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What You Need To Know About Chinese Markets: Insight From CBi China Bridge

I recently attended a talk presented by CBi China Bridge; a Chinese design research and innovation strategy consultancy, part of a wider alliance specializing in the fast growing markets of Latin America, China and India. Their founder and president Cathy Huang brought some useful insights on how Western business should approach Chinese markets. She outlined the ways multinational companies in the West needed to understand Chinese customers and Chinese companies whilst describing her organisational mission in developing design innovation awareness  across Asia and the West.

Even though the ” Connecting With Opportunities in China” talk was focused primarily on Architectural & Design based business,  I saw some valuable insights relevant to any business wishing to market their products and services into the Far East. It was hosted by Pivot Dublin and held appropriately so in the Chester Beatty Library, which holds the best collection of oriental art in Ireland.

Read on to discover her interesting revelations regarding the Chinese market and its evolutionery trajectory.  Her points were communicated effectively using clear diagrammatic motifs and a Design Thinking approach.

What is Design-Thinking?

Design Thinking is a systematic approach to problem solving by:

  1. Investing effort and empathy in correctly identifying the context and definition of a Problem
  2. Creatively exploring as many ideas and innnovative options as possible when finding solutions
  3. Rationally analyzing and deciding on the correct fit between chosen solution and problem.

This blog by Mark Dziersk gives a quick overview : Design Thinking… What is That? 

Related: What You Need To Know Before You Export To The US

Is your Business Aware of the Relevant Lifestyle Differences when Designing and Marketing products for the Chinese Market?

Cathy started the talk off with a great example: she asked the audience to physically mimic a Monkey.  After some comic examples including; chest beating, scratching of heads and some monkey chatter – she showed us the quintessential Chinese symbol for Monkey. It was a simple hand to the forehead gesture shielding the eyes. A gesture we are not familiar with in the West, being a cultural reference to the Chinese Monkey God Legend. She gave us more Examples:

 Lifestyle Differences between China and the West

( some of which I have added to and can personally testify to, being from South East Asia)

  1. Chinese society likes its 3 daily Meals served piping hot whereas in the west we would settle for a yoghurt at breakfast or a cold salad for lunch.
  2. Relationships are more ordered, formal, hierarchial and less chaotic in the East.
  3. Weather affects mood in the West more than it does in the East especially in the case of sunshine versus rain.
  4. Commuters in the West are leaving their cars for bicycles and the reverse is happening in China.
  5. Older people in China are the key caregivers for young children whereas the older generation in the West tends to live a more independant and seperate lifestyle from their grandchildren.
  6. Public spaces in China are full of people in the weekends whilst Westerners may spend more time at home in their larger backyards.
  7. A child in China is always a Single child and has ‘Little Emperor’ status with 6 ‘parents’ inclusive of 2 sets of grandparents, whilst a child in the west has 2 parents in a nuclear family set up or just 1.
  8. Standard of beauty: Whitening products dominate in China and I can safely say the rest of Asia too as Fair skin is culturally prized above all. Tanning is a primarily Western obssesion.
  9. Punctuality: the Chinese have more fluid attitudes towards timekeeping with a 15 minute margin for error when it comes to punctuality.
  10. Asians tend to document their travel and other life moments using the camera more often. The Occidental tourist , not so much.
  11. The Chinese shower in evening rather than in the morning – it helps them sleep better. Whereas westerners shower first thing in the morning. Coming from Soputh East Asia myself,  I can testify that we would shower twice a day morning and night.
  12. Asians tend to deliver opinions in a less direct way and skirt the topic initially. Western society favours a more blunt, direct approach.
  13. Asians tend to party in a round table style or as a large group of people facing towards each other in one circle. In the West, people circulate indivudally in a room and form temporary clusters.
  14. Asians especially in the Far east and South east Asian cities tend to be early and quick adopters of new technology.
  15. Expressing anger or dislike is more valued in Western Society. In the east it tends to be hidden.
  16. Leadership and hierarchy: Leaders have a stronger authority vis a vis their team and are looked up to. In the West the approach is less hierarchial and more collaborative.

