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Want success in China? Be a Manchester United, not a Chelsea

With almost 1.4bn consumers, it’s not just Premier League clubs that are eager for success in China – many UK businesses see the country as a huge growth opportunity. But there's a right and a wrong way to enter the market, as Chelsea FC found out the hard way.
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However, while there is increasing appetite for Western brands (particularly those from Britain), winning new fans and success in China isn’t always straightforward.

Chelsea discovered this first hand during their recent pre-season visit when two ill-advised Instagram posts from Kenedy, one of their youth team stars, landed the club in hot water. 

I won’t repeat exactly what he said here (it was widely reported in the media in any case) – the key point is that he was widely perceived to have insulted China as a nation, causing a national backlash and multiple official apologies from player and club.

There was even talk of the government enforcing a media blackout, ending all domestic coverage of Chelsea.

There is no reason to doubt Kenedy’s claim that he did not intend to cause any offence. His mistake, to Chelsea’s cost, was a lack of awareness of China’s cultural sensitivities and differences.

Dolce & Gabbana recently had the same problem – it was accused of showing “contempt” with its recent, “edgy” advertising campaign which juxtaposed smartly dressed “new” Chinese models against “traditional” settings in Beijing.  

This is common amongst companies trying to enter this market for the first time – they are simply not used to the type of national pride felt in China. Yes, China has a growing middle class, a more adventurous “millennial” generation and is more accessible than ever thanks to the surge in its social media usage.

But assuming that you can simply replicate your existing go to market strategy will lead to either a false start or, even worse, a complete failure to launch success in China.

This isn’t a problem for Chelsea’s league rivals Manchester United, who overtook Bayern Munich earlier this year to become the most popular football team in China. Here are some of the main lessons businesses can learn from the club’s approach to building its Chinese following.

Engage, don’t broadcast

United midfielder Juan Mata has endeared himself to fans the world over with his multilingual blog posts talking about recent performances and other things he’s been up to and is signed off “Hugs, Juan”. You won’t be surprised to learn that his dedicated Chinese language blog has won local hearts too.

Localisation means more than just a straight translation of your English language materials for a Chinese audience. Time spent understanding your target demographics and early adopters and making an effort to engage with them on their terms is a very worthwhile investment.

And with social listening you can get helpful feedback without even setting foot in the country. For example, WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform, has an Index feature that allows you to see how many people are using certain keywords associated with your product or company. 

Partner up

Last year Manchester United began a long-term partnership with Sina Sports, China’s largest digital sports media platform, giving them exclusive rights to its TV channel MUTV.

Even a world-famous sports brand can’t do it all alone – from marketing to logistics, finding the right domestic partners can help you to get a solid foothold as you benefit from their local knowledge and contacts.

Be patient

Launching a product or service nationally in a small country like the UK is relatively straight forward. But, much like in the world of sport, overnight success in China is rare.

The sheer geographical size and diversity of China mean that you have to be in it for the long haul, both in terms of recruiting a knowledgeable local team and being patient in waiting for demand to mature.

The latter is especially important if you are introducing a relatively new concept or product type – you may have to think creatively to shape new trends and influence tastes.

One final tip – be nice! When it comes to building your business success in China, try to be a Manchester United, not a Chelsea, and certainly not a Kenedy!

Arnold Ma is CEO of China-focused digital marketing agency Qumin

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