Courting China

May 20, 2014

By: Laura Tyson​​​​

“Welcome. Your reputation precedes you.”

Not perhaps the words you want to hear uttered on your first meeting with the prospective in-laws or your new boss on the first day of a new job. They may as well say “We’ve already formed an opinion of you; whether it’s good or bad is for you to ascertain or presume.”

When it comes to corporate reputation there are two obvious examples of companies with standout reputations for service delivery – Ryanair and John Lewis. People expect limited, if cheap, service from Ryanair, making it easy to impress customers and disprove their cost-cutting reputation. John Lewis, a British department store, meanwhile, is renowned for exceptional service and as a result is one of the most frequently used companies for wedding gifts – making it critical to deliver exemplary service and avoid disappointing customers.

China, here we come

Living and working in Asia we are witness to a steady stream of companies making forays into the Chinese market with little or no understanding of what reputation precedes them and what expectations their prospective consumers have. Add to that some fairly significant cultural differences and many are set to fail.

Consumers have assumptions about specific companies, industries and sectors. Even if a company is an unknown entity in China, the sector will have an existing reputation based on consumer perceptions of other players within the sector.

The Awkward Reputation Courtship

Companies looking to take their first footsteps into the Chinese market would be wise to seek out these perceptions if they are to avoid the awkward reputation courtship – a potentially hazardous engagement where you’re not quite sure what the next move is. What behavior traits are you meant to be demonstrating? Which ones should you be avoiding at all costs? Will you reaffirm their perception or disprove great qualities they have ascribed you?

FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap research into China offers insights into the perceptions of expert consumers sector by sector. These aren’t just random consumers but people with real insight into the market and educated perceptions of the sector.

Stewing apple

The research comes a little late for Apple Inc., who were slated in the Chinese state media for their arrogance toward consumers in relation to the repair policies for iPhones. Apple was forced to apologize for their “lack of communication” and have had to work hard to rectify the perception that they attach little importance to consumer feedback.

In the China Authenticity Gap research into the technology sector, including Apple, expert consumers cited “making it easier to resolve issues or problems” as their number one expectation of a company’s communications.

Similarly when asked to rank their expectations with regards to innovation, “greater personalization of products and services” came out on top with the expert technology consumers in China. Ironically, personalizing service is one of the cornerstone differentiators for Apple in western markets – assuming that was not central to the consumer experience in China was an error.

Avoid the awkward courtship. Avoid the breakdown in relations Apple experienced. Get to know your suitor and give yourself the best chance of a happy and fruitful union.

Laura Tyson is a vice president with FleishmanHillard, working out of the Hong Kong office. You can reach her at laura.tyson@fleishman.com.