A tale of three cities: the culture of design in China

By Chin Yee Lam 林振翼 and Nathan Nee倪海郡

China is as large and diverse as Europe, so it’s not surprising that creative and cultural differences abound.

In this article we explore how the marketing and communications from three of the biggest regions – Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen – differ, and what this means for western brands seeking to enter those markets.

china-map

Culture and consumer habits

As the nation’s political centre, Beijing has some of the richest cultural heritage and most developed media industries. Consumers here tend to prefer Chinese brands or companies that reflect their nationalist principles. They pay a lot of attention to the semiotics and perception of branding and packaging.

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Shanghai is an immigrant city that’s developed into a vast global metropolis in the past 100 years. As a result, its culture has a more practical, international feel. Consumers tend to prefer rational consumption. They’re more brand savvy and attach more importance to living a stylish lifestyle. They prefer simple packaging and oppose extravagance and waste.

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Shenzhen, the first special economic zone of new China, is widely seen as the city of design and an area that embraces reform and ‘opening-up’ policies. Innovation tends to thrive here and talent is highly mobile thanks to its diverse immigrant population. The population is markedly skewed to young consumers, who value individuality and are willing to try new things.

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Regional differences in design

Because government has encouraged the formation of new industries in this economic zone, Shenzhen has many excellent, innovative and entrepreneurial graphic designers. They will often embrace more contemporary design techniques that favour good customer experiences. Brands, products and experiences born in Shenzhen tend to be more considerate of their audience, rather being product-driven or ideological.

As it is the home of many of China’s largest multinational corporations, the visual style of Shanghai is less individualistic and reflects more international influences. In Shanghai design it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the work is designed by local or overseas designers.

Beijing design on the other hand is larger in concept and scale. Art and music, including rock, are often showcased. At the same time, traditional Beijing design is also evident, displaying many of the characteristics of ‘old Beijing’ – such as Hutong culture which is seen in popular movies like Mr Six.

The design of these red gift envelopes show the cultural influences in these three regions.

Luhua Peanut Oil

Luhua Peanut Oil is a flagship product of the Shandong Luhua Group, and is one of the most famous national brands in China.

Promotional efforts for Luhua Peanut Oil in Shenzen stress the product’s great taste, because many consumers in this area pay attention to delicious food. Conversely in order to win the trust of consumers in the Shanghai market, it was positioned as a healthy product that can combat obesity.

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Conclusion

Like the 28 countries in the European Union or the fifty states of the USA, China has a rich cultural history and diversity. While internationalisation is much in evidence throughout the country, specific local interests, behaviours and language can – and are – employed to great effect in marketing and communications work.

And while all western brands are encouraged to maintain their authenticity and provenance, overseas companies entering the market may benefit from choosing to launch or base their business in a region that matches their industry, target audience or brand values.


Notes on the authors
Chin Yee Lam is a Design Director at Sydney creative agency BWD and heads its cross-cultural design division.

Nathan Nee runs the independent design agency, Pi, in Shanghai. In 2017, BWD and Pi formed a strategic alliance to deliver cross-cultural campaigns for Chinese and Australian brands.