To successfully connect with consumers when presenting a brand or product, it’s important to do so in a way that is in harmony with their values. This can be a challenge when targeting specific ethnic groups, which come with their own rich cultural heritage.
Numbers and colours top the list of significant and symbolic elements that influence how Chinese consumers make their decisions. For marketers, it is essential to know the second-degree meanings behind these notions, as this can make or break your ethnic marketing campaign.
The Five Elements Theory
The Five Elements theory was first developed more than 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty. Since then, it has become the guiding principle behind such various fields as traditional medicine, architecture, martial arts, acupuncture and even military strategy!
According to this theory, the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) are each associated with a colour, a season, a planet and a cardinal direction. In this system, numbers can also have hidden meanings.
Understanding these subtleties can help you gain the confidence of Chinese consumers, which in turn will feel more engaged and loyal towards your brand.
Colours don’t have the same meaning in every culture. To understand how Chinese-Canadians react to different colours, it is important to understand how the Five Elements are related to colours and what they represent.
White: Too much white in your ads can have a negative effect. Associated with metal, white symbolizes strength and sadness. It is often used in mourning, and was the common dress code in former Chinese funerals. At the same time, white complexion like an egg shell is considered an attractive trait.
Black: Although associated with femininity in early Taoism, it has now come to symbolize the sky and water. It is used in people’s everyday work clothes and can give an appearance of formality. As in other cultures, it has also come to represent clandestine or criminal activity, and the mafia is known as “black society”.
Red: In recent decades, red was associated with the Chinese revolution and communism, but the colour has a much deeper meaning. Far from being chaotic and violent, as thought of in the West, it symbolizes good fortune and joy. A red envelope given during special occasions is sure to contain money.
Yellow: In Chinese culture, the Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi, is one of the most ancient deities associated with the Five Elements. The word “huang” means yellow, but it also sounds like the word for “distinguished”. This close association with the Emperor makes yellow the most desirable colour for many Chinese. It can be paired with red and used interchangeably with gold.
Gold: Gold can be used to symbolize wealth, just like in the West, but overusing it can have the adverse effect of cheapening your brand. Use wisely.
Purple: Evidence discovered at the famous Terracotta Army archeological site has revealed that Ancient Chinese have had the ability to synthetically produce blue and purple tones for at least 2500 years. Because of its rarity and difficulty to produce, purple now conveys exclusivity and moral righteousness. It has also come to symbolize love and romance. The success of purple lavender teddy bears shows it is a real attention-grabber among the younger crowd.
Do you know why it’s almost impossible to find an elevator with a fourth floor in China? The number 4 sounds like the word “si”, or death in Mandarin. Numbers are thought to be auspicious or inauspicious if their sounds are close to specific words in Mandarin and Cantonese. In the same way that Westerners despise the number 13, Chinese will often avoid booking room numbers or important events involving the numbers 4 or 14. If you want to attract this community to an event, product or brand, be sure to avoid this number at any cost.
While some numbers carry meanings that can repel potential customers, others are considered bearers of good luck. When describing promotions or setting prices for your products, it is best to be mindful that numbers hold a deep meaning for Chinese people.
0: Zero is an even number that is often used for money, and thus can be practical when promoting insurance and financial services.
2: Two is also positive, as “good things come in pairs”. For this reason, don’t hesitate to offer 2 for 1 packages or combos.
5: This is a negative number because it sounds like the word for “no”. However, there are five elements in Chinese mythology, and there are also five arches at the Tiananmen gate, which gives access to the Forbidden City. For this reason, it is also associated with Imperial China.
7: The number seven is one of the rare numbers that bears positive meanings in China as well as many Western cultures. It symbolizes togetherness and can be used to emphasize relationships.
8: Synonymous with “wealth” or “to prosper”, be sure not to combine this number with 5, which would mean the opposite. The Air Canada flight number from Shanghai to Toronto is AC88. Coincidence?
9: The number 9 sounds like the word for “long-lasting” or “soon”. For this reason, it is often used in weddings. A red pocket lai see or hongbao containing $9,999 is far better than $10,000.
For Marketers: Issuing ticket/account numbers that start with 8 costs nothing, but it does reap rewards in this market segment. A happy customer is a returning customer.
Numerology can be used to compound two positives or two negatives, which can become positive. If you use the number 51, this can mean “no worries” or 54 is “not bad”. In this case, two wrongs can make a right.
In Cantonese, 168 sounds like “fortune all the way”. The combinations of 40 correspond to “die for sure”.
For Marketers: Just like numbers, colours can also be combined to add more meaning. Combine purple with yellow and you are sure to please your audience. However, be careful not to mix too many colours at once since a multicolour or rainbow pattern was traditionally seen as a predicting the emperor’s death.
By being mindful of this complex network of beliefs and symbols you will have more control over brand perception, which depends entirely on your customer’s worldview.
Whether preparing for the Chinese New Year or for other Chinese community events, using language that is well perceived by your future customers requires a degree of cultural sensitivity and understanding that goes beyond the scope of conventional marketing agencies. Maple Diversity’s roots run deep in Chinese culture. Our specialists can help you gain insight into one of the world’s most ancient cultures, while avoiding the many traps that may lure the uninitiated.