I just returned from a whirlwind trend spotting trip to Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo punctuated by visits with MS&L colleagues from Asian offices. It was awe-inspiring to see the riches of these far-flung cultures – from wonders of the world such as the Great Wall, to perfectly preserved Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines to the sprawling world expo focused on sustainable modern cities and wrapping up this fall on the river banks of Shanghai.
In talking to each other over several days of visits, my Asian counterparts and I realized shared values of authentic communication, strong writing, the importance of media relations and real-time communications with clients and influencers.
Whether you plan to do business in China or Japan, to visit for recreation or are just curious about these places in our increasingly global business culture, here are ten findings from this first-time visitor that may instruct or inspire:
1. Avoid the number “4” as it is bad luck in Asian tradition with the Mandarin pronunciation equivalent to “death.” Conversely, the number “8” is quite lucky – and the well-heeled will actually pay to get a license plate or phone number full of eights and free of fours.
2. Quick service restaurants are hugely popular and very surreal. KFC is most popular, followed closely by McDonald’s. Most restaurants were huge hangouts of the young, with a trip to the McCafé not an uncommon first date or place to gather with friends. Many paid for their food with a mobile phone or subway card in some of the intown locations.
3. Want a place to debut a new product in China? I suggest a mega-mall or an emerging arts district. The Village shopping center in Beijing features a high-rise mall with an Apple Store and boutiques and the city’s Dashanzi Arts District – originally the 798 Factory – is at the heart of a growing art and culture community called the “798 Space.”
4. Bloggers receive an honorarium for covering PR clients. Despite movements toward transparency and full disclosure in the States, it is quite difficult to enforce in Asia. Many bloggers who travel to attend events will be compensated for transportation and more and may not reveal on their blogs that they were compensated in any way.
5. Here’s a tip: no tipping. Gratuity is not assumed or expected for most activities in Asia that would require it in America. So you don’t need to factor in tips for valet, taxi, restaurant, hotel or a variety of services.
6. The social network of the moment in Asia is QQ. With sites such as Facebook not permitted by Chinese government, QQ, a very popular instant message platform, has become the social network of the moment.
7. The bootleg movement was alive and well in China, not as much in Japan. Custom tailors in Beijing would gladly sew an Armani label into a suit or a Disney label onto a plush toy. Video stores were lined with DVD’s of “Inception” and other extraordinarily “new” releases.
8. There’s amusement on every corner. It was not uncommon in Japan to see multiple karaoke clubs (called “KTV” by locals), pachinko parlors for gambling or teens who change from street clothes to costumes at subway stations to role play and “see and be seen” as anime and comic book characters. Even the famed Watercube of the Beijing Olympics has been transformed into an elaborate water park complete with cascades, wave pools and looming jellyfish mobiles.
9. Marketing messages were absolutely ubiquitous. From LED screens covering full ceilings to signs on moving sidewalks and grocery store floors and wall-sized displays featuring American stars such as Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman, advertising was everywhere. There were even trucks devoted to playing one radio music single and promoting it loudly and in the streets.
10. Study up on transportation before visiting Asia. Many taxi drivers will not be fluent in English, and even family names such as Marriott (as in the hotel where I was staying) translate into Chinese characters and are pronounced differently than they would be in English. And in Tokyo, never take the taxi from the airport. If you do, you could have upwards to a $400 bill. Instead take the “limousine,” which is actually a bus that takes you directly to most U.S. brands of hotels in the key in-town districts.