What Traffic in China Reveals About Marketing in China

A man crosses a busy street in Shanghai. He safely makes it to the other side.

Sounds simple, but it’s actually quite complex.

Because how road traffic works in a culture reveals a lot about that culture. The fluid interaction between objects moving at dramatically different speeds requires a high level of mutual social understanding of expected behavior.

Take that same man crossing a busy street, but drop him in New York. Unlike in Shanghai, he can assume that he has the “right of way” to a car making a turn. He expects the car to stop and let him walk first. This assumption must be mutual and consistent for both car and man for the “system” to work safely. When the car does not stop, there’s usually a middle finger erected because this system has been breached. This simple traffic scenario suggests that this is a culture that protects the “small” (man) against the “big” (car). Laws are designed accordingly.

In Shanghai, however, that same man cannot expect the car to give him right of way. Ever. The mutual understanding is that the car always goes first and the man who does not stop is the one breaching the system. In fact, hedeserves to get hit. The same simple traffic scenario, playing out differently, suggests that this is a culture that prioritizes the “big” (car) over the “small” (man) (more on this later).

Again, my simple premise: how traffic works reveals a lot about a culture’s values. And because marketing is the art of persuading a culture, traffic also reveals a lot about a culture’s values towards marketing as well. Namely, what brands prioritize and how they behave in the process of selling themselves.

Out of Interbrand’s 2014 Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands, only one is Chinese: Huawei at #94. Does that mean that Chinese marketers are inherently inferior? Or that Chinese brand’s are inherently undesirable?

My opinion is simply that Chinese marketers’ assumptions about brands and what makes them valuable is fundamentally different. Different in a way that a western (i.e. Interbrand) evaluation doesn’t not accurately capture.

And some of that difference can understood by how traffic works in China.

Let’s delve back into the above “right of way” scenario. To a New Yorker, it makes perfect sense why he should walk first. He’s slower, he’s smaller and he’s not surrounded by metal. For the most part, the car thinks the same way — which is why the car stops.

But in China, just the opposite logic is true. The car is moving faster, it’s bigger and it probably has more than one passenger in it — it deserves to go first over one small man. More utility for more people. The man thinks the same way — which is why he stops.

In fact, in China, the man stops to the bicycle who stops to the motorcycle who stops to the car who stops to the truck who stops to the bus. The culture value is simple: might makes right. And this trickles into marketing.

I’ve worked on brands in China whose sole strategy is to make themselves “feel” big. When I worked in the US, the primary marketing task is often to define a brand’s “meaning” and “proposition.” Size is a consequence of success — not a strategy onto itself.

But in China, size is legitimacy, size is reliability, size is quality, size is popularity. In effect, size is a branding panacea. For a Chinese marketer, you’re much better off being a big brand void of meaning, than a small brand with a well-defined meaning. Might makes right: without sheer size, you are nothing. Unseen is unsought. Big brands, like buses, are inherently superior. Everyone knows that.

That’s why in China, TVC is king (i.e. scale) and magazine print is marginal (i.e. too targeted). When trying to persuade a billion people, “big ideas” take on an entirely different meaning. “Big idea” doesn’t mean a idea that is rich, deep and differentiated as much as it does blunt, easy to understand and appealing to a billion people.

To a typical American marketer, buying a billboard that features nothing but a big brand logo is waste of space. No messaging. No call-to-action. No “idea.” But for a typical Chinese marketer, that same logo does exactly what it supposed to: project a brand is big enough, rich enough and legitimate enough to do such a thing. It is the marketing equivalent of a big, evolutionally useless peacock tail.

Let’s take another traffic scenario. Visit any major Chinese city and you’ll notice how (seemingly) chaotic the local streets are. People, bikes, motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks — all sharing the same lane. Yet, it all seems to work. Much of it can be attributed to the “might is right” system, but if you look closely, there’s another phenomenon happening: herding.

You’ll rarely see a bike or motorbike by itself. They almost always packed in tight groups. They’re all driving recklessly together. Weaving in between cars, driving the wrong way down a one way street, going too fast together. It’s all “safe” as long as you’re moving with the group. Just like in nature, there’s danger in solitude.

Now, imagine if you’re a typical brand manager for a smaller brand. In America, brand differentiation is used as a “marketing magnifier.” There’s nothing worse than being small and undifferentiated. In effect, great creativity gives small brands a chance in a competitive category. It compensates for smaller media budgets and less resources. Mini Cooper. Under Armour (in the beginning). GEICO.

However, to the typical Chinese marketer, it’s bad enough that you’re small, to go further and try to differentiate would be suicide. The traffic equivalent of being the lone bike amongst trucks.

What you want to do is go with the herd: Do what the other small brands are doing — which is probably copying what the big brands are doing. You can’t “afford” to be too creative. You win by being safe, following and hoping the entire category grows and you with it. Copy, copy, copy — it makes total sense. It also creates categories that take creative homogeneity to the next level (I submit as evidence: the beer category in China).

Now, I’m not saying homogeneity doesn’t happen in America — it does. But I’ve found that, at least, the conversation about being different is had: the risks and rewards of it. Whereas in China, it is often dismissed as outright madness. Ideas that are toodifferent are rejected on reflex. The pressure to go with herd is just that much stronger.

One final traffic scenario, one based on a true story and one that reveals the daily ethics of working in marketing.

A colleague of mine opens a taxi door and a motorbike runs into it. The taxi driver should not have pulled over in an random spot. My colleague should have looked more carefully before opening the door. The motorbike should not have tried to go between a taxi and the curb.

Here’s a situation where everyone is wrong…and no one is wrong. This is traffic in China — when an accident happens, accountability is always dispersed amongst parties who are each partially at fault. And everyone knows it. My colleague pays the guy 300RMB (approximately $50USD) and is allowed to go on his way. The taxi drives off without a traffic citation. The motorbike blends back into the herd. The policeman shrugs and walks away.

With marketing ethics in China, like with its traffic accidents, everything is grey and everyone knows it. This creates a very different kind of business environment for marketing.

A production house gives an agency a kickback to be awarded a job as “incentive.” An agency buys a client a laptop every Chinese New Year in “appreciation.” A brand manager diverts company money into a side “initiative.” These are common practices happening within major corporations. It makes working in marketing in China especially exhausting because there’s always something “else” happening beyond the creative work. Some deal. Some handshake. Some other favor.

Graft and corruption in marketing does happen in America — but usually, when exposed, who is guilty and what went wrong is relatively clear. That is almost never the case in China because the mutual understanding is that everyone is doing a little wrong. Here there’s a saying, “It’s my responsibility to refuse your bribe. But it’s you’re responsibility to at least offer me the bribe.”

In summary, a man crosses a busy street in Shanghai. He safely makes it to the other side. Sounds simple, but it’s actually quite complex…and quite revealing of how culture and marketing is different here as well.


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