Illuminant’s first Chinese Takeout covered the absolute basics concerning China as a new market for your business, product or service. Our second Chinese Takeout covered the yearlong schedule of vacations and holidays in China, forming a template for the best times to plan your market visits into the middle kingdom.
With these first two overview infographics, new market entrants should have a decent idea of where they’re going and when to go.
This month’s Chinese Takeout — the third in our yearlong series — addresses one of the fundamentals of how to localize your brand identity for China: the use and misuse of color.
Given China’s relative isolation from much of the western world over the millenia, cultural norms have developed strongly and independently in that massive country. Color is a ‘primitive’ influence on the minds of all people, regardless of national origin or culture. This is especially so in China, due to the relatively higher stake that superstition has in the minds of mainlanders.
Consequently, the correct use of color is an absolute must-do, prior to entering the China marketplace. When encountering color, Chinese consumers simply don’t respond in the same way as westerners do. For example, did you know that if you display a photograph of one of your directors, say in your brochure, with a black border around that photo, Chinese consumers will think that she is dead? And you want to avoid giving the recipients of your lovely souvenir gifts the feeling of being at a funeral, so don’t wrap those gifts in white. And avoid the embarrassment that a European client suffered when they gave out thousands of floppy green hats at a major tourism trade show in Beijing.
We first wrote about the use of color in China in this blog in January 2011. That article, Avoiding Insult and Injury when using Color in China, has gathered hundreds of thousands of pageviews, and is consistently in the top-10 list of most-searched-for articles on our website. A short peek into the terms that large numbers of internet users have searched for, and subsequently arrived at that article, include:
- colors to avoid in china
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- qing color
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- green and gold colors meaning in china
- use black and white for your collateral materials, since colors have great significance for china
- …and many more
Without further ado, we’re proud to present this third Illuminant’s Chinese Takeout, Enter the Dragon: Colors in China (What to Use, What to Avoid):
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PLEASE CONSIDER THE OTHER INFOGRAPHICS OF ILLUMINANT’S CHINESE TAKEOUT “ENTER THE DRAGON” SERIES
TRANSCRIPT OF THIS INFOGRAPHIC
ILLUMINANT’S CHINESE TAKEOUT
ENTER THE DRAGON: COLORS IN CHINA
A CHINA-ENTRY GUIDE·PART 3 OF 12·AUGUST 2012
WHAT TO USE, WHAT TO AVOID
The ancient and complex Chinese culture is the big daddy of cultural symbolism. Highly resonant symbolic memes run old and deep.
No Chinese cultural symbolism is as pervasive as color. The hidden meanings of colors are surprisingly different in China than in other world cultures, and in many cases more powerful.
Companies new to China should avoid confusing Chinese consumers and key opinion leaders by ensuring that localized brandmarks and marketing materials are sympathetic to and persuasive within local cultural biases.
Don’t confuse the red of China’s political system with “the red of the common people”. The ancient roots of red didn’t include revolution.
In ancient China, red gained positive meaning from fire. The saying, 红红火火 (hong hong huo huo, or literally “red, red, fire, fire”) means that your life is growing, crackling and rocketing like red flame. 火了 (huo le, “caught fire”) describes something very popular. 火爆 (huo bao, “fire and explosion”) describes a place jam-packed with people, or a book or movie packed with action and excitement.
Red is the primary color for celebrations, especially the Lunar New Year and wedding ceremonies, and other happy occasions.
However to overuse red out of context is poor marketing, analogous to Westerners using Christmas decorations in June.
It’s good to use some red to create “Chinese elements” in your marketing, but don’t abuse it.
Don’t handwrite in red ink: it communicates that you’re ending your relationship with your correspondent!
Yellow can be dangerous to use in your marketing. If your copywriting refers to a product or service and that is connected to yellow, great care should be taken.
When the term for yellow, “黄” (huang) is used in connection to any kind of publication or media, it means the thing it describes is pornographic. For example, 黄图 (huang tu, “yellow picture”) means pornographic pictures and graphics, 黄书 (huang shu, “yellow book”) means pornographic writing, 黄片 (huang pian, “yellow clips”) means pornographic movies, and 黄网 (huang wang, “yellow web”) means pornographic websites.
The other key cultural marker for yellow is that in ancient times, pure, bright yellow was reserved for use by emperors of several dynasties. To say someone 黄袍加身 (huang pao jia shen, “to wear the yellow robe”) means he has ascended to the throne, most likely by usurping. Anyone caught using yellow in any way during the dynasty would be put to death.
Be very careful with yellow. Avoid large swathes of yellow, and avoid yellow in your key brandmarks and products. Judicious use of yellow is possible but seek advice of a qualified China-specialist partner.
Gold is a color which has long been used in China as a symbol of nobility and wealth. It is closely related to the ancient emperors “bright, pure yellow” (see “Yellow”, above).
