When it comes to marketing to a country with more than 5 thousand years of history, traditions and very superstitious people, a wise foreign brand will be very careful to understand it’s culture and superstitions.
While China has hundreds of different superstitions, culture practices, and traditions that will vary from region to region. In this article, we’re going to share with you the top 10 Culture and Superstitions you should be aware of when marketing to China.
1 Words and Homonyms
The Chinese language is spoken by more than 1.3 billion people around the world, that is roughly 16% of the entire world’s population. The languages spoken by Chinese people would vary from North to South and East to West. These varieties in the Chinese languages are often referred to as “dialects”.
It wasn’t until 1930 that Chinese government has adopted a standard national language that was based on the Beijing dialect, which has strong roots from the Mandarin dialects.
The biggest challenge when it comes to marketing to China for a foreign brand is crafting brand name, brand message, and advertising messages. The Chinese language is highly regarded as one the most difficult language to learn around the world, with well over 40,000 distinct Chinese characters and each represents a monosyllabic Chinese word or morpheme.
What most foreign brands run into trouble, however, isn’t the 40,000 Chinese characters, but the insanely large number of homophones which are words that sound similar but mean something entirely different.
In 1927 when Coca-Cola was first sold in China, they run into this exact problem. Outline on their own blog post, because many Chinese shopkeepers did not know how to translate Coca-Cola they were using Chinese character that sounded like Coca-Cola, but without considering the meaning of the words. One of such a version translated to “bite the wax tadpole.”, but sound just like Coca-Cola
2 Red, the Color of Fortune and Luck
Red in China generally represents good luck, and celebration, it is the main color of the Chinese flag, and it is the primary color used in most of the celebrations including weddings and many traditional holidays.
Unlike western weddings, where the bride will usually wear a white gown and the groom will wear a black tux, in China both the bride and groom wear red colored clothing. This tradition, however, has slowly been changing in China.
Many young couples in China are now adopting western weddings with a white gown and black tux, but with a caveat. Once the ceremony is finished, while the groom may remain in his black tux, the bride will usually change into a traditional red dress throughout the rest of the wedding night to symbolize good luck.
3 White The Color Of Funerals
Contrary to the color red, white is a shade(color) that you want to carefully consider when used in your branding or marketing of your products in China. While most Chinese people are not going to boycott your brand just because you used a little white in your branding or products. White is usually associated with death, the mourning of losses, and heavily used during traditional Chinese funerals.
4 The Evil Number Four
Like the number 13 in some of the western cultures, the number 4 is considered to be extremely unlucky and will be avoided by many Chinese people. If your product or brand relies on the number 4 a lot, it is usually a terrible marketing idea in China.
To give you an example, when my dad purchased a new car and had to register a new license plate, he specifically told me to request for a plate that did not have the number 4.
The reason why the number 4 is perceived so negatively, we have to go back to what we previously discussed about Chinese homonyms. The number “four”(四 – sì) in many Chinese dialects especially Mandarin, sounds very similar to the word “Death”(死 – sǐ).
This is why if you ever go to China and jumped into an elevator, there will never be the 4th floor because no one will ever buy a unit on that floor.
5 The Lucky Number 8
On the flip side, if you multiply the number 4 by 2 then you’ll get a number that most Chinese people will absolutely love, the number 8. For the same reason why the number four is extremely unpopular in China the number 8 (八 – bā) which sounds similar to the word prosperity/wealth (发 – fā) is extremely well received in China.
In fact, the number 8 is so popular, Chinese people will often pick days, hours, and minutes with the number 8 in it as their wedding day. If you would recall the Beijing Olympics back in 2008, the grand opening ceremony took place on August,8 at 8:08 PM not by accident.
6 Chinese New Year & Other Holidays
Most people will have heard of, or know of the Chinese New Year, but very few understand the implication, tradition, and superstitions that are involved during this period of celebration.
In China, people will often refer to Chinese New Year as the “Spring Festival” as it is often a celebration for the upcoming spring and turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. Unlike the New Year based on the Gregorian calendar which is celebrated worldwide. Chinese New Year celebration lasts for a full 7 days and is filled with traditions and superstitions.
The traditions practice during the Chinese New Year will vary from city to city and region to region, but certain traditions are more widely practiced by the entire nation. For example, it is considered to be bad luck to get a haircut during the first month of Chinese New Year, and if you were to sweep your house during Chinese New Year, you would be sweeping away good luck and fortune.
7 Red Pocket (紅包)
One of the biggest tradition in China is the giving and receiving of the red pocket during Chinese New Year and Weddings in China. Traditionally, Chinese people did not actually use red pocket or envelopes, instead elderly would thread coins together with a red string to give it to their children during Chinese New Year as 壓祟錢 (yāsuì qián), which literally translates to “money warding off evil spirits” as a sign of good luck.
However, after the invention of the printing presses and the ability to print paper money, Chinese people begin to used “red envelope or pocket” with money inside to replace the traditional red string threaded coins.
Originally red pockets are usually only given during either Chinese New Year, the birth of a newborn, or wedding ceremonies, offering to government officials as bribes. Nowadays, the red pocket is more commonly used on many occasions. In fact, WeChat has developed the digital red envelopes which give users the ability to distribute virtual red pockets of money. And because of its popularity, many brands and even foreign brands have utilized this feature to promote, advertise, or even sell their products.
8 Giving a Clock of Death
While you’re not likely to ever run into this superstition while marketing or selling your products in China unless you’re a selling clock or watches. It is never the less an extremely popular superstition to many Chinese people and one you should be careful of when you’re doing business in China.
If you would give someone a clock as a gift, too many Chinese people this is considered to be extreme back luck. This is again because of a large number of homonyms. To give a clock (送钟 – sòng zhōng) sound very similar to (送终 – sòng zhōng) which means to “bid farewell to someone on their deathbed”.
9 12 Animals of the Chinese Zodiac
Most people around the world are familiar with the constellation of the Babylonian zodiac, but far fewer people are familiar with the Chinese zodiac. Unlike the constellation zodiac which is based on the observation of the constellation over the period of a year. Chinese Zodiac is based on a folklore of a race between 12 different animals with a cycle of 12 years.
Each animal represents a single Chinese New Year and depending on which year you were born in your Chinese Zodiac sign will follow the zodiac sign of that year. For example, 2017 is the year of Rooster, and if you were to be born after the “Chinese New Year” of 2017 but before the “Chinese New Year” of 2018 your Chinese Zodiac sign will be a Rooster.
It is hard to know the exact year when the idea of Chinese Zodiac started, very few Chinese people will actually know this. But the knowledge of what zodiacs the upcoming years will be is passed down from generations to generations.
Many businesses in China will create advertisement and promote their products using Chinese Zodiacs to attract new customers.
10 Chinese Dragon, Phoenixes, and Turtles
Animals will also play a very important role in marketing to China. Apart from Pandas which is the national animal of China. Mythological creates such as dragons and phoenixes also plays a huge role in Chinese superstitions.
Dragons (龙 – lóng), is the highest form of divine creatures and is often represents the king during the dynasty period. Only the king is worthy of wearing cloth with Dragon sewing, and only king is to fit to sit on the “Dragon Throne”.
If dragon represents kind, then phoenixes represent the queen. During the dynasty era, the queen is referred to as the Phoenix and like the king, only the queen is worth of wearing cloth with sewings of phoenixes and wear the Phoenix Crown – 鳳冠(fèngguān).
Lastly, we want to talk about turtles (龟 – guī) which are usually revered for their longevity in Chinese culture. However, turtles in China can sometimes also represent as a symbol of bad luck. For example, keeping a turtle as a pet may slow down your business.