Cathy Huang – Connecting with Chinese Markets


On Monday 28th May 2012, PIVOT with the RIAI hosted a conversation with design and innovation strategist Cathy Huang of CBi China Bridge International. This report on the event is by Elish Bul-Godley.

The event was attended by participants from business, design and public administration communities. Chaired by Ali Grehan Dublin City Architect, Cathy was joined by Minister for Trade and Development Joe Costello, Dublin City Manager John Tierney and panelists Lord Mayor Andrew Montague, RIAI president Michelle Fagan, Professor Finbarr Bradley and RPS Director PJ Rudden.

The packed room demonstrated the strength of interest in the topic, how we can connect to design and business opportunities in China. Ali Grehan welcomed the participants, noting that PIVOT has demonstrated that Ireland is a significant design producer and that Irish design is desirable, marketable and exportable. John Tierney, Dublin City Manager, touched on the many ways that Dublin City Council supports designers and design thinking. Minister Costello, in his opening address Design, Recovery and Growth, said that Ireland places great importance on the development of design and innovation industry and is increasingly associated with the highest standard of architecture and design.

Cathy Huang’s presentation: Connecting with opportunities in China.

I recently attended a talk presented by CBi China Bridge; a Chinese design research and innovation strategy consultancy, part of a wider alliance specializing in the fast growing markets of Latin America, China and India. Their founder and president Cathy Huang brought some useful insights on how Western business should approach Chinese markets. She outlined the ways multinational companies in the West needed to understand Chinese customers and Chinese companies whilst describing her organisational mission in developing design innovation awareness across Asia and the West. Even though the “Connecting With Opportunities in China” talk was focused primarily on Architectural & Design based business, I saw some valuable insights relevant to any business wishing to market their products and services into the Far East. It was hosted by PIVOT and held appropriately so in the Chester Beatty Library, which holds the best collection of oriental art in Ireland.

What is Design-Thinking?

Her points were communicated effectively using clear diagrammatic motifs and a Design Thinking approach.

Design Thinking is a systematic approach to problem solving by:

  1. Investing effort and empathy in correctly identifying the context and definition of a Problem.
  2. Creatively exploring as many ideas and innovative options as possible when finding solutions.
  3. Rationally analysing and deciding on the correct fit between chosen solution and problem.

This blog by Mark Dziersk gives a quick overview: Design Thinking… What is That? 

Related: What You Need To Know Before You Export To The US

Is Your Business Aware of the Relevant Lifestyle Differences when Designing and Marketing Products for the Chinese Market?

Cathy started the talk off with a great example: she asked the audience to physically mimic a Monkey. After some comic examples including; chest beating, scratching of heads and some monkey chatter – she showed us the quintessential Chinese symbol for Monkey. It was a simple hand to the forehead gesture shielding the eyes. A gesture we are not familiar with in the West, being a cultural reference to the Chinese Monkey God Legend.

She gave us more Examples: Lifestyle Differences between China and the West (some of which I have added to and can personally testify to, being from South East Asia)

  1. Chinese society likes its 3 daily Meals served piping hot whereas in the west we would settle for a yoghurt at breakfast or a cold salad for lunch.
  2. Relationships are more ordered, formal, hierarchical and less chaotic in the East.
  3. Weather affects mood in the West more than it does in the East especially in the case of sunshine versus rain.
  4. Commuters in the West are leaving their cars for bicycles and the reverse is happening in China.
  5. Older people in China are the key caregivers for young children whereas the older generation in the West tends to live a more independent and separate lifestyle from their grandchildren.
  6. Public spaces in China are full of people in the weekends whilst Westerners may spend more time at home in their larger backyards.
  7. A child in China is always a Single child and has ‘Little Emperor’ status with 6 ‘parents’ inclusive of 2 sets of grandparents, whilst a child in the west has 2 parents in a nuclear family set up or just 1.
  8. Standard of beauty: Whitening products dominate in China and I can safely say the rest of Asia too as Fair skin is culturally prized above all. Tanning is a primarily Western obsession.
  9. Punctuality: the Chinese have more fluid attitudes towards timekeeping with a 15 minute margin for error when it comes to punctuality.
  10. Asians tend to document their travel and other life moments using the camera more often. The Occidental tourist, not so much.
  11. The Chinese shower in evening rather than in the morning – it helps them sleep better. Whereas westerners shower first thing in the morning. Coming from South East Asia myself, I can testify that we would shower twice a day morning and night.
  12. Asians tend to deliver opinions in a less direct way and skirt the topic initially. Western society favours a blunter, direct approach.
  13. Asians tend to party in a round table style or as a large group of people facing towards each other in one circle. In the West, people circulate individually in a room and form temporary clusters.
  14. Asians especially in the Far east and South east Asian cities tend to be early and quick adopters of new technology.
  15. Expressing anger or dislike is more valued in Western Society. In the east it tends to be hidden.
  16. Leadership and hierarchy: Leaders have a stronger authority vis a vis their team and are looked up to. In the West the approach is less hierarchical and more collaborative.

