment is a long way off. Adaptation is the order of the day, and adapting to non-stop change, treading in the sea of electromagnetic information drains whole communities of vitality.

Western companies that can invigorate Chinese communities by providing the right information in the right places on the Chinese Internet can help build a revitalizing asset that communities will form naturally around. Xiaomi, the “iPhone copy” company, although Chinese, provides a perfect example of this. Founder Lei Jun truly grasped that the smartphone was only a tool, that the product should be helping the user extend his nervous system into the electromagnetic environment ever-more seamlessly, with ever-more choices for customization. Twenty million Xiaomi fans a week advise on operating bugs & feature fixes on a massive integrated platform, while engineers work around the clock to respond, resulting in a “living OS” that provides the evolving connectivity framework with which the truly device-dependent (anyone under thirty, most over) feel comfortable.

Founded in 2011, Xiaomi has 26% of China’s smartphone market for Q2 2014, to Samsung’s 21% and Apple’s 16%. Western organizations drawing inspiration need not worry that they have no idea as timely or techy as making smartphone ownership a tribal, shared environment experience. The Chinese Internet is broad but quite shallow. There is no Chinese Khan academy, not even an Ultimate Guitar tablature site. There are serious rifts in China’s electromagnetic information matrix.

Even better, the Chinese look to western brands, their products and services, as exemplars. Currently there are 138 Chinese cities with populations equal to or greater than Berlin’s. Cosmetic dentistry is just one break out industry, as China’s economy shifts from export to consumer-led, by government mandate. All of those centers want best-in-class western branded equipment – moneyed clientele expect nothing less, even if they’re not apprised yet of what those brands are. The organization that can come and put the imprimatur of western thought leadership on its Chinese information environment will soon find itself connected at increasing nodes of the relevant online ecosystem.

Those who agree any of the “Chinese” above could have been accurately replaced with “Western” have an advantage in marketing to the Chinese consumer that many veterans in the industry here do not. Those who insist on viewing the Chinese consumer’s context through the print media prism of national rivalry and cultural differences see colorful shadows, nothing more. Those who resist imposing their products on the Chinese market, but rather identify gaps and lead the way in creating information to fill them, understand the Chinese consumer, and Life at the Speed of Light.

Ernie Diaz is the Marketing Director for Web Presence In China a full service digital agency headquartered in Beijing. He has written about China digital marketing topics for Venturebeat, the Street, Internet Retailer, and other relevant sites.

image credit: