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Understanding Chinese rural consumers

Alex Mari
University of Lugano (USI), Switzerland
visiting student at Central University of Finance and Economics (CUFE), Beijing, China


Purpose – The current study aims to examine the purposes that modern literature suggests to marketers
with respect to consumption patterns of Chinese rural consumers, their sources of product information,
communication's channel status and successful ways to advertise products and services.

Considering the great interest that rural areas development has for national and multinational companies,
can be significant to analyze current academic theories on the topic pointing out concrete and remarkable
differences between urban and rural society.

As the rural consumers adopt the consumption patterns of urban consumers, more and more opportunity
would be explored. In a future perspective, a substantial business opportunity is represented by the
influences that younger generations will have upon their families. For that reason particular emphasis will
be addressed on media and advertising consumption of rural children and their perception of brands.

In addition, many studies underline the lack in research in this area. Western theories applied to deal with
rural consumers obtained scarce results during the past. In this respect, I personally assume that an in-depth
analysis of the actual consumer behavior contest is necessary to develop further marketing strategies
targeting rural consumer.

Beijing, Jenuary 2008

Course of International Management

According to Global New Wire, China has been
An executive summary for managers and executive shifting the focus of its proactive fiscal policy from
readers can be found at the end of this article. stimulating investment to strengthening low-income
earners' purchasing power.
As China's rural economy continues to develop, an
Literature Review increasing number of multinational corporations
(MNCs) will expand from urban areas into rural
In 1979 thanks to Open Policy established by Vice regions. China promises many opportunity of fast
Premier Deng Xiaoping, Chinese economy has expansion, however, the presumption of China as a
enjoyed a rapid growth. At that time, most of the homogeneous market often makes it difficult to
residents of the rural areas were engaged in farming access market demand and enact effective strategies
activities. Recent findings show that agriculture's (Cui and Lui, 2000).
share of employment dropped steadily from 69
percent in 1980 to 45 percent in 2005 (State Chinese rural life profile
Statistical Bureau, 2007).
Despite two decades of economic growth, China Chinese government defined rural areas as a
still face a deep-rooted economic divide between population of 780 million people among which, in
urban and rural areas. Even do, higher quality life 2006, there were 210 million children under age 15.
standards were verified in both rural and urban A rapid rate of urbanization can be noticed analyzing
areas, there is an increased gap related to personal the changes reported by United Nation. According to
income. By 2005, the annual per capita income of them, urban population increased from 31 of the
urban and rural Chinese have been 10.493 Yuan total in 1995 to 41 percent in 2005. In that year,
(about 1175 €) and 3.254 Yuan (365 €) respectively. urban residents contributed two-third of the total
The urban-rural income inequality has been retail sales (6.7 trillion Yuan).
attributed to Chinese government's decades-long Even do, it is China urban areas that are producing
restrictive policy on rural-urban migration (the most of its economic growth, the ten largest cities
household registration system, Hukou) and its are made up by only 4 percent of the total China
continuous urban-biased welfare polices (Yao, population, accounting for approximately 22 percent
1999). In addition to income inequality, the of earning power.
difference in quality of education children receive This disparity in consumption is not only attributed
also affects their ability to seek and access to inequality in income, but also to poor retailing
information. One of the main consequences of poor distribution network, insufficient after-sale service,
educational system in rural China is that children and slow income growth (Zhang, 2003).
may not be able to access information in an active According to Rogers (1960), urban and rural society
way. As researchers found, the direct consequence differ in family, group relationships and values. One
is that they rely more heavily on personal sources in particular aspect of rural families is that they are
obtaining market information (Chan and McNeal, more likely to see children as economic assets. In
2007). fact, while profiling the rural families, emerged that
Lu and Peng (2000) analyzed the rural consumption 12.2 percent of them tended to export their family
structure noticing a significant improvement in members to the urban are as cheap labour so that the
living standards. This was demonstrated by the fact whole family income, and subsequently living
that rural households are spending greater share of standards, could be improved (Chen, 2008). This
income on food items, housing, education and phenomena should be kept in mind considering the
recreational services. The Engel coefficient, i.e. the vast migrant population that already influence the
percentage of expenditures on food in total attitudes of their local culture. Therefore, being
consumption expenditures, was 37 percent for opinion leaders they represent a segment that need to
urban households and 46 percent for rural be targeted. Moreover, rural families are more likely
household (State Statistical Bureau, 2007). to retain educating, entertaining, religious
After survival has been assured, rural consumer orientations and protection function.
begin to spend more and more of their income on
non-necessities and cultural/educational
consumption goods and services.
In order to maintain stable economic growth and
minimize negative effects of the actual world
financial crisis, the ultimate government's goal is
rely more on domestic consumption.
Source: Chan, K. And McNeal, J (2006)

Sources of product information in rural China mainly due to the nature of product category and
lifestyle. For example, for soft drink purchase half of
According to the findings of a recent survey rural Chinese consumers trusted their personal
conducted by Chen Qimei and He Yi, to effective experience while for dietary products is needed an
deliver commercial messages to rural consumers external source (only 2.17 percent of consumers
we need primary to understand their media learn by themselves). Since the perceived risks for
consumption and their sources of product these kind of products are quite high, consumers rely
information. The analysis showed that most of the upon their in-group for the most trustworthy product
families (96 percent) hold a television. As a information.
consequence rural Chinese consumer ranked TV I assume that for highly involved purchase category,
commercials as the top source of information urban consumers rely more on several information
(77.58 percent in 2001 as compered to 37.5 percent sources like Internet or salespersons, while in rural
in 1987), see figure 1. society peers' recommendation becomes the most
On the other hand, the importance of both personal credible source. Hence, the assumption that world of
communication (i.e. 'family') and direct experience mouth communication should be used as strategic
with the product (i.e. 'oberving at market') had tool to promote products high in social risk.
diminished (Chen, 2008).
Commercial messages delivered through Internet Attitudes toward the whole marketing mix
and new media have low penetration in
consideration of the fact that only 2,8% of A recent study on rural consumption patterns shows
households owned a computer. In addition, it has that urban and rural consumer are different in terms
been proved that different information sources is of attitudes toward the whole marketing mix:
significantly related to product-specific contexts. product price, product promotion, brand names and
As you can see from table 9 (Appendix), TV product distribution. This obvious consideration is
commercials are still top choice across all the due to the lower levels of hierarchy of needs that
product categories but other information sources rural consumer occupy. As a result, the difference in
vary across the four product categories took into needs among these two societies drives toward the
consideration. Although, 96 percent of the rural usage of different product to reflect the improvement
families owned a TV and 77.58 percent use the TV of their living standards. For example, rural
commercials as primary source of information, only consumers listed houses (29.2 percent), color TVs
22.62 percent trust these messages. As we will see (22.2 percent), telephones (4.8 percent) and cars (3.5
later on, trustworthy of TV commercial decrease percent) as products considered to reflect
with age and for that reason youngsters represent improvement of living standards. Differently, for
the most strategic segment for marketers. urban consumers soon after houses (33.6 percent)
Differences in perception of sources credibility are were indicated: PCs (9.3 percent), air conditioners
(8.6 percent), color TVs (8.6 percent), and cars (8.5 lifestyle easily explain this phenomena. At the same
percent). The results suggest that there still exists a time, particular relevance should receive some of the
huge difference in terms of ideal material statements loaded higher in the survey in order to
possession (status symbol) between rural and urban understand rural consumers attitudes toward both
consumers. domestic and foreign products. Inland consumers
Also, it is expected that new symbolic consumption declared: “I pay much attention to product price, so I
patterns emerging among urban consumers, such as like to buy inexpensive and functional products” and
PCs, air conditioners, will ultimately spread to the as a consequence “Nowadays domestic products are
rural consumers (Sun and Wu, 2004). In the same not bad in quality, and less expensive than imported
survey were asked respondents to describe their products. So I will buy domestic products”. High
ideal projections about future. In this case, both level of price-conscious is strictly related to
rural and urban consumers ranked the need for adaptation of innovative product. Due to limited
safety (physical and psychological) as important risks they are willing to take, rural consumers were
concepts. The main difference reside in the fact that more likely to buy products that were already used
rural consumers revealed their psychological needs by everyone else and to adopt the product
indicating “well-to-do” and “materially rewarding” recommended by reliable sources like friends and
as adjectives to describe their future. On the other relatives. Sun and Wu pointed out that, with the
hand, need for self-enhancement was found in development of consumer advertising, that is