Related: Competitive Intelligence Gathering For International Markets

 How is Design & Design-Thinking affecting Innovation and Economic growth in China?


Attitudes towards Design in China have evolved along with the development of its manufacturing base, more emphasis on branding and the adoption of Design-led products and services by its consumers. Design consumes a bigger proportion of Chinese business investment today.


In the past, Design was neglected by government but now state policy is focused on its development with Top-down leadership heading infrastructural changes and investment in this arena. For example: The number of Design schools have gone from  3 to 1000 today.

Cathy showed us a Timeline highlighting the Impact of Design on the Chinese Market:

I believe this same evolutionary pattern can be seen in our own economic histories here and also replicated in other parts of the developing world, main BRIC countries or Dragon/Tiger Economies in South East Asia.

1970s – Design and designer products were an Import only

1980s – Manufacturers Copy Designs from the West

1990s – China began to follow Designs and Trends from the West

2000- Localisation of Design within China

2010 and beyond – Design Innovation emerging from within Chinese Companies.

 A Contemporary Snapshot of the Chinese Market

Cathy outlined new elements that define Chinese society and their new business landscape with respect to her sector.

  1. There is now a  movement from conservative to lavish spending. I presume this is due to the rise of their New Middle class.
  2.  A very small client base existed for designers once but now it is like a vast stretch of uncultivated land – more small to medium sized businesses want to hire designers. I believe this presents an opportunity for western design-based businesses and designer products.
  3. China was known for Cheap design labour then but now wage rates are starting to match New York.  I suspect the same trend is occuring in manufacturing to a lesser degree as wage costs rise overall.
  4.  Businesses in China moved from copying  to creating their own Designs and Branding.
  5. The first Little Emperor generation is now part of the workforce and has a large burden carry now as they have more economic dependants per houshold.
  6.  Chinese business has moved from a Little town to Global perspective.
  7.  Jobs used to be considered a lifelong contract but now more are job hopping.
  8.  There is more Global competition to supply design into china now and experienced designers are now in demand in China
  9.  Awareness and perception of design is deeper and broader – It is now prevalent in more categories not just in a Visual Arts Context within the media but used in more forms of Media Now. Designers and design thinking is being utilized in  research , business and  strategy.

My Key Ephiphanies from the Q & A Discussion :

  1. We assume that being online gets us noticed globally but Cathy pointed out that our social media channels including Google could be blocked or censored by the Chinese state so its hard to get noticed there unless you sign up for local sites like Baidu, or focus on a particular region given the sheer scale of the country’s audience.
  2. A little town in China can contain 2 million people. If marketing into China, the scale is so large , you can focus on a small percentage section or region and still do very well. In fact youdo better by being more focused.
  3. There is no big takeup of central heating, insulation or retrofit programmes in terms of Sustainable Building so  big opportunities exist for green business in China.
  4. It seems to me, issues like Copyright and the Protection of Intellectual property should be researched and emphasized in their next phase of economic development. this should be relevant to bothlocal Chinese Designers that are emerging, and the new foreign firms seeking to export design services and designer products.

Related: International Marketing Checklist

In Summary

Locally, we have seen the recent twinning of Dublin with Beijing and a history of  bilateral visits between our heads of state and business leaders dating back 2 generations.  A keynote speaker at the start of the talk recalled: once upon a time the father of the current Chinese Premier visited the Irish Shannon region to learn from our regional economic development model. Now, I suspect the reverse is about to happen.

It seems, the shift in focus is finally starting to reach a sort of tipping point out here in the Western-most tip of the European continent. Cognizant of the prolonged challenges in the more mature Western European economies, and the growth of opportunities in the BRIC markets,  more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding and connecting with the Far East.

What insights would you like to add to the points raised in this  mind broadening talk? Stay tuned as we uncover more business insights from the East in future posts..