It’s fine to use metallic gold and golden colors in your marketing materials. There are few, if any, cultural faux pas to be watchful for.
Avoid over-use of gold: there was a time from the late ‘80s to ‘90s when practically every Chinese mainlander became crazy about gold ornaments and golden colored paints. This “gold rush” has cased over-use of the color to become the domain of the nouveau riche, and as such, can easily appear to make your massage gaudy and cheap-looking.
Unlike European and British cultures, purple has deep religious meaning in China. An ancient Taoist symbol of divine presence is canonized as “a purple cloud coming from the east”.
This phrase is always used in connection to anything mortal ascending to immortality. In more recent times, purple has been borrowed from Europe as a symbol of romantic love.
Get creative and consider using purple to your advantage. Purple can be a very effective symbolic method of connecting your brand with positive notions of nobility, immortality, and (amongst younger consumers) wholesome love.
Green is a powerful symbol in the west, but can be confusing in China. While the western idea of “green” has some similarity in China, there are subtle but important differences.
In China’s mainland, green means “clean” or “free of contaminants”. This is not the same definition of “green” that westerners might assume. Mostly when westerners talk about “green technology” or “green energy”, they mean “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”.
However in China, “green” vegetables are free of pesticides, but may contribute to environmental degradation. “Green” milk is milk without toxic melamine. “Green” publications are without explicit or prohibited content. In some cases though, the conceptual mapping of western “eco” green to a similar “eco” meaning in China does exist.
So you see, “green” is a widely-used adjective with much broader and different meaning to “green” (eco) products or services, but sometimes, in the minds of some urban audiences, actually does mean “eco green”!
Symbolically, “getting a green hat” means a man has an unfaithful wife. When preparing gifts, green should be avoided at all costs if the gifts are intended to be worn anywhere on or near people’s heads.
Go ahead and use green for just about any marketing purpose, but do not assume that your “green” product or service will be viewed as “eco”. If you do intend an “eco” meaning for your China green, you must elaborate and give relevant obvious context. And don’t give green hats away at your next trade fair unless you want to become a laughing stock!
White is used in Chinese funerals. A 白包 (bai bao, “white envelope”) is an packet of money to show the sympathy to family of the deceased, much opposed to the 红包 (hong bao, “red envelope”) given to newlywed couples and children.
White is a color you must avoid for anything festive or celebratory (and that includes product launches) especially in the less westernized (that means most) regions of China. When giving gifts of any kind, never wrap in white.
Be judicious with the use of white according to the context of the marketing material or activity. Seek expert advice before committing to white as a brand or marketing feature element.
Black, when used in copywriting and text, has a wide array of symbolic meanings that include evil, morbid, corrupted, illegal, and/or greedy. As a color it has a hint of formality and solemness in the minds of the Chinese people. Never put black borders around photographs of people.
It means that they are dead and are being memorialized! Avoid presenting someone’s portrait (a phoeo focused on the face) in black and white mode. This makes your audience think of pictures on graves.
When giving gifts of any kind, never wrap them in black.
Take care not to over-use black. It’s often safest to avoid black altogether.
Multi-color and Rainbow Spectra 彩虹
Chinese people seldom use a rainbow spectrum. In ancient times, a rainbow across the sun would foretell that the emperor would soon die or be challenged. And no, the Gay Pride rainbow is unknown in China.
Use of spectra in Chinese marketing materials is likely to make your Chinese audience think that you’re presenting the national flag of a minor country, or that you’ve used cheap, end-of-run colored materials in your production.
If you must use a rainbow or a color spectrum, go right ahead, but any hope for cultural resonance will probably be lost on you audience.
青 (qing, pronounced “ching”) si an interesting color that doesn’t appear in the standard western set of colors.
Fitting qing into the western spectrum, some Chinese say it’s a sort of blue, while others say it’s part of the green family. Culturally, qing is a color that sits anywhere in between blue and green. You can call it green, blue, greenish-blue or bluish-green, and not be thought of as odd.
Adding a little more interest to this unique Chinese-only color, qing may include some grey. So qing can also be described as greenish-grey blue, or bluish-green grey, or any other combination of these shades.
Qing is closely linked to historical buildings and clothing, like qing bricks, and qing pattern porcelain. Also, there is a type of female character in Peking Opera called a 青衣 (qing yi, “qing colored costume”) because they usually wear costumes of this interesting color.
Give qing consideration if you need to instill a feeling of history and traditional culture.
China, as a modern country, has a lot of facets, and a full spectrum of colors. Stereotyping it with red is but a safe but boring practice. Free your creativity and experiment with different color in a different cultural context. The pitfalls outlined in this article are easy to avoid. All will be fine as long as your campaign or design is baked by reliable market research and cultural analysis.
This Chinese Takeout by