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How Is China Different? Insights For Effective Chinese Packaging
Feb 07, 2017

China’s economy has grown seven times as fast as America’s over the last ten years, and the urban middle class alone is bigger than the entire US population today. Perception Research Services (PRS) has been conducting packaging and shopper research studies in the consumer power house that China’s economy has grown seven times as fast as America’s over the last ten years, and the urban middle class alone is bigger than the entire US population today. Perception Research Services (PRS) has been conducting packaging and shopper research studies in the consumer power house that is China for over twenty years. And of course, there is no single formula for packaging success in China, but we have learnt that the most successful packaging design takes two things into consideration. The first is by recognising the consistent, global challenges facing nearly all packaging systems and the second is by factoring in the unique dynamics of the Chinese market.

Starting with the Commonalities 

It is tempting to look first for the differences that distinguish China from other countries. However marketers and agencies are best-served by grounding themselves in the common challenges that packaging faces across all markets. 

Specifically, whether in Beijing, Buenos Aires or Boston, an effective packaging system must typically; break through retail clutter to create attention and recognition, be easily shop-able to help people quickly and accurately find the right product, connect on a visceral level to engage and appeal to shoppers, convey key information to differentiate from competition and ultimately close sale and perform on a functional level to work in store and within people’s lives and homes.

These core principles serve as a good starting point for developing effective packaging in China (or any country). However, this is not an argument for global uniformity in packaging - we’ve typically found that the packaging with a single global design is unlikely to meet all of these objectives across many different markets. This is due to major variations across countries in shoppers, retail environments and competitors, all of which are important to consider in a Chinese context.     

Who is the Chinese Shopper?

Many full-length books have been dedicated to this subject – and there are always limitations in generalizing (and condensing), particularly across a country of China’s size and diversity.   With that said, we can offer a few observations, particularly regarding younger and more affluent shoppers (in Shanghai and other more developed Western cities): 

• They are very open to considering new products and influenced by well-known Western brands and design. 

Thus, packaging is far more than a vessel to protect and transport the product. It is often an explicit driver of product choice and in some categories, a vehicle for personal expression of status, prestige and luxury – and especially important for presents.    

• They are very digital and technology-savvy.  

The implication of this is that packaging often needs to be considered (and developed) in the larger context of the path-to-purchase. This may include online pre-planning and/or the use of mobile devices and digital content in-store. In cities like Shanghai, certain categories sell up to 50% of their products online on portals like Taobao.

• They can be very skeptical of product quality.  

So, packaging (particularly for foods/beverages) needs to provide key reassurances of ingredients, of sourcing, of quality, etc.  

Research that PRS recently carried out found that compared to shoppers in other countries, Chinese consumers consistently rated global brands and packaging far lower on dimensions such as quality and trust.  This suggests that there is an opportunity for global brands, to more effectively highlight quality reassurances on pack, and build trust.

Walking down the aisle

Beyond the shoppers themselves, a second important dimension to consider is the retail environment.   That’s because the shelf context and competitive set have a direct impact on how people see and react to packaging.  In other words, what breaks through clutter in one store may fail to do so in another. 
Here, the Chinese market presents many considerations and challenges, including:  

• Very pronounced differences across cities.

Across categories, the competitors and shelf sets in Shanghai will vary significantly from those in Guangzhou (or Beijing, or Harbin), to a far greater degree than that seen in other countries (i.e. New York vs. Dallas – or perhaps Southern vs. Northern Italy).   

• A divide between Hypermarkets vs. Convenience (or Traditional Trade). 
These different channels place varying demands on packaging, as they link to different shopping experiences and mindsets, shelf sets and pack forms or sizes.   

• The presence of in-aisle promoters. 

While these people can facilitate shopping, they also hold the potential to distract, and they significantly impact the shopping experience and the role of packaging.   

Taken collectively, these points suggest that Chinese packaging needs to work across a wide range of contexts.   Therefore, it is often wise to design with flexibility/customization in mind, so that designs can be modified to work within different situations and structures.      

