Engaging Shanghai

Twenty years ago, I confidently entered the business world with a freshly minted master’s degree and doe-eyed optimism. Over the next few years, stints in politics, business and the recession of 1991 slowly adjusted my view of the world.
It only took one week in Shanghai recently to reshape my perspective.
Much has been written about the opportunities emerging in China. It is a country pulsing with energy, determination and focus. You are engulfed in it the moment you step off the plane into an airport that defies your expectation of what an airport can be – spacious, clean, beautiful, efficient – and hurtled into the city at 263 mph on a magnetic levitation train. China may still be a communist country, but there is some form of beauty in the trains running on time and every person you encounter taking pride in their work.
My focus in China was two-fold: develop relationships with agency leaders from communications firms throughout the globe and gain perspective on what opportunities might exist in China for my own agency. I was successful on the first front. I am uncertain about the latter.
But from a communications and marketing perspective, the China market is not so different from the world we know.
In the keynote address for the conference I was attending, James McGregor, an American expat who has been in China for 20 years, offered sage advice for those seeking to do business. Be patient. Demonstrate that what is good for your business is also good for China. And above all, think about the people you deal with as individuals, not as bureaucrats. If you take time to understand what can help them be successful – what matters to their boss, and their boss’s boss – then you are more likely to be successful. Listening is learning, and that is sound advice for communist and free market systems alike.
During our trip, we visited the World Expo (the modern day version of the World’s Fair) with hundreds of countries hosting giant pavilions to showcase their culture, music, food, art, history and commerce. There were fascinating exhibits, but they all paled in comparison to the stunning visual of more than 300,000 people a day crowding through the gates. Most pavilions had lines that made Disney at spring break seem like a ghost town, but without the reward of rides or games. The reward was knowledge and understanding, the desire to be engaged in a way that is not possible via television, radio or the Internet. The allure of touching, tasting, hearing and seeing a different world come to life was worth every minute that people experienced standing in line for two, three or four hours to enter a single pavilion.
On a more intimate scale, I witnessed the power of personal engagement. We heard before going to China that blonde-haired, blue-eyed children were popular. But nothing prepared us for the throngs of people who crowded around our young daughters, stopped them for pictures, reached out to touch their hair, gave thumbs up signs and watched until they disappeared into the next throng. It was wonderful, even if at times it was almost overwhelming.
Those experiences reinforced for me that even in an age when likely every person we met had seen blonde-haired children on television, magazines or billboards, there is something magical about connecting with them first-hand. The sight of my daughters stopped thousands of people in their tracks, and the ability to interact with them – for a photo, a smile, a touch – opened up their eyes to the world in a new and wondrous way.
Corporate brands need to harness that same type of power. To connect with people in a way that transcends words or images in an advertisement. Brands stand for something. They bring experiences, emotions and expectations to life — not just in China or the US, but around the world.