Stephen Drummond
Apr 13, 2016

Time to selectively borrow some ‘Tiger Mom’ thinking from China

There are three broad Chinese perspectives that brands can draw inspiration from: getting stuff done fast, uninhibited innovation, and relationship maintenance, writes Y&R China's Stephen Drummond.

Time to selectively borrow some ‘Tiger Mom’ thinking from China

'Thinking Chinese' can provide a different perspective for your business and brand. In just 35 years China has achieved three times the growth that the West achieved during the entire industrial revolution, which, by the way, took over 80 years. These numbers alone suggest that there must be something the world can learn from China.

There’s nothing new about ‘borrowing’ from China, it’s been going on since Marco Polo stole the idea for pasta and the English pinched some tea bushels to plant in India.

Then there’s Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which has influenced both Eastern and Western military thinking, business tactics, legal strategies and more since the fifth century, and continues to do so even today.

But what about modern China?

In her controversial 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua outlined the trials and tribulations of being a 'Tiger Mom'. Chua noted: “We all want our kids to grow up happy, strong, and self-reliant. But different cultures have very different ideas about the best way to do that.”

The fact is, while there are many downsides to the ‘Tiger Mom’ approach, the results are often extraordinary and as such, many commentators believe that it’s time to selectively borrow some ‘Tiger Mom’ thinking.

What we are proposing here for marketers is that we can be selective in what we adopt from China.

The Chinese art of getting stuff done fast

If there’s one thing that characterises modern Chinese life and business, it’s speed.

New airports are built at 'China speed’. New products and brands are developed from scratch and launched at 'China speed’.

More often than not there’s a price to pay for this pace. Sometimes it’s a compromise in quality, or in the case of a new product launch it can be a misfire.

Either way, ‘China speed’ deserves its place in the contemporary vernacular. If you bottled Nike’s tagline and threw in some of Adidas’ ‘Nothing is impossible’, and applied it to a country, you would end up with something that looks like China’s development program over the last 35 years.

The development of China’s infrastructure involves big visions being applied, and being applied fast.

Consider China’s high-speed rail network, which didn’t even exist fewer than 10 years ago. Today, China has the world's longest such network, with more than 16,000 kilometres of track in service as of December 2014. That’s more than the rest of the world's high-speed rail tracks combined! The system also includes the world's longest line: the 2,298-kilometre Beijing-Guangzhou Railway.

So, while centralised economic planning has its well-documented downsides, boy, can China get stuff done. And fast!

So, how did they achieve such an extraordinary outcome? In a nutshell, China proves that when there’s a visionary task at hand, it’s essential to aggressively strip away the flotsam and jetsam in order to get the job done.

In many countries there are endless amounts of rules and regulations in place so when major infrastructure tasks (for example, Olympic developments) are to be undertaken, special authorities have to be set up to cut through the red tape.

Takeaways for marketers

  • When large-scale and visionary tasks are at stake, are self-imposed rules, regulations and other processes getting in the way?
  • In our branding and marketing world, have our well-intentioned processes reached the point whereby they take too much time?
  • When it’s appropriate, could a committed and visceral ‘cut to the chase’ approach be a better way to get things done, and done fast?

And if you’re about to face off with a Chinese competitor, you'd better look out! Take an assumed Western timeline and at the very least, they’ll halve it. Rest assured, they’ll be coming at you, at ‘China speed’.

One of the principles that allows for ‘China speed’ to happen, is the focus placed on doing what is most important in order to get to market, for example, ensuring you have the right territory, and then factor in fine-tuning over time. The benefit is speed.

Call it intuition, gut instinct, or informed guesses—the Chinese embrace trying new things with minimal startup costs. If it tanks, cut it. If it takes off, then ramp up what works.

At the risk of stating the obvious, applying this principle has to be selective.

You do not want to be living in a building where the engineering or design is at 70 percent—or driving a car that’s 70 percent done (sadly this can happen in China).

When it comes to certain aspects of market distribution, product innovation or brand development, figure out which are have flexibility to adjust and where the costs of being 30 percent ‘off-track’ are neither dangerous nor overly costly. The speed to market advantage may be worth it.

The Chinese art of uninhibited innovation

China has gone from a country known for its imitation to a country acknowledged for its innovation within the digital space. In fact, within a few years, the Chinese digital landscape has shifted from being considered a copycat to being regarded as cutting edge.

