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BW Businessworld

The Confucian Conflict

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The crouching tiger has sprung. China is no longer the hidden dragon, as a spate of books, reports and touristy despatches have somewhat opened up the country to our gaze. What Chinese Want by advertising veteran Tom Doctoroff is yet another attempt at parting the bamboo curtains and demystifying the Red Kingdom. Doctoroff, who recently became JWT’s Asia-Pacific CEO, scans the country through the lens of consumer behaviour as well as a cultural standpoint. The book is aimed at the western businessman, but Indians interested in understanding China will also like it.
Having lived in Mainland China since 1998, and “infiltrated both Orwellian boardrooms with conference tables the size of squash courts as well as apartments no larger than a US suburban bathroom”, Doctoroff has had a worm’s eye view of the country, its people, its culture and its business philosophy. And, this is the biggest strength of the book. It’s no quick take from a visitor, but personal observations of somebody who has lived, breathed China, done business in it, delved into Chinese minds, been exasperated by it, made friends with locals and learnt his lessons the hard way. So, even as the book abounds in a lot of sweeping generalities about the country, it also provides microscopic details such as how the Chinese will not crunch before noon, preferring warm, soft meals for breakfast, how every door in China is surrounded by plants, how old men take pride in their pet turtles, and so on.
China, says Doctoroff, is both boldly ambitious and regimented and cautious. And this perplexing duality shows up in quite a lot of spheres — in its politics, worldview and its approach to business, shopping and even to sex. Rather ambitiously, Doctoroff tries to tackle all these subjects like a cultural anthropologist or an amateur psychologist.
As a result, there are a huge number of takeaways from the book. Indeed, it is overloaded with facts, observations, witticisms, insights, some crystal ball gazing — all delivered in a bit of a breathless fashion. The key observation —which one had heard Doctoroff make during his witty presentation at Ad Asia in Delhi last year as well — is that China is a Confucian society, a combination of top-down patriarchy and bottom-up social mobility. There is no room for Western individualism; the clan and nation dominate. Confucianism extols stability as the antecedent of forward momentum.
“China loathes the concept of breakthrough — anything abrupt is anathema,” says Doctoroff. Once he has laid out the generalities of life in China, Doctoroff steps into the “how to” part — lessons on doing business in China. The trick to doing well there, he says, is to work within the system. He illustrates this with case studies of two successful businesses — Always, a field marketing operation, and Anta, China’s largest sports shoe and apparel maker. Their business culture is top-down rooted in hierarchy. Both leaders of Anta and Always like to project omnipotence. For brands and marketers, says Doctoroff, this hierarchical mindset is one of the biggest hurdles. “We are still half a generation away from a Chinese corporate leader who sees willingness to delegate as a strength, not a weakness,” he points out.
The marketer will find lots of strategic insights here as Doctoroff peppers the book with anecdotes of Chinese as well as MNC brands trying to get a foothold in the country. From a Lenovo to a China Mobile to a Siemens to a Colgate, there are learnings. But it’s the chapters on the consumer — the tiger moms, the digitally rooted youth, senior citizens, the luxury buyer — that are fascinating.
Although, structurally, the book is a bit difficult to navigate as it seems to go off into tangents, one cannot but agree with WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrel’s words in the foreword — no business person should book a flight to China without reading this book.
(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 15-10-2012)