Learning to Love Shanzhai Marketing

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In my column in Media magazine in December I forswore the practice of knocking the unsophisticated way in which many Chinese companies conduct marketing. Shanzhai Marketing, I noted, was for many companies better than no marketing, and that the better and more earnest of these companies was at least building their craft in a Chinese context.

As both a participant in and an observer of the marketing craft in China, part of me wants to see Chinese companies adopt world-class marketing practices before they leap overseas. At the same time, I nurture a growing appreciation that not only will marketing in China will be different than it has been elsewhere, but that practices developed in China will change the way marketing is conducted worldwide, especially as Chinese companies begin their inevitable quest for global leadership.

What we want to avoid, naturally, is the worst of those practices, most particularly the endemic kickbacks and petty corruption that undermine marketing effectiveness. Rather than dismissing local practices out of hand, though, we would be well-served to start questioning our own assumptions about what makes for good marketing practice.

Just to give one example from the public relations side, corporate communicators (including agency types) can foster closer relationships with journalists in China than would be possible elsewhere. This does not necessarily mean that anything improper takes place: on the contrary, it means that the PR professionals wind up with a better idea of what the journalist wants to write about, and is less likely to bother him or her with stories that would be of little interest. It is axiomatic that, in a world of user-generated content and citizen journalism, such practices would have benefits that extend far beyond journalist relations.

Editors who continue to insist on a rigid church/state divide between their journalists and corporate spokespeople have understandable concerns, but this would not be an unmanageable practice and it would do little to undermine western journalism’s vaunted (but, with respect, largely fictional) objectivity.

Another aspect of Shanzhai Marketing that I appreciate is the resistance to rigid metrics among marketers, particularly when it comes to new media. I am an advocate for measurement, but I also recognize that it is impossible to measure all of the effects (positive and negative) of a marketing campaign with the tools we have. Feelings, beliefs, and unspoken convictions cannot be reduced to mathematics, and the attempt to do so is fraught with increasing peril as our segmentation increases. Sadly, marketing in the west is rushing willy-nilly into the waiting arms of the quants, as if persuasion could be reduced to a mathematical formula, but much of what goes into crafting a superb communications program is intuitive.

Shanzhai Marketing, at its best, is an intuitive exercise, one that relies on a deep empathy with and an instinct for the audience over research and quantitative metrics. What we could use in marketing is a comfortable balance between the two, and Chinese marketing practices could help us do that.

I do not advocate seeking virtue where there is none, and it is not my goal to promote a “noble savage” view of Chinese marketing. But our failure to recognize the cultural basis (and bias) of international marketing tools, and to disregard the virtues of the wiser homemade practices will only undermine otherwise great marketing campaigns.