Public opinion in China, and in the media is that Brexit is a great opportunity to create a free trade agreement with the UK.

After the seeming ease with which the recent arrangement was confirmed with Switzerland, there is a general belief that it could and should happen quickly.

Following the referendum, there was general consternation in China that any nation would want to leave the largest trading block in the world. However, opinion has swung to the point that most believe Brexit is a valuable opportunity to radically improve trading conditions between the two nations.

Jack Ma, one of the most powerful business leaders in China, and founder of Chinese retail, Internet and technology conglomerate Alibaba, has gone on record repeatedly to promote the idea of Brexit being a golden opportunity to create seamless commercial conditions, and improve IT exchange.

Such positive sentiment towards the UK is supported by other benefits. The traditional appreciation of British brands and culture is hard to better. TV programmes, films and Premiership football have a huge following, and there is wide appreciation of the ‘gentlemanly' approach to doing things. The UK is also a very popular Chinese holiday destination.

Yet even with these positives the UK still exports far more to Ireland than China. Flagship British companies ranging from Tesco, M&S, Asos, Top Shop, to Pret A Mange arrive with fanfare in China only to leave shortly after with their optimism and investment in tatters. 

So what are the problems with selling in China, and how can they be remedied?

The reasons are simple. Companies do not bother to fully understand markets and buyers, and marketing is done on the cheap and badly. These are unheard of practices when it comes to domestic and Western export markets, where buyers and prospects are thoroughly understood, closely monitored, and marketing to them is constantly fine-tuned.

Tesco's business plan for China was based on what worked in the UK. Its strategy was to do things the ‘Tesco way'. In China that model had no possible chance of working.

Consumers and business buyers in China are now the most sophisticated anywhere. They have become the most spoiled markets in the world in terms of how they are treated by most sellers. Marketing intertwined with mobile payment systems is years ahead of elsewhere - China is the only country to have introduced voice payment - and consumers instantly identify lack of understanding and marketing commitment when they see it.

But success is without question achievable. Obvious examples are Burberry and British Airways, but other lower profile companies have thrived in China because they invested in properly understanding Chinese consumers, and accompanied this with well thought-out and executed marketing. Clarks Shoes identified an opportunity to promote its products as mid priced good quality British shoes. The British labelling was important because it carries connotations of reliability. The company called itself Clarks English, and has been hugely successful. 

It is the type of insight applied by Clarks that works. Marketing is all important too. It must focus on individual engagement with target audiences to win minds, hearts and emotion. However, marketing strategy by UK companies is mostly based on overlaying what works at home and applying it to Chinese social media channels through the use of translation. It alienates audiences who see it for what it is.  

The same is true of the B2B sector. The key to business sales in China is applying context, personalisation and being agile in fast changing environments. A key point is that corporate CRM does not work in China. A facility that can operate like a dream in European or US markets is doomed to failure in China where things happen too fast for CRM to be effective. Agility should be the ambition in B2B

It is important to remember In China that the fast eat the slow. Equally, the creative eat the non-creative. Too many British Companies have a reputation for being slow, and poor communicators. It is important to make marketing exactly fit the time and the place instead of applying templates from elsewhere.

Senior business managers must also properly understand Chinese culture, commerce, politics and how media and customer communication works. Without such information any decisions are necessarily compromised.

The alternative is to appoint trusted consultants that can act as a knowledge source as companies learn. However, in this situation it is important that such third parties have a genuine hands on ground level understanding of all aspects of business in China. Often senior management consultants and managers of global marketing groups only have theoretical knowledge of China, and this leads to uninformed strategic decision making, particularly when it comes to communication strategy and implementation.

China is a land of almost infinite opportunity for UK companies, and opportunities are like to become much greater, but it requires investment in time as much as finance to be successful. There are plenty that have got it right, and they have reaped large rewards because they were fully committed. 

For more information visit