Mason Lin
Sep 7, 2017

Localise but stay true

Two decades after the Handover, Mainland China and Hong Kong still call for distinct approaches.

Celebration day: Changing relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China presents challenges for marketers.
Celebration day: Changing relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China presents challenges for marketers.

Brands are just like people, with unique personalities and characteristics. If they want to gain popularity in a complicated market environment, it’s critical for them to stay true to themselves (their brands) and stay neutral to the politics. With the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China just behind us, the following are a few tips that I think can help marketers navigate the changing relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China, for the benefits of their brands.

Always be a good listener

No two markets are same. Even within China, we sub-divide into tiers of cities based on demographics, psychographics and consumer A&U. Hong Kong, too, is a city with a unique identity and characteristics; hence marketers should be sensitive to the cultural differences and always come up with relevant and compelling insights to connect with consumers.

Focus on the commonality

The Chinese have their own unique value system, but there are some values inherently shared by HK Chinese and Mainland Chinese consumers. Marketers should be able to identify those common values that appeal to both markets. Every Chinese person respects Chinese New Year, for example, which is all about reunion and family bonding, hence we see marketers in varied categories fully leveraging on this emotional sentiment to give their brands a strong role in the reunion story in order to deliver a consistent brand message in both HK and Mainland markets.

Stay true to your brand (more than to a particular market or customer)

Localisation is important, but never forget what your brand stands for. For example, in the luxury product category, what consumers buy is the brand's heritage, sophistication and craftsmanship. A consumer from Mainland China who buys an Hermès bag or Cartier watch in Hong Kong will never do so simply because the brands have their collaterals in simplified Chinese or their sales representatives can speak fluent Mandarin. Your true brand essence should always come first.

Brands can also learn a lesson from being overly localised or biased to a particular market’s customers, which may backfire impacting brand value and sales. A good example is the HK Lancôme incident that invited widespread protest last year, when the brand cancelled a pro-democracy singer’s concert.

Respect local consumers and culture

In Hong Kong, Cantonese and Traditional Chinese characters are both part of the local culture (as well as part of overall Chinese culture), and they also represent an "identity" of HK to a large extent. So no matter how big the share of your business contributed by Mainland visitors, never think of turning your brand names, slogans or menu into Simplified Chinese. If you want to be smarter (and play safe), just go bilingual. I was particularly impressed by an infant milk formula brand that made sure that they prioritised their product supply to the consumers in Hong Kong during the 2008 crisis when Mainland Chinese visitors flocked to buy up the city's supplies.

Be aware of differences in digital marketing

Although “digital” is the buzzword you cannot miss, the role of digital for marketing to HK and Mainland Chinese consumers is quite different in many ways. 

Due to 'great firewall' of China, consumers in the country have very little access to some of world’s largest digital platforms like Google, Facebook and YouTube, which is not the case in Hong Kong. China has evolved its own robust media platforms QZone, Tencent Weibo, Sina Weibo, WeChat etc, which has made the very nature of digital marketing inherently different from Hong Kong.

Additionally Mainland Chinese consumers are about four to five years ahead when it comes to specific areas like online shopping from their counterparts in Hong Kong.

Mainland Chinese consumer’s comfort with online shopping can be attributed to a variety of reasons including lack of easy access to international brands and physical stores, proliferation of high quality of ecommerce platforms and attractive pricing. Compared to China, consumers in Hong Kong are more conservative when it comes to online shopping. Take luxury products for instance: generally speaking, the Mainland Chinese consumers are more open to purchase luxury products online, while Hong Kong consumers tend to look for luxury product information online but purchase in store.

Nonetheless, marketers need to ask themselves what kind of brand experience they want to give to their consumers, which is what ultimately entices the consumers’ eyeballs and hearts.

Mason Lin is chairman of Havas Group, Greater China.


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