How to Create Successful CX for Chinese Consumers

An interview with former Starbucks China CMO Emily Chang

Customer Experience (CX) is more than just a buzz word that’s gained traction over the last five years along with the accelerating adoption of smartphones and connectivity around the world. The disruptive digital revolution over the past decade has resulted in ever-evolving customer expectations that have transcended traditional industry barriers. People shopping financial products now expect the same quality of CX as they get from Apple, just as consumers purchasing healthcare products may anticipate similar hospitality services to those provided by InterContinental. So how do brands keep up with these expectations in order to create quality customer experiences and lasting relationships?

Finding ways to create meaningful relationships with customers is always difficulty, but becomes even more complex when a multinational brand brings that CX to overseas markets. These brands must balance global consistency with cultural nuances in their customer experience design.

Emily Chang, a bi-cultural executive who led Apple Retail Marketing in Asia between 2011 to 2013, once mentioned an interesting anecdote about Apple Japan in an interview she did with Chris Denson. She recounted that in the early years of the Apple store’s presence in Japan, sales people would wear white gloves, hand the customer a card with a name on it and then step away quietly. This was the Japanese way of selling premium products. But it was not Apple. So they needed to change cultural expectations in order to maintain brand consistency.

After Emily went to work for Starbucks China as CMO in 2017, Starbucks partnered with WeChat to roll out the social gifting digital experience, 用星说 (Say it with Starbucks), which enabled users to gift a Starbucks beverage to friends or family instantly. This was not a CX tactic originating from Starbucks US, but it was a smart and innovative experience design that incorporated the gifting culture in China.

Since frog entered the Chinese market in 2007, we have helped hundreds of global brands design innovative products, experiences and services for Chinese consumers. Through partnering with our clients, we have observed tremendous changes in consumer research methodologies, marketing technologies and even organizational structures in large corporations.

In order to keep ourselves abreast with new consumer and technology trends, we’re engaging with executives in Fortune 500 and unicorn companies across the globe to exchange our thoughts and insights on CX, innovation, branding and beyond.

Below, frog global marketing director Liwen Jin speaks to former Starbucks China CMO Emily Chang about Customer Experience Design, balancing cultural expectations across a global brand, and the “secret sauce” to successful CX.


Liwen Jin: The appetites, behaviors and expectations of consumers today are changing at a faster-than-ever pace. As a marketer, how do you spot trends and uncover consumer insights? Are there any big changes in [your/ the] approach today compared to the time when you worked at Procter & Gamble?

Emily Chang: Sure, everything is changing, always. And I firmly believe that if we do not remain humble and teachable, we will fall behind… become obsolete. Twenty years ago, we often sat in dark rooms chewing on M&Ms while we listened to a researcher talk to 5-6 consumers. We were passive. Conclusions were susceptible to group think. Those contributing were often a biased sample set. And the whole set-up was clearly a way to gain a few pounds, quickly!

We have come a long way in seeking to understand our consumer. Now it’s about empathy and engagement. Living with, shopping with, talking with consumers face-to-face. Probing questions, meaningful discussions, unpacking. By unpacking, I mean asking why… then why… then why. Getting to the root of the thought, the core of the insight.

I’ll never forget the time we spent a few hours with some of our most successful general managers at IHG. We talked about what defined a truly outstanding guest experience. I asked, “what specific action helps guests feel valued”? and “why is that meaningful?” until I thought someone was going to punch me! Paul stilled the room with his insightful statement: “Guests feel a truly InterContinental experience when we greet them with eye contact and maintain that eye contact from welcome to farewell.” Well, that was specific, actionable, and inspiring! Thomas then followed that statement with, “Yes, that’s exactly it! Because when we maintain that eye contact, our guests feel truly seen. And that’s fundamentally what everyone wants… to be seen.” Now that was an insight!

You see, it doesn’t matter what level we are or where we sit; we need to be hands-on and personal. This means we’re not in a dark room. We’re exposed and vulnerable ourselves. We’re questioning and debating and drawing and brainstorming. That’s the only way a relationship is built. And developing a relationship is the only way we can really learn.

LJ: In an interview with Chris Denson back in 2017, you mentioned “empathy” was very important to understanding local culture and crafting successful marketing. How can marketers sharpen their ability to be empathetic with customers? How can companies better understand and connect with customers?

EC: Wow, you did your research! Yes, I believe empathy is critical. defines empathy as: “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” To me, we must cross that divide, shifting from observation from a distance to experiencing first-hand what a customer’s life is like. We must care about and seek to understand how she/he feels, his/her struggles and triumphs. This is empathy. And there’s no short-cut to getting there. We can only feel and experience first-hand by rolling up our sleeves and getting involved.

How do we do this? We shop with our customers. We share life with them. One of my most memorable experiences was living with a family in Mumbai. Sleeping on bedrolls, rolling them up in the morning to make space, cooking on the open fire for a meal, washing together in the public area. This is the way to understand those we serve. And only when we understand, can we become empathic to solve for what our customer needs… and design against those needs in a relevant, meaningful and delightful way.

LJ: Along with digital transformation we’re seeing unprecedented availability in consumer data, especially in China. CMOs today need to increasingly equip themselves with data knowledge in order to make informed decisions. Did you and your team also evolve to become more data-driven? How did you incorporate and also balance qualitative and quantitative input in your decision making?

EC: Similar to how we learn about our customers and gain meaningful insights, it’s about being hands-on. The best way to understand where data comes from is to understand the source of our data. To see if and how different data streams sync up. If they don’t, we must understand where the gap is. I studied science and engineering as an undergraduate, and still think in systems today. So, the more we understand the source and quality of our data, as well as how they link up and/or feed into a broader data lake, the better we can leverage the data effectively. Numbers don’t mean anything unless we know what to do with them.

