Even though they may be chasing many of the same Western brands, the motivations driving Chinese consumers to buy is not the same as it is in the United States. There was a fascinating article in yesterday's WSJ called What Chinese Consumers Want:
Luxury items are desired more as status investments than for their inherent beauty or craftsmanship. The Chinese are now the world's most avid luxury shoppers, at least if trips abroad to cities like Hong Kong and Paris are taken into account. According to Global Refund, a company specializing in tax-free shopping for tourists, the Chinese account for 15% of all luxury items purchased in France but less than 2% of its visitors.
Public display is also a critical consideration in how global brands are repositioning themselves to attract Chinese consumers. Despite China's tea culture, Starbucks successfully established itself as a public venue in which professional tribes gather to proclaim their affiliation with the new-generation elite. Both Pizza Hut and Häagen Dazs have built mega-franchises in China rooted in out-of-home consumption. (The $5 carton of vanilla to be eaten at home is a tough sell in China.)
The second rule is that the benefits of a product should be external, not internal. Even for luxury goods, celebrating individualism—with familiar Western notions like "what I want" and "how I feel"—doesn't work in China. Automobiles need to make a statement about a man on his way up. BMW, for example, has successfully fused its global slogan of the "ultimate driving machine" with a Chinese-style declaration of ambition.
Sometimes the difference between internal versus external payoffs can be quite subtle. Spas and resorts do better when they promise not only relaxation but also recharged batteries. Infant formulas must promote intelligence, not happiness. Kids aren't taken to Pizza Hut so that they can enjoy pizza; they are rewarded with academic "triumph feasts." Beauty products must help a woman "move forward." Even beer must do something. In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.
I've noticed this pattern in the past when Chinese acquaintances would purchase cell phones that cost the equivalent of a month’s salary. I found such outlays puzzling, but when understood in the context of the importance of public display in Chinese consumer culture they become easier to understand.