Focusing on the Pack  

Finally, we’ve looked at Chinese packaging itself and can share several general observations. 

• Chinese packs typically feature more text than packs in other markets.

Overall, a ‘more is more’ mentality permeates, as it does in many Asian markets.   Of course, much of this is driven by cultural norms and expectations:  a very simple appearance tends to signal ‘basic’ or ‘downscale’ in China.
    
However, there are challenges in practice, as cluttered packaging creates difficulty in the aisle:   In fact, when we reviewed our database, one striking finding was that Chinese shoppers were typically taking much longer than people in other countries to find specific products/SKUs in aisle.   
While this may be linked to limited familiarity (faced with many new brands/products), we suspect that it is also driven by the overwhelming amount of copy on many packs.  Clearly, there is certainly an opportunity to ensure that packaging better facilities shopping, particularly in complex product categories such as health and beauty.    

• Chinese packs often feature a balance of Chinese vs. Global branding (and messaging)

Often, we see that packaging directly reflects marketers’ attempts to leverage the power of global brands (such as Budweiser and Coca-Cola), while also conveying relevance to Chinese shoppers.  Here, it is difficult to generalize, as the right strategy often varies by brand.   

We can offer the following reminder:  it is important to remember that FMCG packs are often very small and are often considered within 5 seconds.  Thus, trying to say and do too much may compromise clarity.   Often, marketers are better served by focusing on a single clear branding message on their packaging and leveraging other in-store elements such as displays and promotions to convey local relevance. Similarly, they are better off conveying key product information visually, rather than repeating information in multiple languages on a front panel.  

Driving Packaging Excellence in China  

The likelihood of packaging success in China is increased by both recognizing the global pillars of effective packaging, and understanding the Chinese market. And finally, brands can benefit substantially by instilling the right processes for packaging development and consumer research, which include, studying the retail context at the outset of design efforts, developing and screening new packaging ideas within shelf context, to gauge if they are visually impactful and easily shop-able and simulating and testing the introduction of new packaging on shelf, to see how shoppers react and behave (rather than asking shoppers to compare option and become designers).

Brands, marketers and designers that follow these best practices – and invest the time and resources to understand the Chinese shopper and store – will be well-rewarded with packaging that drives sales.is China for over twenty years. And of course, there is no single formula for packaging success in China, but we have learnt that the most successful packaging design takes two things into consideration. The first is by recognising the consistent, global challenges facing nearly all packaging systems and the second is by factoring in the unique dynamics of the Chinese market.


Starting with the Commonalities 

It is tempting to look first for the differences that distinguish China from other countries. However marketers and agencies are best-served by grounding themselves in the common challenges that packaging faces across all markets. 

Specifically, whether in Beijing, Buenos Aires or Boston, an effective packaging system must typically; break through retail clutter to create attention and recognition, be easily shop-able to help people quickly and accurately find the right product, connect on a visceral level to engage and appeal to shoppers, convey key information to differentiate from competition and ultimately close sale and perform on a functional level to work in store and within people’s lives and homes.

These core principles serve as a good starting point for developing effective packaging in China (or any country). However, this is not an argument for global uniformity in packaging - we’ve typically found that the packaging with a single global design is unlikely to meet all of these objectives across many different markets. This is due to major variations across countries in shoppers, retail environments and competitors, all of which are important to consider in a Chinese context.     

Who is the Chinese Shopper?

Many full-length books have been dedicated to this subject – and there are always limitations in generalizing (and condensing), particularly across a country of China’s size and diversity.   With that said, we can offer a few observations, particularly regarding younger and more affluent shoppers (in Shanghai and other more developed Western cities): 

• They are very open to considering new products and influenced by well-known Western brands and design. 

Thus, packaging is far more than a vessel to protect and transport the product. It is often an explicit driver of product choice and in some categories, a vehicle for personal expression of status, prestige and luxury – and especially important for presents.    

• They are very digital and technology-savvy.  