urban consumers that selected “natural” and especially available on TV, the gap between rural
“spiritually enriched” as main important concepts. and urban consumers in terms of product innovation
Taking Maslow's hierarchy of needs as model to might become smaller and smaller.
judge these results, I assume that since the Moreover, findings suggest that rural consumers are
motivations and values are located upon different more suspicious of mass media advertising. This is
levels of pyramid, the commercial messages aimed probably due to neither conveniently available nor
to reach the attention and to achieve sales, should affordable nature of the items advertised.
differ among areas. Since rural consumers are not likely to use the
Furthermore,a substantial difference in products advertised, messages deliver through TV
consumption habit has been found when commercials are hard to believe for them. For that
considering shopping places. In that case is easy to reason I assume that some messages might
understand the reasons why urban consumers were negatively impact on consumers attitudes toward a
found more sophisticated when compered with product, especially those create to satisfy complex
rural consumers. Urban consumers were more needs. On the other hand, trustworthy decrease by
likely to shop at stores with high quality customer age and therefore to target messages to children
service and in well-known stores, whereas rural represent a strategic move, considering the great
consumers acquire goods that are not available at influence on their families.
home, mainly in traditional markets. The main According to Sun and Wu, although marketers invest
reason is that they reside in areas where there is a heavily in retail advertising and in-store promotion
lack of infrastructure and the market is several to build brand equity, the lack of retailing structure
hours journey from home and is open once a week decreases the chances for rural consumers to be
(Pennington, 2002). exposed to these marketing promotions.
For many rural consumers, going to gigantic Thus, urban consumer are often overwhelmed with
shopping malls in the city areas might be simply a commercial messages and the rate of
once-a-year experience (Sun and Wu, 2004). attention/attractiveness will be consequently lower.
In addition, an easy access to shopping outlets lead Studies have shown that responses to advertising are
consumer to consider shopping as entertaining more positive in countries with newer advertising
group's activity. This could be one reason why the industries (Zhao and Shen, 1995).
majority of rural consumers (56.9 percent) going Moreover, some manufactures have considered rural
shopping alone compered with 37.1 percent of China as a secondary market and channeled poor
urban ones. The most frequent shopping partners quality products to the rural market.
for rural consumers are friends (18.5 percent), In the same research emerged a big difference in
followed by spouses (13.9 percent) and children brand attention among the two societies.
(4.5 percent). Analyzing the findings emerged that Rural consumers responders agreed with the
in rural regions, friends can wield bigger situational statement “A brand name does not matter, as long as
influences than spouses. it is functional” while speaking about brand
With respect to product price, rural consumers were consciousness, whereas urban consumers loaded
more price-conscious and consequently more likely higher on such statements as “I pay particular it than
to compere prices among sellers and negotiate over urban consumers.
Differences in income and attention to brand name. the more that children interact with the mass media,
I like to buy well-known brands” and “the product the more consumer socialization takes place. In
we buy should be high-end”. other words, the amount of interaction with media
To compere urban and rural brand recall appears to be positively related to learning consumer
respondents were given ten daily product categories behaviour.
and were asked to name two best brand each Rural children pay more attention to television
category. More than half of the rural consumers advertising than urban children while urban children
could not name any brands in such product pay more attention to other form of advertising
categories as PCs, refrigerators, fragrances, cell (Chan, 2008). One of the reasons is that rural
phones and cars/trucks. Considering that some of children consume more national television channels
these products are not widely available in rural than urban ones.
households it is obvious to face low rate responds The most interesting research on media ownership
(for example, PCs are owned by only 2.8 percent of and consumption among Chinese children comes
households). For instance, asking a boy to recall from Chan & McNeal (2006). The two researchers
