1. Do your research
“You have to look beyond the newspaper headlines,” says David Martin of the China-Britain Business Council. “With a country of 1.4 billion people, a single figure for GDP is almost meaningless.” As a result, it’s better to drill down into individual sectors and regions – the media sector in Beijing isn’t necessarily going to be in the same shape as the retail sector in Hangzhou. A good way to begin your intelligence-gathering is with organisations such as the Department for International Trade or individual Chambers of Commerce here in the UK. But you’ll want to schedule a visit to the country too, to get your feet wet. It’s the best way to learn.
2. Then, go for it
“Don't let any negatives you may have heard put you off at first base,” says Shaun Pulfrey, whose grooming product, the Tangle Teezer, was turned down by investors on Dragon’s Den in 2007 but is now on sale around the world. “China is the most exciting consumer market that we are working in,” adds Pulfrey. “By the end of 2017, it was our biggest global market, and it has also helped make us more dynamic as a business – sharper, agile and more focused.” Going to China could help you be better everywhere else.
3. Partner up
“No matter how much research you do or how many times you visit, you will not understand China’s market like the Chinese.” So says Pulfrey, who admits that his company’s grasp of local consumer behaviour was limited when Tangle Teezer first entered the Chinese market. But, warns David Martin, it’s not as simple as just finding a local contact. It’s also wise to establish a relationship where payment or compensation is linked to the success of the venture. And, he adds: “Don’t believe the unlikely. Because of the scale of the opportunity, it can be tempting, but show the kind of acumen you would when dealing with people at home.”
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4. Be patient
“Deals go at different speeds,” says Martin, “so be prepared for the ebb and flow. The decision-making process is different, the hierarchy is different.” The concept of ‘face’ – as in saving it, and not losing it – is integral to business in China, too.
“Haggling is important,” says Michael Greene, vice president of product strategy at digital advertising management firm AudienceScience. “Chinese people like to feel that they have done something important for their company and are going back with a good deal.” It’s often useful to draft in senior figures to move deals along or rubber-stamp them at the end.
5. And be prepared to re-assess
Just because a business is successful in one market doesn’t mean that it’ll work in China. “Uber is dominant elsewhere,” says Greene, “but in China it struggled against a larger rival, Didi.” For some companies, this will mean tweaking a product slightly. For example, some Jaguar Land Rover models sold in China have a longer wheelbase and larger back seats, and says Martin, “In China, the people who buy those cars are likely to have a driver.” This means you need to be flexible and prepared to make adjustments to maximise your business.
6. Pin your colours to the mast
“We make much more of our 'Britishness' in China than anywhere else in the world,” says Pulfrey. “Take every marketing opportunity to stress you have a British brand, are made in Great Britain, or have British heritage. To the Chinese, ‘Made in Great Britain’ means design, quality, cool, expertise and trust. It opens doors, it gives you a competitive advantage and it supports a premium proposition.”
7. Think local
Doing business halfway across the world might be daunting. However, don’t forget, says Pulfrey, there are Chinese students in the UK – young, bright, ambitious and, crucially, well versed in WeChat and the Twitter-alike Weibo. Martin notes that football club Aston Villa took on a Chinese intern, locally-based in the West Midlands, to look after its social media for the Far East, with great results. And, he adds, for other companies, there’s every chance that a person who starts off as an intern could one day prove to be a very useful contact if they ever decide to head home.
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