As one of the world’s largest consumer markets, China offers extraordinary new opportunities for any brand with global ambitions. But with a number of geographical, political, and cultural obstacles standing in the way, market researchers have long struggled to get a clear view into the needs of Chinese consumers.
The good news is that after many years of economic development and cultural evolution, Chinese consumers are becoming more familiar with and receptive to modern business research. As a result, Western researchers who don’t have recent exposure to the Chinese market may risk operating under a number of biases and assumptions that no longer apply.
Before you launch your next research project in one of the world’s most complex and critical markets, you’ll want to understand fact vs. fiction. LRW, your trusted China experts, offers insights into the greatest research myths behind the Great Wall.
Myth #1: Chinese consumers are usually quiet and sensitive
One of the stereotypes for Chinese respondents is that they’re shy, quiet, and sometimes sensitive to certain topics, especially government-related subjects. That might be true on the surface, but Chinese respondents may actually be more talkative, because they’re likely to talk around subjects that they find difficult to address head-on.
Overall, consumers in China may act a bit introverted and suspicious at the beginning of an interview, because they’re waiting for guidance to continue. Unlike Westerners who typically talk freely after a quick ice-breaker, Chinese respondents want and need detailed instruction. And don’t forget that security assurance is important prior to the interview, even if the interview doesn’t deal with sensitive subjects.
Responsiveness varies by age cohort. People born after 1990 in China tend to share their opinions more openly and are more relaxed about social pressure. Some even express dissent (which had been very difficult to extract historically). Their attitudes and behaviors stand in contrast to older generations because they’re rarely humble and they like to show off in front of others.
Myth #2: Chinese consumers do not articulate strong preferences
In China, many people value the concept of “The Doctrine of Mean” (中庸 or Zhong Yong). They believe “balance” is best for their personal development and they let it guide their outlook on life. That’s why the Chinese are more likely than other cultures to select 3 on a 5-point rating scale. As a result, it creates an image that Chinese people don’t give honest emotional feedback.
But there are still many occasions where Chinese respondents do not follow this rule of thumb. Given the country’s accelerated economic development, the Chinese are increasingly vocal about their lives as consumers and feel more empowered to express extreme satisfaction or complaints about products and their customer experiences. In fact, more and more consumers – especially those from the China’s most affluent cities – are starting to show clear preferences as they share strong feedback.
Myth #3: Chinese consumers are different in the North vs. the South
China is a big country, and there’s a perception that attitudes and behaviors are very different from North to South. While this used to be the case, it’s no longer true. In fact, on most topics, consumer mindsets are less differentiated by regional issues. Popular mobile apps like WeChat or Weibo help information travel faster across regions, resulting in a smaller gap between North and South.
Instead of looking at Chinese consumers by traditional geographic regions (North, South, East, and West), it may be more helpful to look at cities identified by socioeconomic tiers. China’s cities are broken out into five tiers, from wealthy Tier 1 cities like Shanghai and Beijing, all the way down to developing Tier 5 rural cities. More and more people are leaving their smaller hometowns, moving to Tier 1 or Tier 2 cities to work or study. Researcher must take these tiers into account when planning sampling locations. For example, when researching the market for luxury items, Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities generally will be most appropriate.
Myth #4: The best research approach to Chinese consumers is face-to-face, pencil-and-paper interviews.
A decade ago central location face-to-face interviews were the most appropriate data collection approach because internet penetration in China was only at 29%. In 2019 internet penetration reached just about 60%, and 98% of people who surfed online did so on mobile devices. Online panels and web interviews over smartphones are now the most popular approach to research the Chinese market, with Chinese respondents now able to take nearly any web-aided interview on the phone whenever and wherever. Researchers can take advantage of multiple online communities with millions of users that are able to run continuous qualitative discussions, and Alipay, the largest online payment tool provider in China with 600+ million active users, offers quantitative respondent recruitment based on past purchase behaviors.
The bottom line: online is absolutely the primary channel for surveying Chinese consumers.
Myth #5: Surveys are the only option to collect information among Chinese respondents
Many companies and agencies in China are still using independent surveys or continuous survey-based tracking to collect one-time or long-term information on behaviors and attitudes. But researchers can now leverage the big data collected by Tencent and Alibaba, who respectively dominate the social media and e-commerce spaces in China. This data can uncover both behavioral insights (from the purchase and traffic history) and attitudinal insights (from comments posted by users) from most of the country’s online population. This data-driven approach sidesteps “professional” Chinese respondents who actively seek out incentive-driven surveys and who may negatively skew data with dishonest or unreliable responses.
As much as China has evolved, it promises to continue its rapid pace of change over the next several years. The country’s consumer dynamics are fluid, which is why it’s always smart to consult with business partners on the ground for any new research project. By recognizing and adapting to these cultural shifts both big and small, brands can ensure that they’re gathering the most reliable business intelligence to thrive in one of the most critical markets within a fast-paced global economy.