specific women's brand, i.e. low interest and less found that home ownership of broadcast media is
attractive, the results might be discouraging even in strictly dependent on age of children. As you can see
urbanized area. in table 1, ninety-eight percent of rural children had
Having said that, I assume that brand recall is television sets at home and three-quarters had color
strictly linked to the utility that a product has for TV.
the responder whether this is a functional or Younger audiences like to watch cartoons, children's
emotional utility. drama series, game shows and variety shows.
Although advertisement targeting children begin to Teenagers show more interest in sports programs
appear in CCTV (China's national TV station), and new programs (Bu, 1998).
these budget represent only a small portion of the Latest innovation are not popular in rural families
total expenditure. and less then ten percent own DVD players and
computer at home. Even do, six percent of
Rural Children media and advertising households owned a computer only half had access
consumption to the Internet. Thus, children's magazine and
newspapers were not largely used while books have
According to the one-child policy in China more wider appeal. More than 85 percent of children aged
and more Chinese families will enter into the 4-2-1 10 to 13 reported that they owned children's books
patterns, which stands for four old people being the and read them during the past month (Chan &
parents of the husband and wife, the couple McNeal, 2006).
themselves and their only child. Therefore, Chinese Related to time spent tails on media and other
children represent an enormous potential market activities it has been found that about forty-one
because of their growing purchases and their percent contributed heavily to daily agricultural
enormous influence on family purchase decisions activities and on the average they participated more
(McNeal & Yeh 1997). As children grow in housework with respect to they urban peers. Also,
cognitively and socially, there is a growth in their “playing with friends” in one of the major activities
parental influence strategies, consumption motives in rural children daily life. Differently twenty-two of
and values. Even families in remote parts of China urban children do not play with friends at all, on
experience television advertising as a new form of daily basis. As it was presented in table 2
cultural authority in installing the idea that (Appendix), the gap in new media consumption
consumption leads to a happy childhood (Jing, generates a higher exposure of rural children to TV
2000). Thus, in 1997 McNeal and Yeh found out programmes. As a consequence, the attention of
that Chinese children's influence on family young urbans to advertising due to the wider media
purchase was about 68 percent while for U.S. availability is spread on several sources, while the
Children was only 45 percent. attention to rural children is concentrated mainly on
Ward in 1974 defined consumer socialization the TV commercials. In fact, other forms of advertising
process by which one could learn about products, are not prevalent in rural China.
their brands and recall outlets where they can be Surprising, it was discovered a low ownership and
bought. Generally speaking, children learn consumption of children's newspapers and
consumer behaviour patterns primary from parents magazines among younger children. According to
and secondly from socialization agents like peers, the authors, there is a lack of print media targeted
school, stores and media. younger children. The main conceptual problem
Moreover, as Moschis and Churchill pointed out, refers to low attractiveness of contents (long stories
with little illustration and pictures).
Moreover, local editions treat limited topic while girls preferred softer and more talkative
whereas, in the reality, there is an increased interest formats.
in the outside world. Secondly, is logistical problem One of the most interesting results is the decreasing
due to the poor network distribution. in attention to television advertising. Taking table 2
Although rural girls and boys presented similarities into consideration, I assume that attention to TV
to media access, they are extremely different in commercials dectease by age while the attention to
media preferences. other media increase (newspaper ads, radio
Difference in time spent on broadcast and print commercial, billboard ads, Ads on transport
media demonstrated that boys were more visual vehicles, magazine ads). This may be due to
while girls were more verbal (Chan & McNeal, children's improved literacy and ability to process
2006). information. In other words, that means shifting
This analysis is consistent with previous studies from a passive receipt of messages to an active
(Greenberg, 1991) that have shown that children search of information.
boys preferred active an exciting media content,

