In this unabashedly pop business book, Tom Doctoroff, head of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm in China, tells us What Chinese Want. Yet the implicit question is complex: what do the Chinese want for themselves? For their children? For China? And to answer the question coherently involves considerable psychological framework. Doctoroff is an ad guy -- so the question that lies squarely within his expertise might be: what does the Chinese consumer want to consume? And this question he begins to answer. He is less certain -- and less convincing -- when applying the insights he draws from Chinese consumption habits to the more mysterious nature of Chinese culture, politics and foreign policy.
I suppose we can learn something meaningful about the Chinese from studying their patterns of material consumption -- even using the tools of an advertising executive. In some sense, Doctoroff's inquiry is an exercise in applied cultural anthropology -- though his ends are more instrumental than scientific. So which firms are doing well in China -- and what do their successful adaptations suggest?
Starbucks, Doctoroff tells us, has configured larger stores in China which serve as group meeting places. The Chinese consumer would not pay the equivalent for $4.00 for a cup of coffee for private consumption (this may reveal the inherent cross-elasticity of Starbucks coffee and ubiquitous hot tea). The consumer will do so, however, when observed by others; the Starbucks customer's extravagant expenditure for a latte is justified by a gain in social standing. And so by facilitating the prospect of mutual observation -- by providing large, welcoming meeting spaces -- Starbucks sells coffee in China.