“The Chinese consumer is the new global consumer,” asserts Emily Chang, the new CEO of McCann Worldgroup in China and past Signal speaker. Chinese consumers, she says, have a yearning for brands and products from places outside China that borders on “almost actively fighting cultural conformity,” she says. “In a Chinese woman’s purse, you’ll find more global brands.” 

Chang has lived in China on and off for the past 20 years and worked for brands such as P&G, Starbucks and Apple. “I don’t think a global brand is defined by its international distribution anymore,” she says. “I think it’s defined by what it stands for, wherever it’s available.”

Read on for her insights into habits of Chinese consumers and what brands should do to reach them.

Signal360: Is there a global consumer?

Emily Chang: When I first came to Guangzhou as the Pantene brand manager in the early 2000s, I remember going to Hong Kong on the weekend to buy the basic necessities. And then I remember flying to the States to get the things I couldn’t access in China. When I came back to China for the second time, it was in 2011, with Apple, and I could find the stuff I wanted on [online shopping site] Taobao. But what’s interesting now, with the accelerated development of e-commerce in China, I can access everything I want. Not only can I access everything I used to fly back for or search for, I can discover completely new brands from all over the world that I never knew existed. And I can have them delivered directly to my door sometimes within an hour of me tapping the purchase button. Because in China, because of access to seamless technology and integration to the last mile, I would absolutely say the Chinese consumer is the new global consumer.

Signal360: Can you put a finer point on that? Why isn’t the American consumer or, say, the Emirati consumer the global consumer?

Chang: I think it’s the seamless technology and I think it is probably a little bit of a mindset. There is a deep hunger here to see the world here. And I would say I don’t necessarily feel that I see that in the States. I didn’t see a burning desire to go see Paris and the Pyramids and the world in the States. There is such an interest to almost actively fight cultural conformity that I find really inspiring. And because of that there’s real interest in bringing in products and services, the best of the entire world, to China. There is an intention behind that. Let’s talk about beauty. If you look, you will see probably 20 brands in any woman’s purse. You will find more global brands in a Chinese woman’s purse than anyone else’s. Because there is a desire to find, say, the best Korean face mask, and then the best French lipstick, and then the best Egyptian product. It’s that sort of mindset, a real hunger and interest in culture around the world.

Signal360: Is there such a thing as a global brand? 

Chang: I think the way we used to talk about global brands were those who had distribution all around the world, because a product was sold in so many places, and really leading the pack in many ways. But the definition of a global brand has changed a lot. Now, I don’t think a global brand is defined by its international distribution. I think it’s defined by what it stands for, wherever it’s available. So some international brands, I would say, have great presence, but they’ve really kind of quite famously burned themselves when they’ve misunderstood. 

I’ll speak to China, specifically the Chinese cultural elements. Dolce & Gabbana is a very good example [of misunderstanding local consumers and using offensive stereotypes of Chinese consumers]. And you can see the massive consumer reaction in the boycott. Not only do Chinese consumers vote with their social media, but they’re voting with their dollars. I think if a brand has an international presence, it’s not enough to say that they are a global brand, I think they have to land their purpose and their positioning in such a way that they resonate with consumers wherever they are, that the brand deeply understands the consumer mindset and the culture in which it is made available. You have to adapt and understand how those choices fit wherever you are available and make sure you are speaking the language and engaging at the local level.

Signal360: How would you describe the Chinese consumer?

Chang: The short answer is there is no Chinese consumer. This is a diverse and complex country, we’ve got 1.4 billion people living in nearly 700 cities. And it’s developing at an astounding pace. Imagine that scale. So as a result, I think we are remiss if we talk about one Chinese consumer. And in any country, what I’d say is understanding the consumer always requires a combination of rich data and meaningful insights.

Signal360: So where should brands start to learn about doing business in China?

Chang: I think the way to understand China is from the inside. The digital ecosystem is so different here. You know, the first time I went to the States after coming here to work for Apple, I got in a taxi. And it was only when I got to my destination, I realized I didn’t have a purse, because in China, you don’t need it. You just take your phone and you walk out, everything’s there. So it’s different when you live it for even just a couple of days. Because it’s only when you put your head inside this environment that you’re like, “now I understand how to unlock what this ecosystem looks like. I understand what it feels like to do business here.” And even if you don’t have the chance to come to China, which in this particular moment is not likely, download the apps, buy something on Taobao, book a reservation. Even if you don’t go, just just do it. One thing every expat has to do when they get to China is live on your phone. I don’t care if you don’t read Chinese, then translate it and figure it out. So make digital payments, book a reservation, your taxi, pay utilities, send a social gift to a friend, you can even call because it’s still a phone! But the point is, you’re now in the market and seeing things from the inside. 

Ultimately, we have to understand the consumer. And from that understanding comes everything else.