The implication of this is that packaging often needs to be considered (and developed) in the larger context of the path-to-purchase. This may include online pre-planning and/or the use of mobile devices and digital content in-store. In cities like Shanghai, certain categories sell up to 50% of their products online on portals like Taobao.

• They can be very skeptical of product quality.  

So, packaging (particularly for foods/beverages) needs to provide key reassurances of ingredients, of sourcing, of quality, etc.  

Research that PRS recently carried out found that compared to shoppers in other countries, Chinese consumers consistently rated global brands and packaging far lower on dimensions such as quality and trust.  This suggests that there is an opportunity for global brands, to more effectively highlight quality reassurances on pack, and build trust.

Walking down the aisle

Beyond the shoppers themselves, a second important dimension to consider is the retail environment.   That’s because the shelf context and competitive set have a direct impact on how people see and react to packaging.  In other words, what breaks through clutter in one store may fail to do so in another. 
Here, the Chinese market presents many considerations and challenges, including:  

• Very pronounced differences across cities.

Across categories, the competitors and shelf sets in Shanghai will vary significantly from those in Guangzhou (or Beijing, or Harbin), to a far greater degree than that seen in other countries (i.e. New York vs. Dallas – or perhaps Southern vs. Northern Italy).   

• A divide between Hypermarkets vs. Convenience (or Traditional Trade). 
These different channels place varying demands on packaging, as they link to different shopping experiences and mindsets, shelf sets and pack forms or sizes.   

• The presence of in-aisle promoters. 

While these people can facilitate shopping, they also hold the potential to distract, and they significantly impact the shopping experience and the role of packaging.   

Taken collectively, these points suggest that Chinese packaging needs to work across a wide range of contexts.   Therefore, it is often wise to design with flexibility/customization in mind, so that designs can be modified to work within different situations and structures.      

Focusing on the Pack  

Finally, we’ve looked at Chinese packaging itself and can share several general observations. 

• Chinese packs typically feature more text than packs in other markets.

Overall, a ‘more is more’ mentality permeates, as it does in many Asian markets.   Of course, much of this is driven by cultural norms and expectations:  a very simple appearance tends to signal ‘basic’ or ‘downscale’ in China.
    
However, there are challenges in practice, as cluttered packaging creates difficulty in the aisle:   In fact, when we reviewed our database, one striking finding was that Chinese shoppers were typically taking much longer than people in other countries to find specific products/SKUs in aisle.   
While this may be linked to limited familiarity (faced with many new brands/products), we suspect that it is also driven by the overwhelming amount of copy on many packs.  Clearly, there is certainly an opportunity to ensure that packaging better facilities shopping, particularly in complex product categories such as health and beauty.    

• Chinese packs often feature a balance of Chinese vs. Global branding (and messaging)

Often, we see that packaging directly reflects marketers’ attempts to leverage the power of global brands (such as Budweiser and Coca-Cola), while also conveying relevance to Chinese shoppers.  Here, it is difficult to generalize, as the right strategy often varies by brand.   

We can offer the following reminder:  it is important to remember that FMCG packs are often very small and are often considered within 5 seconds.  Thus, trying to say and do too much may compromise clarity.   Often, marketers are better served by focusing on a single clear branding message on their packaging and leveraging other in-store elements such as displays and promotions to convey local relevance. Similarly, they are better off conveying key product information visually, rather than repeating information in multiple languages on a front panel.  

Driving Packaging Excellence in China  

The likelihood of packaging success in China is increased by both recognizing the global pillars of effective packaging, and understanding the Chinese market. And finally, brands can benefit substantially by instilling the right processes for packaging development and consumer research, which include, studying the retail context at the outset of design efforts, developing and screening new packaging ideas within shelf context, to gauge if they are visually impactful and easily shop-able and simulating and testing the introduction of new packaging on shelf, to see how shoppers react and behave (rather than asking shoppers to compare option and become designers).

Brands, marketers and designers that follow these best practices – and invest the time and resources to understand the Chinese shopper and store – will be well-rewarded with packaging that drives sales.