The childhood of Design Hotpot went really well, and it grew much over my best expectations. I had many interesting feedbacks by readers coming from all over the world, and to conclude this phase I want to summarize the great opinions I collected in these months.
China is fast, and this is not just a cliché. I was away for six months and when I got back many things were not as I remembered. What really impressed me was the margin of penetration of social apps like Wechat. I’ll give you an anecdote. Like most of the residential compounds, on the first floor of my building there’s a small [around 20 square meters] convenient store with some beverages, junk food and some fruits. Nearly all of these business are family-run. Till last year it was common for them to receive phone calls from customers and deliver to your apartment. Conversations were somehow awkward because they usually didn’t provide customers with any list of their goods and people could only stick to the few goods they could recall. Now they developed their own e-commerce platform on a public account of Wechat, where you can go trough their commodities and directly order whatever you like by simply clicking on the list. A reader argued that one big drawback for Wechat to be a success on the international market is that it is subject to Chinese censorship, even outside China. I personally do not think censorship is a big deal for european or american kids, Wechat’s main target in those markets, because they most likely won’t see it at all. In three years of using it I have never experienced my messages to be blocked or not delivered for using sensitive words. European or American kids are most likely not discussing about Lin Biao or the Diaoyu islands. The only problem for Wechat could be its complexity: Chinese are more used to complex website with tightly packed home pages and multi-features app, while Westerners prefer cleaner layouts and straightforward interfaces.
The radical upgrade of the convenient store in my building was due to the unbelievably broad use of 3G smartphones. This was also thanks to local producers like Xiaomi, that with products like Hongmi, which sells for only 700RMB, managed to provide mobile internet connectivity to lower social classes. A reader wondered how long Xiaomi can operate by selling hardware at a loss, because if long tail profit strategy like theirs is not unique, it certainly is for such a young company. He also pointed out that without experienced Western senior management who are given strategic decision making authority, most of the Chinese brands will struggle to make major inroads on top tier markets. Doesn’t matter the industry, when competing in a consumer market, you must deeply understand the consumer in his/her cultural contexts. Competition is not the problem. A lack of cultural understanding is. This needs qualitative as well as quantitative research. Problem is that corporate decision makers can not only rely on numbers, and until they get out of the boardroom and down to the street level where their customers live, they’ll continue to rely on blunt force tactics like undervaluing their goods and spending on celebrity endorsements to increase market share. However Xiaomi proved they perfectly understand the issue by hiring Hugo Barra, and their marketing strategy focused on social media proves that they don’t rely on mere boardroom numbers, at least in China. I think their smaller size, compared to that of Huawei and ZTE, can be an advantage in terms of avoiding becoming the target of foreign policies. Huawei’s and ZTE’s ties to the Chinese government surely didn’t help their plan of expansion in the Western markets. Everything makes me quite optimist about Xiaomi’s future.
An other reader questioned why most of Chinese luxury brands only focus on first tier markets, and wondered if they are forgetting small countries like Lebanon, and other Middle East countries, where there is no prejudgment against Chinese products. These second tier markets are sometimes highly populated and could prove profitable to Chinese companies looking to expand beyond the boundaries of the Celestial Empire. The reason why the focus is being put on first tier markets like Western Europe and North America is because the globalization of Chinese companies is both business- and government-motivated. It’s in the government’s interest to essentially build national champions or companies in select number of industries that can really build and be globally competitive over the long term in international markets. Not only does this help with the companies themselves but also helps with gradually expanding China’s soft power in these international markets. By venturing overseas, Chinese companies are looking to develop advanced technology and management that will make them not only more sophisticated internationally, but also more competitive domestically. As an other reader said, China is now trying to rebalance economy away from industrial production towards circular consumer society; branding, image and perception becomes much more important, with original design manufacturing [ODM] being the core of the transformation. In the past couple of decades Korea succeeded in importing European designers and Chinese companies are now trying their best to buy up foreign talents.
My post about creative education in China have sparked a lot of discussion. One reader with long experience in Chinese creative field said he always encounters problems in finding creative people all over the planet, but when doing projects in China it is close to impossible to sit around the table with a team and do a creative session. He interestingly tied this problem with the deeply hierarchical working environment in China, where somehow it is not an option to say so if you don’t like an idea, and when talking to a superior it seems just as impossible to tell your own ideas and your visions. Creativity only works when there is one person in charge making the decisions and basically telling the others what to do. Once they start talking most Chinese can be just as creative as the people in any other country. Focus should not be on creativity itself, but on how to be creative and open for creativity in a team and for a company. However, he feels that in the next couple of years this might change rapidly.Good artistic environment is very important, and I do not think that innovations in the Chinese creative world will come from those who went to study overseas. China also has unique art and culture – examples such as the color of old comic book covers, old posters of Chinese fonts, old product packaging etc. These are an excellent art education in themselves and are waiting for someone who is able to revive artistic elements from these. Chinese developed one of the most refined and exquisite cuisine in the world and managed to keep it up-to-date with the changing of times, why wouldn’t they manage to develop a mature design industry from within?
P.S.: I’m sorry for not having updated Design Hotpot lately, but I moved back to Beijing and I got to look for a new apartment and deal with some bureaucracy. The apartment search was incredibly fast, in two days I was already comfortably sleeping in my new home, and already got the Temporary Residence Registration at the local police station. All this rush didn’t leave me the time to write. Now that I am settled in China, Design Hotpot hopes to enter a new phases. I am looking for contributors willing to take part in this project, documenting the swift between industrial production and original design manufacturing, that is going on in China. If you think you have something to say about it, or if you happen to know someone who could be interested, please get in touch with me. Peace.