“Confucian consumer”? Is that the same as “christian ad agency”?

Here is a classic example of how global brands, business, advertising, marketing and the newsmedia can create and perpetuate the ’emerging market’ strategies that lead to the fiascos mentioned in my earlier post Design Thinking: The process of entering a new market.

Last week,  Brand Noise had a post titled " 12 things to know about the Chinese consumer" where I first read about JWT‘s white paper on the Chinese market and characteristics. Skimming through it quickly, I filed it away for future reference. Two days later, I saw reference to the same study pop up in Fast Company, now titled "The Confucian Consumer". Noting the difference, I went back to take a look, and sure enough, JWT’s press release refers to Tom Doctoroff’s book, which is titled, Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer YET their handy 12 step guide refers to the Chinese as "Confucian Consumer". What’s the big deal, you may ask, and why am I picking on such a minor difference in choice of words?

FC linked to Adrants, where I found this powerful argument ,

The main complaint is the trotting out of Confucius to "frame the market for American business people" writes
the China Herald weblog that doing so "creates the illusion that there
is one driving force in the Chinese market you can use as a beacon in
an often chaotic situation."

But wait! There’s more. Let’s take this thought one step further [or deeper]. I’ve been reading Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian (and obviously getting inspired by it:P) and from his chapter titled "China and India" [originally a shorter article published in The New York Review of Books] I’ve copied here a pertinent paragraph,

Indeed, religious reductionism has been reinforced in recent years by the contemporary obsession with classifying the world population into distinct ‘civilizations’ defined principally by religion (well illustrated, for example, by Samuel Huntington‘s partitioning of the world into such categories as ‘Western civilizaton’, ‘Islamic civilization’, ‘Buddhist civiliation’, ‘Hindu civilization’). There is, as a result, a tendency to see people mainly – or even entirely – in terms of their religion, even though that attribution of a singular identity can miss out on much that is important. This segregation has already done significant harm to the understanding of other parts of the global histroy of ideas and commitments…
There is an odd dichotomy in the way in which Western and non Western ideas and scholarship are currently comprehended, with a tendency to attribute a predominant role to religiosity in interpreting the works of non Western intellectuals who had secular interests along with strong religious beliefs. It is, for example, not assumed that, say, Isaac Newton’s scientific work must be understood in primarily Christian terms (even though he had Christian beliefs), nor presumed that his contributions to worldly knowledge must somehow be interpreted in the light of his deep interest in mysticism […]
In contrast, when it comes to non Western cultures, religious reductionism tends to exert a gripping influence.

And finally to underscore these words from Sen, I close this post with a quote from the China Herald  mentioned by Adrants above, from the post aptly titled "Do we need Confucious to sell aftershave in China?",

Confucius has become for me a kind of symbol: when somebody needs
the Chinese sage to explain the Chinese market, you know this person
had no clue.

While easy twelve step answers are tempting to make sense of large and complex markets, their very ‘simplicity’ only serves to demonstrate the need for truly making an effort to understand and observe the market you wish to serve. Who was it who said that simplistic and simple are two entirely different words? I found it,

Very often, people confuse simple with simplistic. The nuance is lost on most. (Clement Mok)

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3 Responses to “Confucian consumer”? Is that the same as “christian ad agency”?

  1. niblettes says:

    Taken to simplistic extremes any perspective can be dangerously reductionist (we’re living with the consequences of people who have shown us just how dangerous).
    However, I don’t think considering the intellectual heritage people come from is a bad thing. I am very rooted in a greco-roman / judeo-christian heritage, and understanding that and what it means will likely help you better understand me, me as a consumer, and what messages will likely resonate with me–especially if you aren’t likewise rooted in that heritage so that you don’t take it for granted.
    By the same token understanding Confucianism can help me understand something about Chinese markets in that it helps me be aware of the historical and philosophical echoes that still speak to the Chinese and contribute to how they (in very general terms) see the world different from how I see it.
    Understanding the stories and the myths that cultures use to make sense of the world can be very insightful in terms of understanding individual behaviour. Let’s put aside race and religion for a moment. Consider the differences between Americans and Canadians. One core myth in American culture is “manifest destiny”. Understanding manifest destiny helps one understand something about Americans. This myth doesn’t exist is Canada where “the garrison” is in many way the national mythos.
    Now to bring race and religion (and personal experience) back into the equation, I live in a mixed race family. This means I live with clashes between these myths and how they affect individual feelings and behavior every day.
    I guess my perspective is while it can be insightful to characterize cultural differences, its damaging to caricature-ize them.
    Am I still even on topic??

  2. Niti Bhan says:

    Yes you are and you bring in valid points. My later post brought in the same thought, that in some areas, religious oriented habits do apply and are relevant, such as in eating habits and dietary restrictions for example.
    On the other hand, I think that Sen was making a valid point about intellectual thought being seen through the lens of religious reductionism being one sided, thus giving rise to numerous misconceptions.
    The bottom line though is that while there are no easy answers, and there rarely are, in these types of subjects, we, you and I, are conversing on it. And that, is what is important, no?

  3. niblettes says:

    Agreed–where there’s no conversation there’s no progress (I read that in a Bazooka Joe gum wrapper last week 🙂

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