The Chinese have often taken conceptual ‘starter’ ideas from Western markets and developed them into something unique, to the point where they are unrecognisable from their original points of inspiration. Part of the freedom to innovate came from the fact the Chinese have also been less concerned with relying on existing digital infrastructure—because quite often it wasn’t there to begin with.

In the case of mobile innovation, it leaped ahead because out of necessity due to the lack of landline infrastructure.

While Alibaba’s Taobao began its life looking like an Amazon clone, it has evolved into something very different, and certainly more profitable than its Western god-parent.

Unlike Amazon, Taobao does not have any warehouses, and there are no delivery people because all transactions are completed through third parties.

Taobao acts as a facilitator and enabler, not a supplier. And because of its enabler role, it does not have to adapt its offerings to the market. There’s no need to keep ‘up to date’, because the Laissez faire market within Taobao does this itself.

Then there’s the extraordinary app WeChat, from the other Chinese digital behemoth, Tencent. WeChat has evolved from a simple messenger app, similar to WhatsApp, into a lifestyle platform. It is a case of combining incremental innovation with a radical innovation leap as a punchline.

WeChat went through an incubator period of incremental innovation, improving itself as a messenger app with simple intuitive additions and, while doing so, building its user base.

As it constantly improved and ensured its relevance as the messenger app, it built an extraordinary base of users, which has reached well above 600 million. Basically, everyone who owns a smartphone has WeChat.

China has gone from being a culture constrained by tradition to being at the cutting-edge of irreverent mashups.

Contrary to the stereotype that the Chinese are constrained by tradition, New China is actually refreshingly unencumbered by ‘old rules’ when it comes to many things, which has led to all sorts innovative combinations.

Green tea and whisky? The first time Westerners hear about this combination it’s universally greeted with derision, with amateur aficionados comparing it to the likes of combining Penfold’s Grange with Sprite.

So is this an uneducated mashup or a display of genuine innovation?

Well, in actual fact, experts around the world are taking it pretty seriously.

Dave Broom, author of The World Atlas of Whisky, says that “there’s a natural synergy between whisky and tea, because both beverages have certain similarities in flavour, such as smokiness, malt and tropical fruit notes.”

He goes on to suggest sophisticated pairings of specialist teas and single malts. (In reality though, the Chinese end up combining 12-year branded whisky with cheap and cheerful mass-produced green teas).

And while we’re discussing green tea, try green tea chocolate mooncakes or green tea ice cream.

Takeaways for marketers

  1. Are our brands so focused on ‘educating you and teaching you the right way’ that we’ve forgotten to open ourselves up?
  2. Do you have pre-existing prejudices about ‘the way things should be done’ that stifle innovation?

The Chinese art of relationship maintenance

The Chinese are well known for their complex relationship and behavioural codes and practices.

If you strip away the typically befuddling explanations of these concepts and look at the broader human insights that they provide, it’s human nature really.

While the practices and customs associated with ‘face’ and ‘guanxi’ may be bewildering to an outsider, in fact they are simply codified expressions of how to give the respect that’s appropriate for the circumstances.

And it’s a ‘win-win’: “…A person who is proficient in the art of giving 'face' not only enhances his own face, but also ensures the most effective possible professional and personal relations with others” (Bill Drake).

In other words it's not about kowtowing, and it's certainly not about being superficial.

It’s about determining how your brand gives face in a manner that elevates both your and your customer's esteem.

Gift-giving is one of the specific customs associated with ‘giving face’, in Chinese culture. An interesting insight into gifting behaviour in China is the expectation of reciprocity when the gift is seen as a genuine act of 'guanxi' connection.

Takeaways for marketers

  • Is your brand proficient in the art of 'giving face', in a manner that enhances its professional and personal relations with customers?
  • Has your ‘brand gift’ been reduced to cheap steak-knifes that have been tacked onto a ‘give-away’ clearly designed to appeal to a base level of greed, as opposed to any genuine thoughtfulness or respect for consumers?
  • Is your 'brand gift’ in fact an ‘incentive to buy’ or a genuinely thoughtful gesture that could accrue a sense of positive gratitude that may result in a genuine business-building bond?
  • Could you borrow from the principles of 'guanxi' and give customers something that obliges them to respond with loyalty?
Stephen Drummond is the chairman and chief strategic officer at Y&R China.



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