Why China’s emerging cities matter to your Western brand

When you’re a Western brand looking to build your market in China, it’s important to target your marketing efforts carefully, especially where geography is concerned. After all, unless you’re a vast global multinational with a bottomless budget, it simply won’t be possible to span your advertising efforts effectively across China as a whole!

But with the right targeting, it becomes perfectly possible to find your target audience in China and to engage with them effectively using channels and methods that are proven to work.

What to know about city tiers

With this in mind, something that Western marketers need to be aware of is the concept of tier cities in China, which helps to categorise the 600 or so cities across the country. Tier 1 cities have populations that exceed 15 million people, Tier 2 cities have between 3-15 million and Tier 3 cities have 150,000 to 3 million citizens. But the tier system doesn’t end there, because the Chinese government uses a categorisation system of up to 20 different tiers, and this system is constantly evolving.

The changing face of emerging cities

The tier categorisation system for cities was originally based primarily on financial metrics (such as GDP) to guide overseas investment. However, other factors have since been incorporated, such as Western brand penetration, that demonstrate the attractiveness of these city markets.

Although some of these lower-tier cities may have originally been seen as less of a priority to Western marketers, they are now becoming highly attractive. Their populations tend to be younger, economically mobile, socially aspirational and increasingly sophisticated. Infrastructure in these cities is also constantly evolving, making it easier for Western brands to build successful businesses there. Equally, these cities are ripe for the picking because there is less market penetration from existing brands – so smart new brands can rapidly gain a foothold with the right strategy. Research also suggests that emerging Chinese cities have significant economic clout. For example, Morgan Stanley estimated that lower-tier cities will have a collective consumer spending power of US$6.9 trillion by 2030!

How can marketers use the concept of Chinese city tiers?

China is such a huge, complex and fragmented market that it’s impossible to apply broad-brush marketing strategies with success. The city tier system allows marketers to concentrate on regional locations that they might have overwise been overlooked and to identify characteristics in emerging cities that may make them a great fit for their products and services.

Western marketers can use the city tier system to identify potential emerging cities for their brands, especially if they wish to gain an early-advantage foothold in a fast-growing, exciting market without strong existing competition. In emerging cities where young people have growing incomes and the desire to buy high-quality Western brands, there is the chance to access evolving infrastructure, technologies and desires from these customers, and align your brand’s messages with their wants and values accordingly.

Marketing your brand in an emerging city

If your market research has identified that a lower-tier city in China represents an attractive prospect for your brand, it will be important to tailor your marketing strategy to that specific city, meeting the needs of that city’s audience and responding to local factors. For example:

  • In lower-tier or emerging cities, customers may be highly motivated to buy luxury goods and Western products, but they may welcome more information than customers in higher-tier cities. This can be achieved with product tutorials, careful messaging, explainers and relationships with KOLs that support broader positioning efforts in a newer market.
  • Research needs to be targeted to take local tastes into consideration. Even where cities are ranked similarly, there will be a range of different factors that affect their markets, including exposure to international trends, cultural preferences, geography and socio-economic groupings.

Tips for successful marketing to an emerging Chinese city

Every brand will have its own approach, but these are the steps that we recommend for marketing your Western brand to customers in an emerging Chinese city:

1. Invest in your research

Using the Chinese tier system is your first step. Once you’ve identified target emerging cities in China, invest in primary research built around your specific needs. This will give you a deep understanding of your market, its characteristics, the competitive landscape, political factors, infrastructure and economics and your customer persona. With this data to hand, you can then build user personas for your digital marketing strategy, which will comprise a core aspect of your overall marketing strategy. A Chinese marketing agency such as Market Me China can assist you with this research, and then the development of your ongoing marketing strategy.

2. Think about social media and KOLs

Different customers in different cities tend to prefer different social media platforms, so although the ‘big three’ of WeChat, Weibo and Douyin (TikTok) are key, there may be other more localised or specialist social media platforms to consider (and remember that, in a market of 800 million internet users ‘small’ may not actually be that small at all!) Alongside your choice of social media platforms, consider which KOLs will work for your target audience, bearing in mind that some may have particular links to your target cities and particular power with local audiences.

3. Work on that content!

As with all Chinese digital marketing, your content is king – so really invest in quality, localised and targeted content that is designed to meet the unique needs of your emerging city audience. This might span anything from promotions in relation to a local festival or sponsorship of an event to targeted Baidu PPC advertising, local competitions, ePR and more. Always remember where your audience is in its customer journey and whether your content needs to build awareness, educate and engage, as well as remind and prompt!

Get the help you need

When you’re serious about helping your Western brand succeed in the challenging China market, maximise your chances of success with the right help! Market Me China is here to help you optimize your Chinese digital marketing strategy, and we work as flexible partners to your business to deliver exactly what you need in this exciting, lucrative market. From expert research to carefully managed campaigns, our native Chinese speakers will help your brand reach its target market in China with precision and measurable results. Please contact us to find out more.