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How the Selling of Coffee, Cars and Pizza Sheds Light on Chinese Culture

Tom Doctoroff, author of What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China’s Modern Consumer, offers some insights on how to win a following among Chinese buyers:

First and most important, products that are consumed in public, directly or indirectly, command huge price premiums relative to goods used in private. The leading mobile phone brands are international. The leading household appliance brands, by contrast, are cheaply priced domestic makers such as TCL, Changhong and Little Swan. According to a study by the U.K.-based retailer B&Q, the average middle-class Chinese spends only $15,000 to fit out a completely bare 1,000-square-foot apartment.

Luxury items are desired more as status investments than for their inherent beauty or craftsmanship. The Chinese are now the world’s most avid luxury shoppers, at least if trips abroad to cities like Hong Kong and Paris are taken into account. According to Global Refund, a company specializing in tax-free shopping for tourists, the Chinese account for 15% of all luxury items purchased in France but less than 2% of its visitors.

Public display is also a critical consideration in how global brands are repositioning themselves to attract Chinese consumers. Despite China’s tea culture, Starbucks successfully established itself as a public venue in which professional tribes gather to proclaim their affiliation with the new-generation elite. Both Pizza Hut and Häagen Dazs have built mega-franchises in China rooted in out-of-home consumption. (The $5 carton of vanilla to be eaten at home is a tough sell in China.)

The second rule is that the benefits of a product should be external, not internal. Even for luxury goods, celebrating individualism—with familiar Western notions like “what I want” and “how I feel”—doesn’t work in China. Automobiles need to make a statement about a man on his way up. BMW, for example, has successfully fused its global slogan of the “ultimate driving machine” with a Chinese-style declaration of ambition.

Sometimes the difference between internal versus external payoffs can be quite subtle. Spas and resorts do better when they promise not only relaxation but also recharged batteries. Infant formulas must promote intelligence, not happiness. Kids aren’t taken to Pizza Hut so that they can enjoy pizza; they are rewarded with academic “triumph feasts.” Beauty products must help a woman “move forward.” Even beer must do something. In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.

Emotional payoffs must be practical, even in matters of the heart. Valentine’s Day is almost as dear to the Chinese as the Lunar New Year, but they view it primarily as an opportunity for men to demonstrate their worthiness and commitment. In the U.S., De Beers’s slogan, “A Diamond is Forever,” glorifies eternal romance. In China, the same tagline connotes obligation, a familial covenant—rock solid, like the stone itself.

The last rule for positioning a brand in China is that products must address the need to navigate the crosscurrents of ambition and regimentation, of standing out while fitting in. Men want to succeed without violating the rules of the game, which is why wealthier individuals prefer Audis or BMWs over flashy Maseratis.


Still curious? Check out What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China’s Modern Consumer.

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