Treading New Territory: Bridging the Culture Gap Between China & the Western World

Founder and Managing Director of Singing Grass Communications, Alicia Liu, reveals what key trends are driving change in the Chinese market, and the reason why brands find China such a tricky territory to crack.

London to New York, Dickens to Beckham: Liu tells us how her grandfather’s literary influence lead her to leave Beijing and pursue her passion to bridge the gap between China and the Western world.

So, Who is Alicia Liu, and What is Singing Grass?

I was born in Beijing, and actually studied in London and New York, and ended up getting my first job at the Mayor of London’s office. It was kind of unconventional, I suppose, rather than going straight into the corporate world. But at that point, it was the early 2000s and my role was to help develop London as a destination for business investment, education, and tourism in emerging markets such as China, Russia, and India.

My role was almost like a personal interest. Professionally, I was interested in trying to be the bridge between China and the rest of the world. I grew up in quite a literary family. My grandfather was actually a literary critic and translator – he lived in Shanghai in the 1940s and translated classic English literature into Chinese, such as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.

Growing up in Beijing is very different from the rest of the world, so having access to English literature fueled my fascination with meeting people from different backgrounds. My first London job allowed me to meet some really interesting people and travel to a variety of different places.

I decided to set up Singing Grass in 2013. It’s a business consultancy advising on access and development strategies for the Chinese market. The idea was to help brands to engage with aspirational Chinese millennials. In a way they’re like the rest of the world – they’re modern consumers. The difference is they grew up in very different environments, and so their interests and decision-making processes are different.

Our clients traditionally are in the luxury retail and content industries. So, for example, we work with some of the menswear fashion brands such as Gieves & Hawkes, as well as some entertainment brands like LEGO The BBC studios. We also work a lot within publishing, looking at content rights, IPs, and how best to fit that to the Chinese market.

What Are the Main Challenges Your Clients Face?

The main challenge is there are 850 million digital-driven consumers in China and things are changing rapidly. So, whether a brand has already set up offices in China and built a team, or is a new emerging business that is looking at China as a new market opportunity, there are quite a lot of disruptive challenges involved in aligning a proposition to fit the Chinese consumer needs. You can’t just replicate your international strategy into the Chinese market.

In the past three or four years, we’ve found our business to be evolving too. Cutting-edge science and technology brands have been accelerated by the pandemic internationally and I believe China is at the forefront of that innovation. Chinese consumers are very open-minded and ready to adopt digital-driven services, plus there’s a big government-led drive for Chinese businesses to flourish in the technology sector. We’ve started to see new Chinese technology brands approach Singing Grass about exploring international markets too.

Why is the Chinese Market So Unique?

Complexity and culture. I think those are the two words I would say. For any business, when you’re going into a new market you need to understand the current environment and the key players. The Chinese market has a very different structure; it’s not all private players. There’s a large percentage of state-backed businesses – especially in the science and technology sector.

In addition to the obvious language barriers, there are many different channels of knowledge acquisition in China. For example, social media channels are used in the UK to obtain information in addition to the traditional media. These are all blocked in China. There’s a parallel world out there. Newcomers in this market can easily be confused by the complexity of it. They either get put off by it, or they just assume everything is the same.

In b2b, where a lot of campaigns are ad-led, brands need to build a dedicated strategy for the Chinese market. It’s not just about the right channels, but the right content to build your brand and attract high potential Chinese partners and clients.

Language is one thing, but building relationships is really important. I think it’s important everywhere, but especially in China. People really value personal connections. There’s a bit of a blurred line between the professional relationship versus the personal relationship. It’s almost like a bigger difference between the East and the West in how things work. That cultural element can’t be ignored. And I feel the pandemic has highlighted how differently we all react to situations across the globe.

I remember when I first visited the Middle East, I was a bit overwhelmed by the difference in how people dress, the religion, the language, the food. But then I discovered under the surface how Westernised people are – International Schools teach English very well. China is the opposite. On the surface everything looks very Westernised, the people, the cities and buildings are very cosmopolitan, yet the educational system, the culture is still very traditional. You need to understand this to be able to communicate, build relationships, and uncover business opportunities.

How is the Market Adapting in Response to Covid 19?

I think b2b marketing in China was probably the most disrupted by the pandemic. China is one of those remaining markets where you must still do business in person. China’s been a closed border for two years now. And now in 2022, it looks like people are trying to reconnect, but travelling into the country is still looking difficult.

Businesses in China have transformed to online working, like the rest of the world, but one thing that’s quite different is the way in which we look at business video communication. Live streaming and interactive webcasts are very popular in China. Almost like a virtual tradeshow stand, allowing brands to still feel like they are interacting with buyers face to face.

But there are still a lot of offline meetings, and unlike the rest of the world, there’s a desire to go back to the old way of doing business. Business dinners are the norm for building relationships with senior stakeholders in China; it’s crucial.  Despite being quick to embrace new technologies, I think the way decisions are made and business is conducted won’t be changing anytime soon. This can pose a challenge for brands who are trying to replicate global success in China. To succeed, you really need to tailor your sales and marketing approach completely. A lot of globally successful mega brands have failed in China. Knowing the ins and outs of the market and building a strategy around it is key.

What’s Your Most Memorable Project to Date?

In 2017 we were working with luxury menswear brand Kent & Curwen, in partnership with the iconic David Beckham, to relaunch the brand in Shanghai. Consumers in China really buy into that kind of quintessentially Britishness. But the brand was deemed to be quite old fashioned and represented sports that the Chinese do not play. We needed to reposition the brand and modernise it to appeal to the aspirational Chinese audience.

We created a rather exciting Peaky Blinders style pop in a boutique hotel in Shanghai and hosted a series of private dinners with senior b2b and b2c stakeholders; owners of luxury retail buildings and the fashion buyers. This helped the client build genuine relationships with key influencers in China.

Do You Have Any Tips for B2b Brands Who Want to Explore Marketing Opportunities in China?

China is home to something like 109 corporations listed on the Fortune Global 500. But only 15 of them are privately owned. You really need to understand who your key stakeholders are.

Secondly, when you create your presence in China, don’t assume that global success can be directly replicated. You need the help of a trusted Chinese market specialist to create a strong persona and a value-led strategy, as well as a message tailored to that audience.

With the current travel restrictions, be brave and consider live streaming content. I know it is challenging that we still can’t travel and visit. So be brave really think about live streaming. Think about video content with the guidance of a specialist to connect you face to face with your buying group. Cold calling and emails are not treated with respect in China; building a personal connection is so important.

About Punch! & Singing Grass

Punch! and Singing Grass have partnered in order to provide b2b marketing services and advice for brands who want to explore the Chinese market.

For more information, contact:
Chris Muldoon
Co-founder & Managing Director, Punch!

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