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Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer

Tom Doctoroff

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2006
Category: Non Fiction



Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer
Tom Doctoroff

As I write, Google has just announced that it will censor Internet searches in order to gain entry to China, the fastest-growing Internet market on the planet.

Many Americans are shocked — just as they were shocked when Microsoft and Yahoo agreed to similar restrictions.

On another day, you could count on me to be shocked and dismayed. I’m not. That’s because I’ve just read ‘Billions.’ And I now understand something that liberty-loving Americans don’t: Individual freedom is just not that important to most of the 1.3 billion Chinese people. They are still living according to the codes of Confucius, who lived 2500 years ago. And while they may not hold to Confucian beliefs for another 2500 years, they are not abandoning them any time soon.
But isn’t China the fourth largest economy in the world? Isn’t China an enormous shopping and manufacturing mall, home of the labels in your shirt and the parts in your hard drive? Isn’t the Chinese middle class growing as if it’s on steroids? Isn’t China, in short, very much like America when we were in a great growth spurt?
Yes to all but the last question. And that’s where the China story gets really interesting. The Chinese may be anxious to bankroll the America dollar, they may be thrilled to do business with us, but they are not like us in very fundamental ways.
Tom Doctoroff is head of an American advertising agency’s China division. As such, he studies the Chinese market to see how products are sold and how they might be sold better. Those who think advertising is just a matter of inventing clever phrases and making eye-catching commercials have a big surprise in store for them — the key to success is insight. Deep sociological insight.
Someone has described this as ‘a deceptively insightful book.’ Just so. It’s not what you’d expect from an advertising exec. Or, for that matter, from a sociologist. Instead, it’s the work of a world-class cultural reporter, who assembles a thousand interesting facts and then fits them into a conclusion that’s the furthest thing from a slogan or easy truism. In the process, he delivers — almost as an afterthought — the best look at Chinese life I’ve seen in years.
Consider: Successful Chinese buy Buicks, a brand all but dead here. They prefer the Audi to the Mercedes. They almost went nuts when Toyota made a commercial showing Chinese stone lions bowing to the Japanese car. They like SUVs, especially the Lincoln Navigator, which is called ‘The President’ in China. They adore Montblanc pens, but mostly for the way others can see the white star when the pen is in your pocket.
Did you know there are at least 150 manufacturers of air-conditioners in China and what that says about Chinese industry? Do you understand why the airports look great, but are, in essence, made of tin foil-covered cardboard? Do you grasp why there are sex shops all over the place but no sex in Chinese advertising? Why Chinese TV shows are anything but reality-based? How a local brand can wipe out a multi-national giant? And how the Beijing Olympics in 2008 are ‘the most ambitious brand-building exercise in history’?
Doctoroff has fascinating answers for those questions and more. But most valuable of all, he explains the schizophrenia at the heart of middle-class life in China — the split between Confucian allegiance to order and rank and targeted ambition on one hand, and raw Westernized individualism on the other. How will it resolve? It may not. As Doctoroff reminds us, the Communist party is still the biggest brand in China.
From shampoos sold to the poor in rural villages to luxury cars and fancy apartments in Shanghai, Tom Doctoroff covers it all. His book is like a visit to China with an excellent guide — just without lung-burning pollution and street-vendors trying to sell you the latest DVDs. If you’re at all interested in China, are thinking of traveling there or are contemplating doing business with the Chinese, this book is required reading.

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