Presentation by Simon Lang at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing

November 24, 2015

Educating tomorrow’s decision makers on cultural notions

The culture club of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) in Beijing invited Simon Lang, researcher at MERICS, and Michael Hamalainen, Assistant Director and Japan Business Services representative of the Financial Services Office of Ernst & Young Hua Ming LLP, on November 24 to talk about transnational movements and social change.

According to the school, the graduate school’s alumni are leading one-fifth of China’s most valuable brands. One of the more prominent CKGSB-Alumni is Jack Ma, founder of the E-Commerce company Alibaba. CKGSB is supported by the Li Ka Shing Foundation. Li Ka Shing is the wealthiest and most prominent entrepreneur in Hong Kong. The school also runs campuses and teaching facilities in Shanghai, Shenzhen and New York and offers various MBA and Ph.D. programs.

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Why culture matters for businesses

Simon Lang from MERICS started the presentation by highlighting students’ cultural motives for going abroad by drawing on findings of his recent survey among Chinese outbound students conducted in 2015. He elaborated why culture and identities matter for choosing host countries and for staying abroad or returning to China. Popular culture e.g. portrayed in TV-series and movies motivate many to choose a specific host country for their studies abroad. On the other hand, many overseas students are coming back to China because they are missing the Chinese lifestyle.

Lang also talked about culture and its impact on marketing and for creating and maintaining successful multinational company cultures. He urged the audience to think about their focus group’s diverse and changing identities instead of assuming that there is only one homogeneous “national culture”. According to Lang, age, class, gender and various other factors are as decisive for optimizing communication as language and nationality. Advertisements meant to address an elderly woman living in a rural area have to use different images and phrases than e.g. those used to attract young urbanites. 

Hamalainen compared his time in Japan to his stay China and by analysing second meanings of images and symbols used in the respective countries. One of his examples included a failed marketing campaign in China advertising a Japanese SUV. While these off road cars are perceived as playful in Japan, they are seen as a symbol of masculine power in China. The campaign did not take heavily loaded cultural and historical implications into account and ultimately portrayed the vehicle as a force dominating China.

Discussing on how to optimize business strategies by taking identities into account

During the discussion the audience expressed particular interest in similarities and differences of German and Japanese culture and in intercultural conflicts within companies in China and abroad. Many participants also wondered why certain advertising campaigns fail to take the Chinese cultural context into account. Final discussions focussed on how these companies could potentially be more successful by improving their campaigns with a focus on Chinese culture. Participants concluded that target group research is extremely important and that strategies have to consider demographics and other factors and not only focus on “national cultures”.