Why Avon sells whitening cleansers in China: culture matters

You’ll find live frogs and turtles at Wal-Mart. “refreshing tea” toothpaste from Crest, and a whole line of whitening products from Avon…in China.

Frogs and turtles may not be on your menu; heck, tea might not be the first thing that comes to mind as “refreshing”. But it’s another story for the Chinese — and an important lesson for anyone marketing products in China. Your marketing should reflect local tastes, preferences and values.

Let’s look at Avon, for example — one of the most recognizable international cosmetics brands in China. Avon knows that the Chinese consider snow-white skin in women as a standard of beauty (well, it’s no secret if you spend a little time in China. After all, this is a country that advertises umbrellas with SPFs for the summertime.). In fact, the word for facial cleanser literally translates to “wash face milk”, the milk suggesting the — you guessed it — whitening power. Now I’m not here to debate the validity of any claims on whitening properties of a cosmetics product…I’ll let Paula Begoun take care of that. The point is, Avon took the time to get cozy with their market — on a cultural level — and they developed a nice line of products that speak to the beauty desires of Chinese women and the culture as a whole.

What about what’s in a name? Culture dictates what flies – and what dies. For example, Konka, a Chinese electronics company whose Chinese name roughly translates into “healthy and beautiful”, had a lot of trouble going into Western markets. Why? Their name sounded like “conk”, a violent blow to the head. Same rules apply to companies entering China. This article here talks about how a marketer for Unilever tailored many of their product names to fit Chinese values:

LUX soap is called “lishi” (strong man) in China.

Omo is associated with hard work and ruggedness among Western consumers, but their Chinese counterparts see their washing powder as “Ao Miao” (magic or mysterious).

The different meanings of brand names is one aspect marketing director Mike Shepherd has to be aware of when marketing Unilever’s products in China.

“You have to learn again, you cannot bring Western perspectives to China, you can bring only values, don’t bring assumptions,” he says.

Think it’s just for products headed to consumers? Think again. Global Sources did an about-face for its brand when it realized the company was losing ground with Chinese manufacturers, who seemed to prefer Alibaba despite repeated and demonstrated claims that Global Sources’ services yielded better results. This even after Global Sources had a Chinese name in Chinese characters. Global Sources decided to redo their brand, incorporating traditional Chinese characters used in calligraphy (in the culturally auspicious color red) and their “35 years” to remind customers of their longstanding (as in before Alibaba) presence in China. While I have no offical stats on the change, I imagine the manufacturers will feel more of a connection with a company that acts more traditionally Chinese in its corporate identity…traditional Chinese values go a long way in a culture that has some over 5,000 years of history.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.