Adapt or die! How European companies have to adapt to the Chinese market

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22, juni 2015

About 66 million years ago, dinosaurs suddenly disappeared after their nearly 200 million years existence on the planet. One of the most likely hypotheses of the extinction is their failure to adapt to the rapidly changing climatic conditions.

In Charles Darwin’s evolutionary framework, he illustrated that changes allow an organism to better adapt to its environment and helps it survive whereas those who do not change will be eliminated by natural selection.

In business, same as in the evolution theory, companies have to adapt their behavior and products to new markets in order to be competitive.

The modern economy — both global and local— is fast, dynamic and in a constant state of change. One of the biggest challenges those international businesses are facing nowadays, is that they have to be responsive to change. Even though we live in a globalized world, each country and each area has its own environment, different from each other.

What kind of animal is your company?

Is your company an unmanageable dinosaur or a globetrotting bird? There are as many kinds of companies as there are animal species. And surprisingly, those animals are a lot like companies.


Birds fly from one country to another to find their perfect environment. They know what they need and are not afraid to go for it. They are strategists who always look for the best place for them to live.

Zara is like a bird flying around the world. They communicate through their clothes and shops in an offline environment around the world. They were late in joining the online game (not until 2012). Zara did not try to be the first, in order to minimize the risk. Instead, Zara and Inditex (the mother company), are taking the safe way.

In terms of globalization, Zara creates similar content for all countries. They always maintain a consistent brand image and deliver the same values on all of their country website with its neat and modern web design as well as high quality street snapshot. However, they follow the different rules in each country and adapt themselves to local behavior.

With the growing popularity and interests of e-commerce in China, Zara is building their brand awareness and acceptance by adapting to the Chinese market. Following the Chinese customs, Zara officially launched its store in Tmall with their own brand imaging and values. Pablo Isla, the CEO of Inditex, firmly believes that Tmall is a great opportunity to reach more extensive audience and spread their brand image.

The way Zara communicates with their customers depends on different areas. In Spain, Zara uses social media platforms such as Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to communicate with their customers and brand users, also as customer care channels. In addition, email marketing as a part of the online marketing strategies is a powerful tool in Spain. By delivering personalized newsletters with editors’ recommendations or new arrivals, Zara maintains the customer relationship and directs more traffics to the website.

Unlike Zara Spain, email marketing is not a priority for Zara in China. Instead, they use a completely different approach to their Chinese customers. For example, Zara has more than 600.000 subscribers on their official Weibo page (one of the main social media platform in China). Zara also activated their official WeChat account including an e-shop to drive the sales and to create one-to-one communication with their customers.


Climate change has lead to confusion among whales. Every year we can read about a whale that has been founded alone on the beach, hanging on by a thread. Whales are routine animals and when things are change, they get disorientated.

Google is very much like a whale. In 2010, Google announced its withdrawal from China’s search market due to the disagreement on censorship between Google and the Chinese government. Another reason behind its departure is the battle with Baidu, China’s local search leader. With its’ home court advantage, Baidu absolutely understands the local market better than Google does. Baidu has several superior search features that cater to local taste including bulletin boards, mobile search in multimedia, and most importantly, the advanced search technology in Mandarin. Plus, Baidu offers several services to local information and products such as Baidu Cloud, Baidu knows and Baidu MP3 search. Although Google tried to catch up, Baidu still got the bigger piece of the pie with its Chinese-oriented marketing strategies and products.


Most of the time, rabbits arrive to places accidentally. But they have a very aggressive way of surviving. Starbucks is much like a rabbit. They dominated the Chinese market in a short time, not leaving any room for competitors. Starbucks covers the entire market with its presence in the online and offline world.

Chinese people prefer to use mobile devices to access the Internet 24/7. That’s why many companies prefer to build their own app or join other apps. WeChat is one of the most used apps in China. Starbucks was one of the first foreign companies that started to use this tool. Through their account, Starbucks launches campaigns, informs about new products or special offers and builds the brand image. One of their most successful campaigns, based on personalized one-to-one communication, was to ask their members “How are you feeling today?” and let them answer with a relevant emoticon. The company answered each user by sending a “refreshing” song that matched the emoticon’s mood. The company added 270,000 WeChat followers in a four-week campaign. (Click here for more info about this and other campaigns).

The coffee company tailors every piece of communication exclusive for each country. By adapting their messages to the cultural preferences of their consumers, they built a closer relationships with their members.


Crocodiles are living fossils. They have hardly changed over the centuries. Because of their dominance they are allowed to continue being as they were. One of the best known fossils is Coca-Cola.

But even these species must adapt to their environment. Coca-Cola has always been doing great in adapting to the Chinese market. In 2005, Coca-Cola combined their traditional marketing model and the Internet in ICOKE, an online community for consumers in China, in order to reach to younger, local audience.

In 2013, Coca-Cola recycled a campaign called “share a coke” to China, which was originally trialed back in 2011 and this campaign has yielded a 4% increase in sales in Australia and drove 870% traffic increase on Coca-Cola Facebook company page. The basic idea of the campaign is to simply personalize the Coke bottles through a Facebook App or labelling them with different peoples’ names.

Unlike western markets that use names as Ashley or Paul, the names on the bottles in China featured nicknames such as “fans” or “your sweetheart”, popular buzz words among the Chinese youth.

In order to catch the attention from social awareness, Coke launched a contest on their Sina Weibo fan page to encourage their followers to repost the featured names, and picked 99 participants to send them each a bottle with the name of their choice.

Follow these tips to survive in China

A lot of companies are trying to get a piece of the Chinese market-pie. However, as we have already seen, marketing in China is quite different from marketing in Western countries.  From these previous examples, we can extract some tips:

Buyers don’t go to your website

The online commerce environment in China is very different from any other country in the world. Physical shopping is still dominated in China because of better consumer experiences. In e-commerce, Jing Dong and TMall (platforms where many brands are available in the same place) are more popular than starting an own e-commerce website. According to Alibaba, 54% of all online shoppers use TMall. As a B2C platform fully dedicated to brands, TMall has attracted many western retailers as an effective marketing platform to speed up the sales besides their own website.

People don’t use laptops

According to China Internet Network Information Center’s (CNNIC) latest report on Internet usage in China, China has 649 Million of internet user. The number of mobile internet users reached 557 million as of the end of last year, a growth of 11% from the year before.

Content must conform to Chinese socio-cultural context

In terms of culture, China has a distinctiveness which is completely different from anywhere else in the world. Cultural sensitivity is crucial in building your marketing context due to the language’s complexity and the difference in the interpretation from one language to another.

Social media platforms are not the same

Instead of Facebook or Twitter, Chinese people use Weibo and WeChat. Sina Weibo is one of the most popular sites in China with a similar penetration as Twitter. WeChat is the most frequent used social networking platform in China, providing multimedia communication with both text and voice messaging. With WeChat, companies are able to have one to one communication with their clients by establishing a WeChat shore and create integrated campaigns.

Human to human communication is mandatory in China

Today, almost every Chinese social media site has created a mobile app to give their users instant and real-time access from their devices.

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