Related: Competitive Intelligence Gathering For International Markets

How is Design & Design-Thinking Affecting Innovation and Economic Growth in China?

In Business 

Attitudes towards Design in China have evolved along with the development of its manufacturing base, more emphasis on branding and the adoption of Design-led products and services by its consumers. Design consumes a bigger proportion of Chinese business investment today.


In the past, Design was neglected by government but now state policy is focused on its development with Top-down leadership heading infrastructural changes and investment in this arena. For example: The number of Design schools has gone from 3 to 1000 today. Cathy showed us a Timeline highlighting the Impact of Design on the Chinese Market: I believe this same evolutionary pattern can be seen in our own economic histories here and also replicated in other parts of the developing world, main BRIC countries or Dragon/Tiger Economies in South East Asia.

1970s: Design and designer products were an Import only

1980s: Manufacturers Copy Designs from the West

1990s: China began to follow Designs and Trends from the West

2000: Localisation of Design within China 

2010 and beyond: Design Innovation emerging from within Chinese Companies

A Contemporary Snapshot of the Chinese Market

Cathy outlined new elements that define Chinese society and their new business landscape with respect to her sector.

  1. There is now a movement from conservative to lavish spending. I presume this is due to the rise of their New Middle class.
  2. A very small client base existed for designers once but now it is like a vast stretch of uncultivated land – more small to medium sized businesses want to hire designers. I believe this presents an opportunity for western design-based businesses and designer products.
  3. China was known for cheap design labour then but now wage rates are starting to match New York. I suspect the same trend is occurring in manufacturing to a lesser degree as wage costs rise overall.
  4. Businesses in China moved from copying to creating their own Designs and Branding.
  5. The first Little Emperor generation is now part of the workforce and has a large burden carry now as they have more economic dependants per household.
  6. Chinese business has moved from a little town to Global perspective.
  7. Jobs used to be considered a lifelong contract but now more are job hopping.
  8. There is more Global competition to supply design into china now and experienced designers are now in demand in China.
  9. Awareness and perception of design is deeper and broader. It is now prevalent in more categories not just in a Visual Arts context within the media but used in more forms of Media now. Designers and design thinking is being utilised in research, business and strategy.


My Key Epiphanies from the Q&A Discussion

  1. We assume that being online gets us noticed globally but Cathy pointed out that our social media channels including Google could be blocked or censored by the Chinese state so its hard to get noticed there unless you sign up for local sites like Baidu, or focus on a particular region given the sheer scale of the country’s audience.
  2. A little town in China can contain 2 million people. If marketing into China, the scale is so large, you can focus on a small percentage section or region and still do very well. In fact you do better by being more focused.
  3. There is no big take up of central heating, insulation or retrofit programmes in terms of Sustainable Building so big opportunities exist for green business in China.
  4. It seems to me, issues like Copyright and the Protection of Intellectual property should be researched and emphasised in their next phase of economic development. This should be relevant to both local Chinese Designers that are emerging, and the new foreign firms seeking to export design services and designer products.

Related: International Marketing Checklist

In Summary

Locally, we have seen the recent twinning of Dublin with Beijing and a history of bilateral visits between our heads of state and business leaders dating back 2 generations. A keynote speaker at the start of the talk recalled: once upon a time the father of the current Chinese Premier visited the Irish Shannon region to learn from our regional economic development model. Now, I suspect the reverse is about to happen. It seems, the shift in focus is finally starting to reach a sort of tipping point out here in the Western-most tip of the European continent. Cognisant of the prolonged challenges in the more mature Western European economies, and the growth of opportunities in the BRIC markets, more emphasis needs to be placed on understanding and connecting with the Far East.

Elish’s original blog post can be accessed here.


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