Joshua Cooper Ramo, vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, is the go-to guy large corporations and governments call on to better understand the people who live in whichever hemisphere they don't. He helps his clients in the West understand Chinese behavior, and helps the Chinese understand the West.
I heard Ramo speak earlier this month at the Luxury Summit organized by Time Inc., and one of the most interesting things he talked about was the contrasting ways in which Chinese and Americans literally see the world.
He relayed a study in which American and Chinese students were asked to look at a series of images on a monitor. Each photo had different content, but what each had in common was a large subject in the foreground and a somewhat detailed background. One image, for example, showed a tiger standing near a stream in a forest.
Westerners spent about 90% of their time looking at the foreground image --the tiger, in this instance -- and their eyes didn't move around much. But the Chinese typically spent about 80% of their time scanning the background before assessing the tiger.
I was in China last week attending the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit in Sanya, Hainan province. The West-based WTTC attendees looked primarily at what was put right in front of them: data showing a sustained economic boom in China, and related business opportunities.
And, based on the structures physically in front of them -- the Western-brand resorts that hosted WTTC delegates, the large water park seen on the drive from the airport -- they could easily have concluded that as the Chinese modernize, they will move toward Western behaviors.
But will they? According to Ramo, it would help Western businesses to spend a little more time looking at the background -- in this instance, historical background -- before drawing conclusions.
He said that much of what informs the Chinese worldview dates to 476 to 221 BC, an era known as the Warring States Period. As its name suggests, it was a time of tremendous upheaval.
On the other hand, the roots of Western thought are rooted in times of relative calm and rapid intellectual progress, i.e., ancient Greece and the Renaissance.
But if one's reference point is rooted in conflict, environmental observation is an important skill.
The biggest mistake that a Westerner who is hoping to take advantage of the opportunities in China could make would be to think that because the Chinese have adopted a taste for Western things, from water parks to Buicks, China will be embracing Western models going forward.
In fact, their desire for Western-style prosperity and gadgetry does not mean the Chinese want to evolve into Americans. In fact, the Chinese, as they move from rural areas to cities and concurrently move into modernity, are also inventing complex identities for themselves.
And some of that reinvention might include a nationalistic streak that rejects certain symbols of the West while embracing others. A young man who successfully led a campaign to have Starbucks kicked out of the Forbidden City subsequently went to Yale.
There is an "explosion of new identities," Ramo said, adding that as they forge their own way, the Chinese might not choose a path of peaceful coexistence with the West. "They are not just aimed at prosperity," Ramo said. "They have their own agenda. Development will not necessarily be a smooth process, and won't necessarily have a happy ending from a Western perspective."
So, he said, brands must conform to China.
But how that conformation takes place is more complicated than creating a "Chinese product" based on perceptions of what Chinese consumers want.
While at the summit, I had a chance to speak with Abid Butt, CEO of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts. The luxe brand, which started in Thailand and is now Singapore-based, has 36 properties, 10 of which are in China. It has 23 more Chinese properties in the pipeline; globally, his largest source market is Chinese.
Butt said that while Banyan Tree tweaked the product for Chinese travelers in the same way they would tweak for Japanese or French travelers -- e.g., they would add breakfast items that are familiar -- they have not strayed far from their fundamental positioning as a Thai product.
Rather than trying to analyze what the Chinese want and then trying to build a model Chinese property, Butt believes the way forward is simply to stay authentic. It used to be that first-time travelers preferred what was familiar, he said, but today "that is out the door; technology changed that."
Today's traveler -- Chinese, American, German, whoever -- simply goes on the Web and becomes acquainted with the destination, getting to know it before they arrive.
Although Ramo said that brands must conform to China, his message might not actually conflict with Butt's philosophy. Regardless of what's in the physical foreground, if a supplier provides a background that stays true and consistent to its values, it might be speaking a universally understood, and appreciated, language. Email Arnie Weissmann at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.