What Drives Chinese Consumers to Find New Products (Hint: It’s Not TV Ads)

Brands analyst Ellyn Briggs unpacks how Chinese consumers interact with different shopping channels
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Kelly Rice
August 02, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Online search and in-store browsing are the dominant channels for product discovery and purchase among Chinese adults, but social media advertisements also inspire large shares of shoppers.

  • Overall, Chinese adults discover products and make purchases in ways similar to that of U.S. Gen Zers, per data collected in a separate Morning Consult survey.

  • Brands considering entry into China should feel reassured by the synergies between these two audiences, as it provides marketers with an existing set of guidelines to test and learn within.

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Brands across the globe have long seen China as a market ripe for investment, a sentiment that’s only gained traction since the country dropped all COVID-19 restrictions at the beginning of the year. The renewed interest begs the question: What’s the best way to reach Chinese consumers in 2023? 

According to a new Morning Consult survey of 1,000 Chinese adults with access to the Internet, it’s decidedly not through traditional TV advertising. Despite high TV usage in China, the ad format ranked last out of seven tested channels when respondents were asked how they most frequently find or shop for products. Instead, online and in-store shopping were the most popular, followed closely by personalized moments on social media, including live shopping events and recommendations from friends or influencers.

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The responses of Chinese adults closely mirrored that of U.S. Gen Zers, who were asked a similar question in separate research. The latter group also identified sponsored social media content as a significantly more meaningful product discovery channel than TV ads. This parity means U.S. brands looking to establish or improve connections with Chinese consumers can leverage their existing youth playbook as a solid starting point. 

Like U.S. Gen Zers, Chinese adults are very online 

About three-fourths of Chinese adults said they spend between two and four hours per day on social media. This puts their levels of social media usage much closer to that of U.S. Gen Zers — a majority of whom spend more than four hours daily on social platforms — than of all U.S. adults. 

So naturally, social media plays a large role in product discovery for Chinese consumers, just behind online search and in-store shopping.

Digital Formats Drive Product Discovery for Most Chinese Adults

Share of all Chinese adults who said they “often” or “sometimes” find or shop for products via the following channels:
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Survey conducted June 20-27, 2023 among a representative sample of 1,000 Chinese adults with access to the internet, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.

Chinese adults and U.S. Gen Zers may spend similarly large amounts of time on social media, but one feature of social media usage that is still decidedly Chinese is live shopping, where creators promote products through a real-time online video feed from which consumers can directly purchase.

Of the 74% of Chinese respondents who said they shop for products via these online events, 25% do so “often,” highlighting the particularly engaging nature of the format. In China, live shopping hosts are often charismatic online content creators with their own unique personal brands and celebrity-like status, so watching them demonstrate a product in real-time can be a fun and meaningful experience for their followers. 

However, employing megastars with established followings can be extremely expensive. For this reason, American brands looking to expand in China may consider building out their own livestream channels leveraging lesser-known hosts, who are trained by and accessible through China’s many professional talent agencies, to share stories on their behalf. This approach offers balance, allowing brands to dip their toes in China’s established live shopping ecosystem while ensuring any produced content is brand- rather than host-focused.

Just as they would do when using influencers in the United States, marketers should ensure the backgrounds and interests of any selected Chinese live shopping hosts are well-aligned with their brand to ensure messaging authenticity. Some companies, including Apple, have already seen success adopting this kind of strategy in China. 

To China and back

Ultimately, live shopping isn’t wildly different from the popular influencer content that drives purchasing among U.S. Gen Zers today. Sponsored “haul” and “get ready with me” videos share many of the same characteristics as a live shopping event — creators talking to the camera, tutorials and product reviews. They just don’t happen in real time. And while appropriate localization is crucial to the success of any international marketing effort, brands should feel empowered knowing that many existing Gen Z learnings can be applied, at least in part, to reach Chinese consumers. 

Beyond live shopping, social media remains an important part of the path to purchase for Chinese adults in other ways — namely via recommendations posted by friends and influencers. These, alongside sponsored posts on social media, drive larger shares of Chinese adults to find or shop for products than do traditional TV ads. 

China’s economy and broader consumer culture developed alongside the internet. And as each generation becomes more prosperous, more Chinese adults are using shopping for new products as a way to define their identity — and are looking to online content for guidance along the way. These factors mean digital ad formats will likely continue to dominate legacy ones in the country.

To reach Chinese consumers, brands should do much like they would to reach young consumers in America: Be very, very online — with the added elements of leveraging live streaming when possible and paying close attention to changing restrictions and geopolitical events that can disrupt consumer behavior.

A headshot photograph of Ellyn Briggs
Ellyn Briggs
Brands Analyst

Ellyn Briggs is a brands analyst on the Industry Intelligence team, where she conducts research, authors analyst notes and advises brand and marketing leaders on how to apply insights to make better business decisions. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Ellyn worked as a market researcher and brand strategist in both agency and in-house settings. She graduated from American University with a bachelor’s degree in finance. For speaking opportunities and booking requests, please email [email protected].

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