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Image: testing /

Elish Bul-Godley helps brands hone their marketing communications and establish a stronger online presence via Community Management, Copywriting and Content Marketing. Currently the primary marketing consultant for the Snap Ireland Group. She works with various SMEs, the guerrilla festival Bloom Fringe and traders. Her previous experience includes stints with digital and marketing agencies such as ebow and Rothco, as well as providing training sessions in content, social selling and social media. Also Co-Founder and creator of press accredited blog-zine Eurovision Ireland. Elish has also been a B2B Events professional with Retail Management, Visual Merchandising, Project management experience. Born in Singapore, now in Dublin having negotiated the associated cultural changes between east and west. Loves the odd shimmy as a belly-dance teacher and binges on Sc-ifi in her spare time.

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  • A very comprehensive and interesting read Elish, thanks for such an in-depth account of what was discussed at the talk you attended.

    From a personal level, I found the comparisons very interesting, and they really must also be considered from a business perspective. I agree mostly with your very last point – that we need to understand and connect more with the East (Far East). 

    Frontiers are less barrier, borders are more visually decreasing, and travel makes is easier for us to experience other cultures on the ground, and appreciate the differences. We just need to get over ourselves first 🙂

  • Thanks for the Comment Elaine- Even as someone born in Asia who is now living in the West I was also confronted by some revelations and reminders about the continent I came from having taken for granted so much in terms of our lifestyles here.

    I listed a lot of basic anecdotal differences because sometimes the simplest differences can really impact how people use and perceive your products e.g. how grandparents are such a key part of any household in the east and therefore become important influencers or users for any household products

  • Frank Hogan

    Thanks for the article Elish. Looks like i missed a great seminar. Hope to be in on the next one. My own interest is in possibly importing from China and getting a greater understanding of what are the tools i need for that. Luckily i have a few friends who trade in such a manner with China so hopefully i  can get some advice there.
    Take care and thank you

  • Thanks Frank – am glad you found the post -I hope it gives you an overview of what happened – Perhaps the people at Pivot dublin will accommodate you with more presenattion notes? There are several Chinese Focused events on the horizon – Perhaps look up the Sunday Business post events and Asia Matters

  • Christina Giliberti

    Wow Elish, a killer post!

    The world is getting smaller and smaller by the day but cultures are getting stronger. Businesses that are thriving in international markets are those that understand local cultures and customs.

    I’m half Italian (for my sins) and at weddings we are quite rowdy and constantly ‘clink’ glasses with a piece of cutlery. This custom always makes me laugh because our ‘English’ table sharers were baffled…at first…then they got stuck in. Just so you know, clicking the glass means the happy couple have to stand up and kiss…..after a while we can demand other couples copy. Its fun and funny and part of the culture. When the others joined in, they became part of the culture.

    While working for the Premier group, I worked with the online team to develop websites globally and it was a real learning opportunity to research, listen and employ different techniques, copy, ideas, etc. What works in one location, doesn’t work somewhere else. Local knowledge is key and I see many companies surviving if they use this information and not just duplicate their own versions.

  • Elishbul

    Thanks Christina! Yes being part Indian too I can appreciate the Rowdy Family Gathering.
    Yes thinking local when marketing global is definitely significant to online marketers and web design professionals too. A key reminder here was the fact that not only are Asian societies different but they are also evolving very fast given the rate of progress there so eve hat little local knowledge one has needs to be updated regularly

  • Connor Keppel

    Great post Elish – well done!

  •  Thanks Connor- you know one of your posts on your personal blog was partly responsible for making me want to write – ; )

  • Debi Harper

    Brilliant as always Aoife

  • Thanks a million for reading John 🙂

  • Thanks Debi, much appreciated! 🙂

  • Elish Bul

    just spotted this Infographic a year later on the Trend of LocalizAsian- this reinforces the points made by China Bridge in the post above: that Asian Markets are maturing into consumers more sensitive to products designed for local needs and sensibilities

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