Table 1 – Household ownership of broadcast and print media

Table 2 – Attention to advertising

Source: Chan, K. And McNeal, J (2006)

Brand and advertising perception I personally assume that the questions were to
complicated for younger responders and I would
In a recent research on children's perception of probably use a more appropriate methodology
adverting and brands conducted by Professor Chan, integrating photos or videos to the questionaires.
is emerged that rural children are more likely to Confusion upon the brand idea can be also fed up by
perceive television advertising truthful than urban the wide consumption of counterfeit products.
children (table 3). As you can see in table 4, a Children as well as their parents may not even know
higher percentage of rural children thought they that they are counterfeit products. In fact, previous
liked or liked very much television advertising than studies indicated that brand awareness is very low in
urban children. rural regions (Sun and Wu, 2004). Their lower brand
In addition, rural children relied more on whether awareness is perhaps due to limited exposure to
the commercial was endorsed by trustworthy brands and this drives to the conclusion that rural
persons as a basis of judgement about truthfulness children are more pragmatic. This lack in brand
of television commercials than urban children understanding, due to its abstract concept), suggests
(Chan, 2008). that rural children were less likely to use brand
Table 6 (Appendix) summarized children's equity as a basis of judgement. Differently, could be
perceptions of advertised and non-advertised argue that lower brand name consciousness is the
brands. For both soft drinks and computers, rural result of less extensive brand equity campaigns
children were more likely to perceive that the targeting this segment of consumers.
advertised brand is better, than urban children. The results show also that rural children were more
However, the great confusion about brand concept likely to put more trust in advertised brands than
was demonstrated by the high number of children urban responders (Chan, 2008).
reporting “don't know” answers.

Table 3 – Perceived truthfulness of television advertising (N=2,990)

Table 3 – Liking of television advertising (N=3,239)

Source: Chan, K. (2008)

Practical implications for marketers effect of the action is probably going to be negative.
With this respect, product placement can be one of
The current study has provided insights for the most powerful marketing tools. For example, in
marketers and advertisers to employ the right this period there are several contests on CCTV
strategies to disseminate information and to reach where products appears in the programme showing
successfully rural consumers. It also, suggests to both its functional and emotional characteristics (e.g.
marketers a guideline to target new rural Nike in a reality on basketball game).
generations and analyze the possible ways to In advertisement, marketers should use direct sales
influences their consumption patterns. appeal rather than lifestyles or image appeals.
In urbanized China, markets is mature and the However, it has been demonstrated that celebrity
competition will soon be aggressive. This process endorsement can be very influential, especially
will increase the alternatives available to urban among children.
consumers who will become more and more Considering the more affordable budget needed to
selective upon products and commercial messages. promote products and services in rural regions, one
Marketers cannot target these two society with strategic move could be use this market as a
homogeneous messages anymore. Since needs and laboratory, testing products and trying to generate an
desire are different among rural and urban optimized marketing mix.
consumers, different advertising appeals should be
adopted. A strategic choice to sway rural consumer
is to deliver communication messages towards
opinion leaders. Due to the great influence that
local opinion leaders have over the other
community's members, I believe that direct
marketing actions colud represent the most
effective mean of persuasion.
A key point of this study is the consideration that
rural consumers are more conscious of product
price. In this respect, packaging and product
differentiation are extremely important. Fist of all,
multi-tier consumption patterns allows marketers to
position their products differently in rural and urban
areas, and also potentially prolong their product
life-cycle. One example has been P&G that after
the initial price war with a local competitor decided
to modify its products moving back to essential
service in order to better fit rural consumer needs.
In China, Porter's generic strategy cannot be largely
used. Many companies in fact, are lowering product
price while differentiating the product. Secondly,
marketing should encourage product trial to
enhance rural consumers' learning experience. For
instance, some shampoo are sold in individually
packaged items. Moreover, packaging has a
strategic role helping to fit and meet the cognition
need (e.g. graphic-oriented packaging design). This
packaging should be used as an appeal for brand
How was pointed out before, rural consumers might
not be able to decode implied messages because of
their lack of prior product knowledge.
Considering the poor network distribution in rural
regions, a marketing man should first of all figure
out the probability of a product to arrive in a
specific area. Before designing a promotional
strategy he must be sure that a product can be
reached by the consumer properly, otherwise, the
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Table 5 – Amount of time spent daily on media and other activities (in minutes) (%)

Source: Chan, K. And McNeal, J (2006)

Table 6 - Children’s perceptions of advertised and non-advertised brands

Source: Chen, K. (2008)