Marketing in the Middle Kingdom

May 18, 2012, 3:27 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Not unlike Wall Street, Western commentary on China tends to oscillate between extremes of fear and greed. The fear narrative: China is manipulating its currency, building up its military, oppressing its dissidents, and preparing to eat our economic and geopolitical lunch! The greed narrative: Yeah, but think of all those emerging middle class consumers, just itching to embrace our values and buy our stuff!

Both perspectives are rooted in ignorance of China, home to the world’s oldest civilization as well as its most dynamic modern economy. If we’re to coexist peacefully and even profitably with billions of Chinese, we need to understand their political, economic, and cultural choices. In short, we must develop the cultural empathy that will allow us to see the world through Chinese eyes.

That kind of empathy comes only from long, intimate experience with Chinese society. Enter Tom Doctoroff, an American advertising executive who has lived and worked in mainland China for the past 14 years. Doctoroff runs greater China operations for J. Walter Thompson and has also emerged as a go-to pundit for Western TV and radio producers seeking quick, sharp insight into Chinese behavior.

In What Chinese Want, Doctoroff presents an invaluable primer on the culture and buying patterns of the Chinese. Although he writes primarily for an audience of Western marketers seeking to reach Chinese consumers, his book should interest anyone who wants to understand what makes modern China tick.

An ad man at the end of the day, Doctoroff repeats his messages relentlessly, until they lodge in one’s cerebellum like a Coke jingle or a Maoist precept. His key points: Chinese crave security and fear chaos. Unlike Westerners, they define success primarily in terms of social recognition rather than self-actualization. They want to stand out while also fitting in. This influences all their buying choices, from cars to clothes, jewelry, and even tattoos.

According to Doctoroff, Chinese rarely challenge authority figures because their culture is rooted in Confucian respect for hierarchy. Their concepts of morality are relative, not absolute: Whatever promotes unity and social harmony is good, and anything that promotes instability is bad. For this reason, Western notions of universal human rights tend not to resonate deeply in China, where social stability trumps abstract morality every time.

Doctoroff argues, provocatively, that countercultural manifestations like China’s celebrated political dissidents and contemporary artists, as well as its burgeoning online media and lively underground rock scene, are not signs of a society in process of becoming more liberal, as Westerners understand that term.

“Sorry but no,” Doctoroff ripostes. “Self-expression is not equal to independence of thought. Chinese society has never celebrated the liberation of individual potential that, in any way, smacks of rebellion. Creativity — and, make no mistake, mainlanders are capable of wonderful originality if they feel safe enough to pursue it — exists in a bottle, placed up high, out of reach of ordinary citizens.”

A related insight is that most Chinese companies are places where innovation goes to die, which explains why the country has yet to produce a market-defining product or a world-beating international brand, despite its extraordinary manufacturing prowess. This relates to the intensely conformist nature of Chinese society, where the clan, not the individual, is the basic productive unit of society.

Thus reduced to its essentials, What Chinese Want might seem like an exercise in high-concept ethnic stereotyping. It’s much more than that, thanks to Doctoroff’s deep knowledge of contemporary China and his obvious affection for the Chinese people. He writes entertainingly about his long struggle to win acceptance from suspicious working-class neighbors in the traditional Shanghai lane where he bought a house. He offers vivid portraits of Chinese friends and colleagues, describing their love lives, their political views, their professional aspirations, and their struggles to please demanding parents.

In a particularly moving passage, he attends the funeral of a colleague’s father and quotes from the elder son’s eulogy: “[His] tone was measured, but his voice broke at the end. ‘Don’t worry, Dad,’ he said. ‘We will be good men. We will take care of Mom. We will never forget what you have taught us. We will raise our boys in a way that honors your memory.’ He quietly wept, quickly composed himself, and said a last good-bye. Mourners cried softly, too.”

A veteran of countless pitch meetings with Chinese corporate clients, Doctoroff provides battle-tested success tactics for the visiting Western executive. Sample: “Chinese rulers derive legitimacy from their assumed mastery of the system, so the worst sin a foreigner can commit is teaching … My most grievous faux pas was asking the CEO of an appliance manufacturer what he thought of Philips’s ‘Sense and Simplicity’ campaign. When he confessed ignorance, the room fell into awkward silence. The meeting never recovered.”

Although Doctoroff’s broad sketches of Chinese history and philosophy are convincing for the most part, he sometimes overreaches. Toward the end of the book, for example, he asserts that the clash between Western individualism and rising Chinese collectivism represents the first time in history that two “fundamentally different yet influential worldviews” will coexist. Anyone who remembers the Cold War will undoubtedly disagree, as will students of the global struggle between democracy and fascism during World War II.

At times he also devolves into boilerplate marketese, offering bromides on the importance of engaging Chinese consumers with your brand rather than simply exposing them to your brand message. Such lapses are rare, however. On the whole, this is a sympathetic yet clear-eyed portrait of a complex culture that’s experiencing convulsive change. Read it if you want to understand where the Chinese are coming from, and where they are heading.

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.

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