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Engage your Chinese Consumers Better

Quality of Foreign Brands in China

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Last Tuesday, July 20th, we published a piece loosely looking at the changing trend of Chinese consumers towards buying domestic rather than imported goods. In particular relating to luxury items. We noted how many commentators are justifying this as part of the growth in China National Pride among the younger set. We countered with some alternatives. Today, we want to expand on that.

No one EVER regretted buying Quality

Ok, let’s come right out and say it. Over the decades we have been in business in China, we have noticed a touch of arrogance in some foreign brands marketing here. Especially noticeable among US and UK brands. But not restricted to them by any means. Dolce Gabbana exhibited not just total arrogance but outright racism back in 2018. From riding high as one of Chinese consumer’s luxury fashion darlings to, according to this article, losing 80% of their China market almost over night. Or you can view this short CNN video for more background.

Maybe now you are thinking one swallow doth not a summer make. And you’d be right. This one just happened to ignite the fuse in China, but is by no means the only example. However, to give our viewpoint more credibility, we will talk about a few examples from our own, personal experience.

Like so many of our expat colleagues here in China, we are not just businesses. We are people. Just like you, with homes and family. Young children. Teenagers. Aged parents. And, just like you, we’re not just marketers. We are also consumers. So we feel we have not just the right, as consumers, but moral responsibility as marketers to draw a line and say when something is not right. It was this philosophy, which we admit, took a while, that drove Bic Brands to becoming a BIO firm.

One product we found disturbing was fly spray. Yep, simple aerosol fly killer. Perhaps you may also be of a vintage when, as a child, you can recall that terrible smell of poison when mother sprayed the house forcing family evacuation for several hours? Well that was our experience in China when all that was available was cheap, Chinese brands. Just as the old days, one needed to evacuate for several hours. Even just a short burst would start the nose and eyes stinging, and lips tingling. Consumers laws were very weak back then, the basic Caveat Emptor law ruled. OK, when in Rome- spray and run.

A few years later we found, to our joy the same brand we used back home. You know the one, gentle on eyes and nose, smells like daisies using a natural killer, Pyrethrum wasn’t it? Yet, other than around twice the price, we we found it was exactly the same as the local brand. Same negative health effect. We contacted the overseas parent company support. No reply.

An imported brand of baby disposable napkins had a “leakage” issue. As did the competing Chinese brand. Again a big price difference. This time the brand replied apologetically, but regretting they shared production facilities and the machinery was not up to same standards as that overseas. Or something like that. In short; “sorry mate, we know you are spending twice as much but it is basically the same Chinese product branded with our name.

A similar story with a popular brand of carbonated water. We found that the quality was inconsistent, especially in the larger 2 litre bottles. A reply form the parent company explained that due to inconsistencies in water quality at their Chinese plants it was inevitable that there would be slight taste or flavour differences. Really?

More recently a brand of water purification jugs. We have bought two of these previously. Excellent products. Our latest purchase however leaks around the lid, parts are not well fitting and has other issues. A reply from their customer support commiserated with our problems, but, sadly, they were the US head office. Responsible for North America only. If we have a problem in China, we should take it up with their Chinese office.

Quality is more than just a manufacturing slogan

Ok, apart form the obvious communication / language issue here what struck us was the cavalier, attitude and poor UX. Surely, a more customer orientated reply – and let’s not forget they are the brands “Customer Support” department – would have been to say they would forward our concerns to their Chinese office who would find an English speaker to contact us and resolve the issue? But support staff have a quota to get though. Their desk is only rented. Fail to achieve target and you are evicted.

This fob off to locale is not unique. We have struck this a few times. Perhaps the most infuriating was talking to an overseas customer support rep at a major Tech company about a news letter we did not sign up for – SPAM – that, to add insult to injury came in Chinese. That call got off to a very bad start when after the standard BOT greeting we were eventually passed to a human. Who greeted us and began speaking Chinese. We can only assume the brand ID us from our browser locale and directed us to a Chinese speaker.

The conversation was fraught, not his fault, his English was limited. By the time he finally understood the problem we were both pretty tired. However, the crunch came in that, being based in the US he could not transfer us to or even provide contact info on their Hong Kong office, which we had established was the source of the emails. His advice: ignore them! Now this is one of the world’s largest IT organisations yet it seems their differing departments can not communicate with each other.

And then there are those who, like a certain major computer hardware brand that directs customers from its US website to off shore customer service staff who have a hard time understanding the product, let alone the issue. If your problem is not one of the “known issues” or FAQ’s and is not in their cheat sheet you’re in for a very rough time.

Or those who respond instantly with an auto reply warning of a delay in service due to Covid. Come on, chances are their service always sucked. Marketoonist Tom Fishburne has an interesting perspective on this here: Flipping the Script. Neil Patel also sums it up well:

“Don’t make excuses, make improvements.” – Neil Patel

Let’s not forget the “Customer Service Robot.” The latest bit of tech designed to make life more difficult and stressful for customers. We had a first had experience of one just recently:

Robot: Hello, welcome to our store. My name is Jenny, how may I help you today?

Bic: Hello, I am looking for a solid wood kitchen shelf.

Robot: What material would you like your solid wood kitchen shelf to be made from?

Of course, these last two examples are global issues, not unique to China. So let’s return to our main point. Brands like Apple can bury their head in the sand and pretend that the fall in China sales is simply down to foolish people cowed by a brutal regime into buying local. Or they can accept the difficult reality that in many, many instances today, Chinese made products are as good as, if not better than imported at a similar price point. It is insulting and patronising to suggest or even think that Chinese, or any consumer, will spend their money, often quite big money on a poor quality product simply because it is locally made. Would you?

Success in China today is more than having a foreign branded product or service. It is about providing the best quality product and service at a reasonable price point. It is about value for money, about UX

There are many, many proverbs re quality, we like this Chinese one: Cheap things are not good, good things are not cheap.~

Well, that is our opinionated view for Tuesday, 27th July. We will be back Friday with the weeks China business, marketing and tech news round up. Till then we will leave you with this inciteful comment from Hubspot co-founder Dharmesh Shah:

“Don’t make your process my problem. Solve for my success, not your systems.”

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