LJ: We all know that today, customer experience (CX) is critical to the success of any brand. Could you share with us your thoughts on how to design a successful experience strategy by drawing upon your experiences at Starbucks, Apple and InterContinental? How did you manage to localize a global brand’s customer experience for a vastly different market like China?

EC: We must always start with the end in mind. In the last few years, HCD has become a trending term: Human-Centered Design. Really, this is just a fancy description for the same idea we’ve just discussed: Getting hands-on to understand and gain empathy for those we serve. To design useful CX, it’s imperative to identify best-in-class examples (hint: look outside your industry), understand where the service gaps exist, and create seamless experiences. Our job spans from the micro-second up to the birds-eye view. At the micro level, we need to pay attention to the smallest details, removing every bit of friction we can identify. At the macro level, we should step back and evaluate the first overall impression: the broad strokes of our design, the consistency of our brand presentation, the effectiveness with which our company’s purpose breaks through, and the visceral, emotional reaction we evoke.

I remember late evenings with Crystal and Steven as we designed the “Say it with Starbucks” digital gifting experience. We spent equal time on the design of UI, customization options for customers who sought to send a personalized gift, and the details of minimizing taps, clicks and wait time. It was all equally important and came together for one, unified and optimized customer experience.

LJ: How do you measure customer experience?

EC: Of course, there are the standard metrics like NPS. Ultimately, customers reward the design of great experiences with their visits and hard-earned dollars. If we continue to delight, we may win their repeat business and if we’re really good, their loyalty. But I think there are other metrics we ought to consider, too. Again, this requires that we delve into the micro: how long are customers staying on each page? How many engage with us? Where, how and why? When do customers drop off or close the window? We’re talking detailed observation and analysis here, but metrics that can reveal incredibly valuable and specific insights on where we’re doing something right vs. where we’re falling down.

Qualitative inputs are equally important. What are customers saying? How many brand sites and social media pages essentially serve as outlets for customer complaints? How many truly provide authentic, on-brand engagement? How many of us are regularly scrubbing qualitative engagement to better understand our customers’ experience? Catherine, who led our Guest Experience team at IHG, taught me quite a lot about this area. She was an expert at balancing quant and quali… as well as quantifying the quali in a meaningful way that unlocked new insights. How lucky I feel to have worked with her and her incredible team!

LJ: Kimberly Whitler, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia commented in her recent HBR article that one of the central differences between marketers working in large western multinational firms in China, and Chinese marketers working for local firms is that the former tends to focus on scale and efficiency (a profit mindset) while the latter on speed and growth (a revenue mindset). Do you agree with that? How would you balance these two approaches (i.e., profit vs. growth and strategy vs. speed)? And what could global brands do better to fend off the intense competition from upstart brands in China?

EC: Having worked a decade in each country, I’m not sure the delineation is quite so clear-cut. Perhaps I’d look at it in a different way. Those who have come from a developed region may have a bias to prepare the entire dinner before serving it. That means the apps are on the table, main course is warming in the oven, and dessert is already plated in the kitchen. The complete meal experience is designed in advance, fully prepared and served up in its entirety. In a developing region, there is a bent and possibly more of an appetite to “move fast and learn fast.” The appetizers may be served while the main course is still being cooked… and we’ll figure out what’s for dessert while the main is being consumed!

In my view, this doesn’t mean that these developing markets lack strategy or can’t move with speed. It’s a little more about mindset and accustomed ways of working. But that goes back to your very first question. If we’re not moving, we’re stagnant. So, we need to be constantly questioning what we do well and what we can learn to do better. Each has much to learn from the other, and both will be better off for it.

LJ: We all know that the Chinese market is not an easy one for most western multinationals to survive and thrive in—in fact, we’ve seen many flops in the last 20 years. But the four brands you worked for—Procter & Gamble, Apple, InterContinental and Starbucks—all did particularly well in China. What is the common “secret sauce” from your perspective?

EC: To me, it’s a four-part recipe:


1 Humility

No-one thinks they have all the answers, so everywhere I’ve had the privilege of working, I’ve seen regions learning what we can from global and global asking questions to better understand local market dynamics.


2Common vision

When we are aligned to one joint set of KPIs, it’s much easier to row together. We’re headed to the same goal, and success is similarly defined. So, we’re collectively set up for success.


3Customer first

In successful corporate environments, conversations aren’t about our strategy and what we hope to accomplish. Rather, it’s about what customers need and want, and how we need to do to deliver just that.


4Bi-Cultural teams

People always come first. When we place the right people in the right roles and set them up for success, business will thrive. I believe that the right people for the Chinese market, are more than bi-lingual… they’re more than functional experts… they are bi-cultural leaders. They understand both global and regional cultures, nuances, what’s said as well as what’s unsaid.


We’d like to thank Emily for taking the time to chat and share her wonderful insights.

Emily Chang has over 20 years of experience in global marketing as Chief Commercial Officer of InterContinental Hotels Group China, Head of Apple Retail Marketing Asia, and CMO of Starbucks China. To learn more about Emily, please visit her website, or follow her on Twitter.


Liwen Jin
Global Marketing Director, frog
Liwen Jin
Liwen Jin
Global Marketing Director, frog

Liwen Jin is Global Marketing Director at frog. She is passionate about cross-cultural marketing, strategy and innovation, and also a strong believer of “design thinking”. She loves to understand and decode consumer behaviors and innovation trends in different cultures.

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