Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
May 19, 2017

How can staid German brands act more Chinese?

Process-oriented German brands may need to be more pliable to 'Chinese ways' of managing team structures, media relations and culture clashes, according to a recent survey.

How can staid German brands act more Chinese?

A qualitative survey of communications executives of 20 German brands (see complete list below) operating in China conducted by Hering Schuppener Consulting and Finsbury recommended some 'Chinese ways' of managing team structures, media relations and culture clashes.

Anonymity of comments was used as assurance for interviewees surveyed. Here are some highlights:

'Chinese way' of crisis communications

In a crisis situation, language is important because the way a word is translated can greatly vary from its original meaning, the survey stated.

One China CEO of a German brand held a speech in Beijing once during a crisis expressing the term "apologise" in Mandarin, an interviewee shared. It was then translated into English as a softer "regret", however, which had less gravitas than the original Mandarin phrase. This discrepancy was noticed by the sensitive local media. 

'Chinese way' of headquarter-local contact

"In the four years I have been working for this company now, I have never visited the German HQ. Budget is the main reason,” shared one Chinese interviewee.

Even though it is expensive to fly teams to Germany, at least seven companies out of the sample of 20 make this effort, the survey stated. "From the budgetary point of view, the cost of a flight between Frankfurt and Beijing is lower than the cost of inefficiencies and misunderstandings," said Claudia Kosser, associate director of Hering Schuppener.

Apart from frequency of facetime, speed of reply is also of the essence. “HQ replies very slowly. Not like in China where you get an answer by the end of the day," shared one unnamed Chinese interviewee. "They are inefficient, we are at the front line. German guys are still very cautious and do everything carefully.”

'Chinese way' of media relations 

China has a diverse media landscape with more than 2,000 newspapers and 9,000 periodicals, emphasised the survey. Generally speaking, contacts with journalists are more relationship- and trust-based than in the West. To accomplish a relationship (guanxi in Chinese; a term meaning more than just relationships but also connections; already gained entry into the English vernacular) on an equal footing, regular contact through personal meetings or, most commonly, WeChat is necessary, the survey urged.

Important need-to-knows, according to survey respondents, for German newsmakers and comms pros are:

  • The concept of speaking on- or off-the-record is not widespread among Chinese journalists
  • Localised newsflow is more frequent in China
  • Content is more 'flowery'
  • Visuals and infographics are becoming more vital due to the strong influence of social media
  • Apart from press releases, you need to provide lots of highlighted reference
    material to guide journalists to find them
  • Don’t call journalists in the early morning, but after lunchtime and until midnight

'Chinese way' of impression management

As foreign entities, German brands should visibly link their China presence with the benefits brought to the Chinese economy and its people, the survey explained.

Why? “Chinese people sometimes perceive multinational companies to grab their market [sic], earn their money and take profit away from China. There is very strong patriotism or even nationalism," shared one respondent anonymously. "Whenever we announce a big bulk of orders, we have to announce something relevant for China at the same time, e.g. by producing here, we transfer technology to China, help the Chinese industry to grow and establish long-term partnerships.”

Jochem Heizmann, China CEO of Volkswagen, who agreed to comment publicly in the Hering Schuppener/Finsbury survey, mirrored that perspective. "Contrary to what we do in Germany, our communications in China tend to be less ‘numbers and facts oriented’," he said. "Here we focus more on illustrating the views and behaviours of the company here on the ground.”



Campaign China

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