Chinese community marketing: ‘Spirit of Honda’ ads use Chinese symbolism

A drop of water creates ripples on the still surface of a pond.A flock of birds flies in formation against the setting sun.Two shepherds, small on the horizon, follow their cattle across a plain.These images, of the sort more typically at...

A drop of water creates ripples on the still surface of a pond.

A flock of birds flies in formation against the setting sun.

Two shepherds, small on the horizon, follow their cattle across a plain.

These images, of the sort more typically at home in the pages of coffee table books and travel magazines, were used by Toronto-based car maker Honda Canada to express its corporate essence to the Chinese community.

Michael Leung, president of Crimson Advertising, the Toronto agency which created the ‘True Spirit of Honda’ campaign as a prelude to the Chinese market launch of the 1994 Honda Accord sedan, says he chose the images, not because they had anything to do with cars, but for their symbolic value.

Leung says the drop of water, for example, implies a state of quiet, focussed deliberation and recalls a Chinese expression which means ‘a dream can be reflected in a drop of water.’

The image was used to illustrate an ad entitled, ‘Breaking new ground with an open mind,’ which philosophizes on the nature of technological breakthroughs.

‘It is only by reviewing things from a different angle, opening up our minds, that we can find truths and unlock the doors to technology,’ reads the English translation.

The second execution, entitled ‘Big strides forward, deftly,’ uses an image of migrating birds to show how Honda makes technological advances by setting itself practical goals.

And, finally, the third ad, under the headline, ‘Perfection in harmony,’ uses a peaceful agricultural image to express the idea that each element of a Honda – the interior, the engine and the body – is developed in the context of a grand design.

Each of the ads ends with the tagline, ‘And that is why we are always ahead of the pack, setting up standards for the rest.’

Leung says the intention was to capture the essence of Japanese principles – those being an open mind, the pursuit of progress and attention to detail – and own that positioning with the Chinese market.

Bridgid Wilson, advertising manager at Honda, says as a Canadian of Irish descent, she was unable to judge the creative from a cultural point of view and had to rely on Crimson Advertising to tell her what was appropriate.

Nevertheless, she was not surprised that the visuals had nothing to do with cars.

‘Symbolism is very typical [of Asian cultures,]‘ Wilson says.

‘When Japanese engineers get together to talk about a car, they form an image, usually of an animal, and then try to match the car’s features to that image,’ she says.

‘It’s very different from how a North American engineer would go about designing a car.’

The image campaign represented the first time Honda had commissioned advertising specifically for the Chinese market (although Crimson had earlier done advertising for Acura, another Honda line) and came out of Wilson’s desire to speak to Chinese consumers in what she calls a ‘culturally correct’ manner.

‘Up until this point, we had been translating advertising, and we wanted to be sensitive to the fact that there are cultural differences, there are different ways to appeal to different cultural groups,’ she says.

Although Honda does not keep statistics with respect to sales by ethnic group, and, therefore, did not know what proportion of its sales were to Chinese consumers, Wilson says she was anxious to target the Chinese community for a couple of reasons.

First, Chinese populations in Toronto and Vancouver are experiencing rapid growth as a result of increased immigration from Hong Kong in the years leading up to 1997, when China will take over administration of the British Crown colony.

As such, they represent a continuous source of new car buyers.

‘When people arrive in Canada, they are going to need a car,’ Wilson says. ‘So, they might as well drive our car.

‘We also know that our product sells very strongly through word-of-mouth,’ she says.

‘We felt that if we could make an aggressive approach to the Chinese market, and gain a hold, we would have an advantage with the next wave of immigrants.’

Second, Japanese cars in general enjoy a good reputation among Hong Kong Chinese.

Leung says the belief that Japanese products are high quality, well designed and reliable, is ingrained with Chinese consumers.

He says this is especially significant given the fact that for years after the Second World War, only Chinese who could not afford a European- or American-made product would buy something from their wartime adversary.

Asked why, if Japanese products had earned themselves such a good reputation with Chinese consumers, he felt it necessary that Honda undertake an image campaign, Leung says it was largely to counter Honda’s virtual absence to that point in Chinese media.

‘Say it in Chinese’

‘Every time a Chinese consumer was being reached, it was through mainstream advertising in English or French,’ he says. ‘We believe they needed to say it in Chinese.

‘That is important, to tell them there is a strong commitment from Honda Canada to serve them and to reinforce [Honda's] good image.

‘We wanted to tell them it’s the same as in Asia. You will get the same kind of quality, the same kind of service.’

As well, he felt it was crucial to reassure Chinese immigrants they were making the right decision by buying a Honda.

Few own cars

According to Leung, fewer than one in 10 people in Hong Kong own a car. (A 95% tax on cars, coupled with exorbitant insurance and parking costs make owning a car, for most people, prohibitively expensive.)

As a result, most immigrants from Hong Kong arrive in Canada never having owned or even driven a car.

‘That’s why you bump into a lot of inexperienced mature drivers,’ Leung says with a chuckle.

‘When they come to a new country, they want to be sure they are riding in a good car, a safe car, a quality car that needs very little maintenance, because they don’t know much about cars,’ he says.

‘It’s a matter of image.’

The campaign ran in both major Chinese-language daily newspapers in Toronto and Vancouver, Ming Pao and Sing Tao and the Chinese-language magazine Choices.

The newspaper buy was intensive, with the purchase of three right-hand consecutive full pages, every day, Monday to Saturday, for two weeks.

The launch ads followed, in the same pattern, for an additional two weeks.

After that, Crimson placed single full-page ads, and finally, smaller-space versions of the same creative.

Leung says that while a buy of this magnitude might prove expensive in mainstream media, the cost of advertising in Chinese media is much less.

‘When you think about it, all [marketers] need to do is take 3% to 4% of their advertising dollars, pump it into the Chinese market, and that would actually tap a huge portion of sales volume,’ he says.

As far as results are concerned, Wilson declined to reveal sales figures, but says she is confident the campaign was ‘well worth the investment.’