As more and more healthcare and pharma companies expand into China, everyone is looking for an edge when it comes to getting the attention of potential consumers. One study that’s really intrigued us at aiaTranslations suggests some unusual linguistics-based strategies.
Among the most striking ideas the study proposes is using print ads and material that correlate to a word’s classifier — a short word that indicates something about the nature of an object, common in Mandarin and many other Asian languages. Participants were shown print ads featuring objects associated with the classifier ba (graspable). Some merely showed the product while others included hands grasping them. Participants preferred the images that included the hands. To show this wasn’t a fluke, the researchers asked a control group of Japanese speakers, whose language’s classifiers aren’t the same, if they preferred images with or without hands. Here, there was no difference in appeal.
Those results are intriguing, but there are some cracks in this study’s shiny façade. When you read closely, you’ll see the that this particular experiment was only conducted on 40 native Chinese speakers, an infinitesimal percentage of the country’s massive population. Another experiment included in the study was conducted on 183 young Shanghai residents who were at least familiar with English. This group also represents only a small portion of the overall Chinese population and market, and may be downright irrelevant for healthcare companies who want to target seniors.
Another potential issue is that the authors of the study state that their research is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (also known as the Whorfian hypothesis, or plain old Whorfianism), which basically proposes that one’s language influences how they view the world. The theory (which I’ve discussed in another post) may hold some (very small and probably insignificant) grains of truth, but it’s an enormous source of contention among linguists and other specialists. Studies have shown results that both prove and disprove it.
There’s no doubt that Whorfianism is an interesting way to look at human thought. But as the theory’s opponents argue, it’s also dangerously limiting. By saying people can only understand or relate to concepts that can be verbally expressed in their language, you isolate us all from each other. Plus, practical evidence seems to disprove it. For example, take the Portuguese term saudade, a longing for lost or imaginary, never-to-be realized love. This term may not exist as a single word in other languages, but many of us have definitely felt it or can at least understand what it means, even if we don’t speak Portuguese.
With this in mind, another issue is that it’s not clear if the Chinese marketing study’s participants expressed why they preferred the images with the hands. The print materials with and without hands are described as being “similar” in the study, but they weren’t identical. What if other variables were really what people were responding to? Perhaps the addition of a hand made the product better framed? Or maybe the participants liked seeing a hand because it made using the product seem more concrete to them? Because the study doesn’t include the images, there’s no way to even guess.
Another way the study applies Whorfianism to marketing is the way items are displayed in stores. the authors write that objects like “blow dryers, TV’s, radios, washing machines, computers” and other electronics are grouped together in Chinese stores based on their classifier, tai (electronic and mechanical equipment). The study claims that this is not how such items are organized and displayed in America and seems to imply that it may not be the case in any country where Mandarin isn’t spoken.
But displaying these electronics together makes sense in many cultures, doesn’t it? I’ve been to American department stores where the electronics take up a few aisles and are grouped this way. And let’s not forget the existence of hole-in-the-wall discount electronics shops. I can personally say both of these display scenarios are the same in France, as well as several other European places I’ve visited.
Ultimately, could a Whorfian approach to marketing give companies the edge in China? I haven’t found any other study or report to back this up or even refute it. This is especially surprising considering how much is written and analyzed about marketing in China – you can even find websites and consulting firms that deal exclusively with this domain.
On the other hand, as I’ve discussed before, some strategies do seem like sure things – and are even downright vital. These include localization, PR, and, especially, establishing consumer trust.
All of this goes hand in hand with knowing your market. If you feel confident that you do, and also believe in Whorfianism, why not give some print material based on classifiers a try? Otherwise, sticking to the basics and examining success stories are probably your best bet when it comes to conquering the Chinese healthcare market.
by Alysa Salzberg