Local knowledge the key to successful advertising in China

1 June 2009

With one of the world's largest populations of consumers, mainland China is a potentially lucrative market for many advertisers, but to successfully communicate their message to Chinese consumers advertisers need a visual strategy that does more than simply 'stick a dragon on the box' according to Deakin University lecturer in graphic design Dr Lisa Scharoun.

"Chinese consumers are open to western products and ideas, but if the wrong approach is used it can lead the audience to misinterpret the visual message and be highly offended as a result," she said.

From 2003 to 2005, Dr Scharoun was a lecturer at the Raffles Design Institute in Shanghai and she said it was during this time she became particularly interested in the advertising western companies used in China.

"Living there I realised how completely at odds western style advertising was with Chinese culture."

In her recent paper Made for China: Global Collaboration and Understanding in Advertising Design, Dr Scharoun refers to a number of examples where the misuse of culturally significant symbols in advertising offended Chinese consumers – for instance dragons portrayed as sinister, frightening creatures.

"The western interpretation of a dragon as an 'evil demon' doesn't work in China because, while dragons are highly significant to the Chinese and are seen as possessing great power, they are considered to be good-natured. It's a bit like presenting a kangaroo as an evil protagonist to an Australian audience," Dr Scharoun said. Even the appropriateness of the research methods themselves need to be evaluated.

"Often an advertising agency or a company will take a strategy that works well in the west and try and use it in China without researching whether it is suitable for that market.

"Generally in the west, we have an individual mindset whereas in mainland China there is more of a collective mindset. For instance, if you were to run a focus group in mainland China, participants are less likely to express their own feelings and more likely to look to the group's leader for their response," Dr Scharoun said.

Understanding the Chinese market not only has implications for advertisers and their agencies, Dr Scharoun says, but also for the teachers of design.

"It's very important that design students are given the opportunity to gain an understanding of the complexities surrounding advertising in China." Dr Scharoun believes cross-cultural collaboration at the undergraduate level could be one of the ways to overcome this type of cultural misunderstanding.

"Global Design Strategies: China is a proposed 12-week course for Deakin University graphic design students providing an in-depth exploration of Chinese culture, history and design," Dr Scharoun said.

As part of the course, it is planned for Deakin students to be paired with 'design mentors' from DongHua University in Shanghai, collaborations Dr Scharoun says she hopes will be ongoing.

"Hopefully through these collaborations students will form relationships they can take forward into their careers. Then when they are presented with a brief for developing advertising for China they can draw on the contacts they made through the course and on the knowledge they gained to develop work that is culturally sensitive and not just stick a dragon on the box."


Media contact

Rebecca Tucker
Media and Corporate Communications
03 5227 8568, 0418 979 134
Email Rebecca

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