We began a new set of classwork this week. Instead of management, we had a new teacher who would be telling us about marketing in China. The first two classes on this subject involved learning a bit about China’s layout, with many areas divided into special zones based on the government’s plans for the area. We also learned about the structure and hierarchy of China’s government.

We were also taught about the sort of buyers the Chinese people are; they prefer to buy high-quality, long-lasting goods, and are willing to pay a little extra to get those qualities. And while they generally associate high quality with foreign brands, this does not hold true for household products, where the Chinese tend to choose local brands.

Additionally, we learned about how some companies have succeeded in China by adapting themselves to Chinese preferences and tastes. Allow me to provide some contrasting examples we were given in class. McDonald’s, a classic American food chain, came to China with virtually the exact same strategies and menu items as in America, and they are struggling. The youth like going to it, as they want to taste Western experiences, but on the whole the Chinese just aren’t that wild about beef.

In contrast, KFC is a big hit in China, yet if you walk into one, the Colonel’s famous fried chicken is nowhere on the menu – it’s all Chinese foods, though some with a bit of a new take. Adapting the menu to suit the Chinese has worked very well for them.

Seeing the stark difference between two strong brands in the U.S., and how vast the gap between their successes in China is with their different approaches, made it clear how important it is for a business to be culturally relevant.

It’s ironic, really – the more global a company becomes, the more local it has to become to keep doing business. In today’s increasingly globalized world, countries and people everywhere cling ever more tightly to their heritage, culture, and traditions to avoid losing their identities to a homogeneous world. And if a business wants to succeed internationally, it must align its identity with the identity of its local customers.

Fun at the Park (and More Cultural Relevance)

The next day, instead of class we got to go on the best company visit yet – an amusement park! Woohoo! We got on a bus early to go to Ocean Park, a park in Hong Kong that has an aquarium, several habitats for land animals, water rides, rollercoasters… it has a little bit of everything!

Our meeting was with the park’s CEO, a man who is from America and has been managing Ocean Park since 2004. His presentation reinforced the previous day’s lessons on the importance of paying attention to the local culture when doing business.

He told us that when he came to the park, it was in dire straits. Attendance was down, and Disney was about to build a Disneyland in Hong Kong that looked to draw in their audience. Rather than competing head-to-head with the financial giant that is Disney, the new CEO decided to reposition the park into something different from Disneyland.

The CEO realized that Disney was inherently a foreign thing, whereas Ocean Park had been in Hong Kong since the ‘70s. He and his team spent time in the park and the city learning about the current culture of Hong Kong. They retooled the park in a Hong Kong style and ran advertisements and promotions that used aspects of Hong Kong’s culture and tied them to the park.

One important thing he learned about the citizens of Hong Kong is that they are eager to try new experiences, but only one time, after which they seek out the next new thing to do. Cirque du Soleil, for example, sold out its first year in Hong Kong, but the very next year they could not even give away seats. The city simply had an “already seen that” attitude.

Ocean Park overcomes this attitude by constantly changing things up at the park. One of their biggest events is their annual Halloween bash (which is a HUGE deal in Hong Kong and packs the park). Every year, the haunted houses and ghouls wandering the park are entirely different, making it a new experience every time. And it all worked like crazy.

Ocean Park’s attendance in 2010 was a record high of 5.8 million visitors. Disneyland, maintaining its Main Street, USA feel just like back in the States, is struggling. Tellingly, Disney’s next park will be built in Shanghai, and they plan to do the park in a Shanghai style rather than American – appealing to the local culture like Ocean Park has done.

After an excellent lesson in the importance of appealing to your local market in business, we were free to roam the park the rest of the day. Hong Kong’s rainy summers showed itself with an intermittent drizzling throughout the day, but we didn’t let that stop us! We saw some neat fish and interesting animals, and a few of us endured the long lines on the rides.

My favorite animal in the park was easily the pandas. I’d never seen one with my own two eyes before, so I was excited to get an up-close look at an animal I’d always associated so closely with China. Turns out they’re pretty lazy – most of them spent apparently the whole day snoozing, with a little bit of bamboo munching mixed in. I was tired from rising early to get to the park, so I think I understood them a bit!

We also rode one of Ocean Park’s classic attractions, the cable car. The park is made up of two separate areas connected by a cable car and a fast train. The cable car ride practically defined the phrase “the scenic route.” You could see out in every direction from the little pod, and the cables ran along the coastline, so it afforded a great view of nearby Repulse Bay.

Mustangs Abroad

After having a blast at Ocean Park all day, we urged our sore feet onward a little longer to head to one more event for the day. I didn’t realize this until we were told about it, but Hong Kong is home to a decent number of SMU graduates, and through their common bond of being Mustangs, they stay in touch with each other in the city and occasionally get together. They were having an alumni gathering, and we had been invited along as well.

We headed to a bar in the Soho district to meet the alums and had a blast. The SMU alums were all great, really friendly people. They told us about how they’d ended up in Hong Kong, the work they were doing, and what it was like to live and work abroad as an expat.

They impressed upon us how important an experience working abroad can be for a person’s career. Aside from the personal opportunity to live somewhere new and travel to other nearby places (the Hong Kong alums told us about recent trips they’d taken to other countries nearby like Thailand and Vietnam), having experience abroad can give a person a leg up on the competitors for future jobs.

It was very comforting to realize that wherever I end up after I graduate, I’ll find other SMU graduates wherever I go, and our common experience of having gone to SMU will give us a bond, and give me friends all over the world.