Advertising in China: getting it right

Busy street in China with several signs overheadAs pundits debate when the Chinese economy will overtake the US, one thing’s for sure. The Chinese growth story will continue to be at the centre of business and financial news. Despite a slowdown due to the trade war, the Chinese economy is expected to grow by around 6% this year. That makes it an attractive target for international businesses.

Are you considering expanding to the Chinese market? Its unique culture and digital ecosystem pose unique challenges. Here are a few of them:

The Great Firewall

Goodbye, Google, Facebook and Twitter. Hello, Baidu, WeChat and Weibo. Due to government regulations, many global platforms are off-limits. Instead, China’s homegrown apps have innovated their way to a central place in people’s lives. Have a look at this chart, showing internet and mobile penetration for China and the US:



infographic about internet and mobile penetration in China and the US



Have you heard about Chinese Google or Chinese Twitter? Such claims are common, but Chinese tools don’t mirror familiar Western networks. For your Chinese marketing strategy, we would recommend a custom approach – starting with mobile-friendly, digital content. (98% of Chinese internet usage is mobile.)

Baidu holds 66% of the Chinese search market. To create a business account, you’ll need to provide your business licence and other paperwork. It’s worth the effort.

Legal compliance is an important part of advertising in China. It doesn’t stop at account set-up either. Brands must ensure that adverts don’t mislead or contain superlatives like “the most”. Direct brand comparisons are prohibited, as is the use of the Chinese national flag. Censors will be on the lookout for anything that could imply or cause social instability.

The S factor

That’s S for social, of course. Younger Chinese consumers are particularly influenced by key opinion leaders (KOLs).  78% will buy goods endorsed by celebrities, while 63% are swayed by micro-influencers. Online celebrities in their own right, KOLs form part of a USD 17 billion industry.

Social media often include e-commerce and online payment functions. This means that influencers can link to online stores directly from their pages. And 80% of unplanned e-commerce purchases come from social channels.

Tencent is Asia’s largest tech firm – and the world’s biggest gaming company. Its flagship app, WeChat, has over a billion users. From booking a doctor’s appointment to travel and entertainment, it’s ‘the app for everything’. And in China, life without it can be difficult.

WeChat is a great place to build brand awareness and orders. It’s not the only option though. There are other social networks that cater for particular audiences. Qzone, Weibo, Douyin (TikTok) and Little Red Book are all major players. Douyin in particular has demonstrated the importance and popularity of short-form video.

Social media is also a key tool for customer service. Chinese customers expect personalised service via chat apps – at a time that suits them.


If you’re setting up in e-commerce, Alibaba is an obvious first stop . It’s home to several huge online marketplaces, including Tmall and Taobao. Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba form the trio of tech giants that’s shaping the future of the Chinese internet.

When deciding on pricing, it’s best to avoid the number four. In Chinese, it sounds similar to the word for death. This means that buildings will often not have a fourth floor or even a 14th, 24th or 40th floor. The number eight is much more auspicious. It sounds similar to wealth or prosperity. Including an eight in prices is common practice.

China leads the world in online payments. In fact, the country is moving quickly towards a cashless society. Accepting WeChat or Alipay payments builds trust with new customers and offers familiar convenience.

Adjust your calendar

Singles Day is big business. It takes place on November 11 and sells more than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. For the last ten years, Alibaba has hosted special ‘Double Eleven’ events and sales. Last year alone, its reward was more than US$ 30 billion in revenue.

Other important events are Chinese New Year and Golden Week. Some Western holidays are popular in China, such as Valentine’s Day. It always pays to research local traditions though. Gifts of umbrellas, shoes and yellow flowers may spell the end of romance.

Competition in China’s online market is stiff. This means brands are looking for ways to stand out. Increasingly, this means interactive ads, including augmented and virtual reality. Even the Communist Party is getting in on the act.

When creating localised adverts, we also recommend researching local design trends. Colours have different associations depending on location. For example, in China, red symbolises happiness and joy. White is the traditional colour of mourning; yellow is the colour of emperors.

China’s middle class is set to grow. Urban household incomes are forecast to double by 2022. This is likely to result in strong future spending. The country is successfully navigating the transition from manufacturing powerbase to market economy. It’s an attractive target for companies looking for international growth. Will you be part of the trend?