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Marketing To China: 5 Mistakes To Avoid At All Costs | VIVA CITY

February 20, 2023

Entering the Chinese market as an overseas business can be a complex process. To fully understand your Chinese audience, various cultural nuances, social norms and buyer preferences must be observed and accommodated.

The customer journey that you typically deliver to a Western market will not be received in the same manner by a Chinese audience. To limit potential pitfalls when marketing to China, your team should be ready to sidestep a few critical mistakes overseas vendors regularly make when entering this nuanced – but exciting – market. 

In this article, we’ll outline five of the most common mistakes overseas brands make when marketing to Chinese audiences.

1.  Insufficient Market Research 

When marketing to China, if a brand is to hit the ground running, they must allocate enough time and investment into thoroughly researching their ideal audience. 

Many overseas brands have attempted to enter this market, only to fail because they haven’t dedicated enough time to understand the complexities of dealing with this specialist market. 

To avoid this, here are a few factors to explore exhaustively before going to market:


Your team should establish a firm comprehension of the underlying social and economic determinants of successful Chinese marketing campaigns, i.e. prices customers are willing to pay, ideal customer demographics, how frequently services are required and the dominant competitors in your industry. 


China's political landscape is intimately tied to its technological landscape – perhaps, more so than any other country. As such, staying abreast with Chinese techno-politics is crucial to pre-empt any effects these changes may cause to your industry.

You’ll need to avoid making assumptions about the Chinese market: teams need to be comfortable adopting a complete novice mindset – very little prior knowledge of other market demographics will apply to Chinese audiences.

2. Misunderstanding Modern Chinese Culture 

One of the biggest mistakes an overseas vendor can make is misunderstanding Chinese cultural nuances. Hundreds of Western marketing campaigns have failed due to insufficient knowledge of modern Chinese culture. 

As a rule of thumb, avoid creating campaigns that feature outdated, culturally demeaning stereotypes - dragons, lanterns, porcelain-inspired graphics, phoenixes and standard color pallets regularly associated with Chinese culture (red, gold and white). 

Aligning any campaigns with these tired stereotypes can damage the perception of your brand for Chinese audiences irreparably. It is also incredibly important to understand the significance of Chinese cultural symbols, numerology, numerologically important dates and cultural implications upon more widely established color theory within design.. 

Chinese audiences want to see that your brand truly values their culture – showing that you are willing to respectfully engage on their terms inspires trust and confidence in your offering. One of the best ways to immerse your understanding of Chinese culture is to invest in travel to China which will always pay significant dividends in terms of a more nuanced, contextual understanding. Insights gained through travel experiences often prove to be invaluable to the research and development process. 

3. Inadequate Investment into Properly Translating Messaging

Your marketing team should consider the advantages of hiring a Chinese translation agency to create the highest quality impact of marketing messages.

This 1997 Pepsi campaign is an excellent example of the risks associated with inadequately translating messaging to mandarin: Pepsi mistranslated the slogan, “Come alive! You’re the Pepsi generation,” to “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” 

Often, applications like Google Translate can be unreliable – we strongly advise against using general translation applications for important messaging. 

Mandarin is a profoundly complex lexicon, which is why your team needs to trust that marketing messages are correctly positioned – if you don’t have a high-level Mandarin speaker on your team, we advise seeking professional guidance.

Avoiding mistranslation pitfalls as a fundamental research and development process can limit the risk of embarrassing blunders, making your Chinese audience feel like your brand knows and values them enough to speak to them at a native level without feeling too formal or stilted. 

4. Insufficient Understanding of China’s Political Landscape. 

In 2018, Mercedes-Benz had to publicly apologize to the Chinese government for promoting an insensitive marketing campaign in China. 

The Instagram post featured a quote from the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama. The tense geo-political relationship between the CCP and Tibet caused a controversy that stained the carmaker's reputation in China. 

This is an example of needing to be informed of China's nuanced, ever-changing political landscape; your brand should limit contact with politically charged subjects to avoid unwanted controversies. 

Here is a general road map for things to stay entirely away from: 

  • Avoid any explicit or covertly sexual imagery: China is conservative – even partially uncovered depictions of bodies will be removed outright. 
  • Avoid overt or covert commentary on the CCP: It is best to avoid any comment on Chinese politics – as an overseas vendor, Chinese audiences may consider any politically charged material offensive. 
  • Avoid overtly violent imagery: China's internet laws around gratuitous violence are strict. It is best to ensure that no marketing material includes depictions that can be considered offensive. 

5. ‘Key Opinion Leaders’ – Don’t Underestimate the Profitability of Influencer Marketing. 

Overseas brands routinely overlook “KOL” marketing – Chinese consumers are arguably more reliant on peer-to-peer marketing contact in 2023 than any other demographic. 

Unlike in other Western markets, Chinese consumers frequently make purchasing decisions via KOLs – this ‘buyer-custom’  can be used to fast-track qualified audience curation, leading to massive gains in engagements. 

For example, many mainstay “super apps” such as WeChat and other popular social apps like Douyin and RED have incorporated short-form video functions into their platforms and live streaming capabilities. 

Consequently, influencer marketing has rapidly become the most effective, customer-oriented marketing channel. Chinese influencers have sold billions of dollars worth of products and services to their followers in 2022.

So, planning and employing an effective influencer marketing strategy for 2023 is an impactful way that new brands can stay ahead of competitors in China. 

VIVA CITY: Your Marketing to China Expert 

Marketing to Chinese consumers requires a total paradigm shift. Many international businesses have tried and failed to enter this market by using the same marketing techniques that work with western audiences. 

VIVA CITY offers your business an easy way to utilise WeChat and provides broader expertise in marketing to Chinese consumers through Chinese social media. 

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