While many brands focus their efforts on reaching mainland Chinese consumers, the five million-plus Chinese residents based in the U.S. make for a massive — and overlooked — market opportunity. Despite growing up in China, Chinese consumers tend to develop new consumption and social media habits after they move to the U.S., so brands cannot market to them in the same way they would a China-based consumer.
Recently, two fashion influencers — Ruomeng Ding and Scarlett Hao — and the founder of the restaurant review blog Chihuo, Amy Duan, sat down with the CEO and co-founder of the marketing agency Kollective Influence, Charlie Gu, to share what they see as some of the key differences between mainland Chinese consumers and Chinese ex-pats.
Gu: Are young Chinese consumers in the U.S. different than their mainland Chinese counterparts, and if so, how?
Ding: In my experience, Chinese consumers in the U.S. tend to have higher expectations for their standard of living and are much more willing to try out niche products. They love to use their weekend time to find new restaurants and explore new stores. They want to stay on top of the newest trends here.
Hao: I agree that local Chinese consumers may be more open to trying new brands, but that doesn’t mean they will buy everything. If anything, they are more selective and critical. Consumers in China have a limited number of channels for learning about brands and products, whereas here, they’re able to do a lot more research. They’re also more likely [in the U.S.] to be able to visit an offline store and touch and experience the product. Because they have this wealth of information, they spend more time analyzing products before making a purchase.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Chinese consumers living in the U.S. will research your product on both Western and Chinese channels, so your branding and voice must stay the same across channels. If you position yourself as one type of brand on Instagram and another on Weibo, then consumers will begin to doubt your brand.
Duan: In my experience, the two consumer groups definitely have differences. For example, the same content often garners different reactions in China versus here in the U.S. Just because it does well there, doesn’t mean it will do well here.
How relevant is Instagram when marketing to local Chinese consumers? Have you used Instagram to help promote WeChat?
Hao: For fashion and beauty brands, Instagram is very important. Look at a lot of major WeChat Accounts — many of the images are taken directly from Instagram, no matter how much the Chinese influencers have developed their own taste and style. Instagram is still a major source of inspiration.
And a lot of brands say to me, “But Instagram isn’t available in China” and I always tell them, it may not be available in China, but you have to know how many young people are dying to get on Instagram, literally the first thing they do when they get out of the country is download Instagram. It’s the cool thing to do. Even if they are just traveling for a couple of days. Once they get on it, they are desperate to see content, and I’ve discovered that they want to see Chinese faces. If they only see Westerners, the content is not as relevant.
And I love the swipe up feature in Instagram Stories. I’ve begun using that to link back to my other Chinese social media accounts whether it’s WeChat, Weibo, or Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu).
Ding: Instagram is definitely relevant. I’ve noticed Chinese followers on my Instagram check the account more frequently, and they are more likely to inquire about specific products in the post. Oftentimes, if I post a product on Instagram, there will be more people asking me where I got it than on WeChat.
E-commerce live-streaming has become extremely trendy in China this year. Do you think it is a good way to reach Chinese consumers in the U.S.?
Duan: I think going back to what Scarlett was saying earlier about access to information really shows the difference between mainland Chinese consumers and those in the U.S. In China, people have limited channels where they can learn about products, so they are more likely to rely heavily on the advice of a couple of their favorite KOLs and purchasing decisions are more easily influenced by them. Therefore, live-streaming is very effective and popular. Whereas in the U.S., there are so many resources and places to see the product, so live-streaming is not as necessary. Either way, live-streaming should be part of your marketing strategy, but just one aspect.
Ding: I have live-streamed this year and I felt like it was difficult and focused too heavily on driving sales and not enough on brand building.
Could you share a bit about how you operate your official WeChat account and the level of effort you put into it?
Ding: Chinese consumers everywhere have increasingly high expectations for WeChat content quality. They get bored with simple posts and visuals are very important. A WeChat article is not a simple blog post — it’s more like a magazine article. I have to play the role of copywriter and creative director.
Every time I work with a brand, I have to put a lot of time into coming up with original content that is different from what other bloggers who work with the brand are doing. It’s very challenging to produce successful, high-quality content every time.
And a suggestion for brands: Don’t try to do direct advertising in your WeChat posts. Readers don’t want to see that. If you’re simply translating content from your brand website, it’s going to be impossible to grow your audience, yet I see so many brands doing it.
Duan: Chihuo is similar to a media outlet, and we operate several different WeChat accounts. We used to have three to four full-time employees on each account, but now we have transitioned to a model where we have one full-time employee for each account and a pool of 100 freelancers who can write for any of the accounts. That should give you an idea of the effort it takes to consistently put out great content on multiple accounts.