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How to navigate marketing through geopolitical uncertainty in China

By Xixi You | APAC Account Director

Croud

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July 18, 2022 | 6 min read

Working internationally requires an intercultural approach to avoid clashes with local culture and allow for better business assimilation. Xixi You, APAC account director at Croud, suggests some surefire ways for marketers to navigate marketing in China.

Croud on how marketers can make sense of marketing in China. Image: Rostyslav Savchyn/Unsplash

Croud on how marketers can make sense of marketing in China / Rostyslav Savchyn via Unsplash

If Samuel P Huntington was right about the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ in the post-Cold War world, recent geopolitical disruption – whether that’s the Ukraine War or escalating tension between China and the US – may mark a new era of international order.

The endogenous conflict between China and the west, and their ideology-based contradiction in particular, has posed a profound impact on global trade and business operations. As a marketer working between the two sides, it seems harder than ever to find common ground when it comes to meeting different customer expectations and creative tastes.

Game-changing challenges

Thanks to China’s reforms and globalization efforts over the past 30 years, as well as its stable growth and expected policy, it has remained the go-to destination for brands entering the Asian market. But a series of policy and social sentiment transformations happening in China right now confront foreign businesses with new challenges.

Censorship on creatives and content

Global brands are facing stricter ideology-oriented censorship on creatives and content. In September 2021, China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) announced a ban on ‘effeminate men and other abnormal aesthetics’ on TV. This has had an impact on the idol culture and ambassador strategy favored by many luxury and fashion brands. Even Dior faced significant backlash when its Lady Dior exhibition handbag model failed to meet Asian beauty standards. What’s clear is that superficial localization efforts don’t seem to be enough to save brands from clumsy campaigns or communication faux pas.

Nationalism on the rise

Today, brands have to carefully deal with growing nationalism among the general public. And with the tension between China and the west escalating, international brands can often find themselves caught in the crossfire with nowhere to turn.

In March 2021, H&M was called out by the Communist Youth League on Weibo and subsequently boycotted for ‘spreading rumors to boycott Xinjiang cotton while making a big profit in China.’

Changing requirements

These challenges faced by global brands, if navigated incorrectly, can negatively impact creative production. For example, one of our clients had its creative rejected on Chinese paid social platforms because it didn’t depict the South China Sea border – it had to show the border on maps in the way the Chinese authority required on ad banners.

It’s clear that many international businesses that use generic ad templates created by their global creative hub cannot meet localization requirements in China by simply translating ad copy or changing the models they use.

How to navigate through the uncertainty?

Uncertainty implies risk for business, especially when it comes to geopolitical instability. This sort of transforming environment – like what we see between China and the west – highlights an even more important role the marketer needs to play, one that helps brands navigate the transitional period, however long that may be. Here are a few things your global brand can do in the short and long term.

The short term

In the short term, it’s essential to review your brand’s localization strategy and examine the branding narratives in APAC markets. This is something you should do, regardless of whether you’re new to the market or already established. Since the geopolitical landscape has changed a lot in recent years, old experiences may no longer be applicable, and regional conflicts may mean your branding narratives or creative guidance have become outdated.

If you only pay lip service to localization efforts, in the best scenario your messages may not resonate with local customers emotionally and culturally. In the worst-case scenario, your brand could be caught in the geopolitical crossfire.

The long term

In the long term, it’s well-advised that brands find a reliable agency to help monitor and assess the evolving local regulations and geopolitical landscape so they can prepare for the full range of risk scenarios for day-to-day marketing practices well ahead of time.

More importantly, global brands need to put localization at the heart of their broader strategic position instead of the channel-based implementation level. This conversation should ideally start with the senior team and the board, and assess how to respond to unexpected risks in order to ensure resilience in the face of new challenges. Marketers would need to work with all stakeholders and reflect the strategic decisions in marketing execution – and more internal and external education and discussions would need to take place.

When focusing too heavily on daily marketing operations, it’s easy to miss or underestimate the seismic transformation happening around us, especially in environments we aren’t familiar with. Suggestions and advice from third-party partners can serve as a wake-up call and set the foundations for a solid international strategy that ensures your business is best equipped for success in foreign markets.

Modern Marketing Agency

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Croud

Croud is is a global, full-service, digital marketing partner for some of the world’s leading brands. Through the seamless connection of data, technology and creativity, we develop strategies for sustainable growth that drive immediate business impact.

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