Keyvisual China Insights

Observations of Online Panel Studies in the Chinese Automotive Market 

An interview with Ruochen Li,
market research specialist for China 

Compared to the last five years, where do you see changes in the way market research is conducted in the Chinese market by the German automotive industry? 

The need to do market research in China has always been there, it was there five years ago, and it is still today. What has changed are two things: the timing of when the research is done and the way the research is done. In the automotive industry, feedback from Chinese customers was often solicited in the past after the product was already fully developed. Automakers were trying to figure out how to adapt vehicles for the Chinese market. However, this has changed dramatically. Research activities for the Chinese market are now being conducted at the development stage to make the vehicles more responsive to the needs of the affluent Chinese customer base. For example, one of the most frequently asked questions is: What is more important to them when buying a car: seamless smartphone integration in the central control panel or a perfect start-stop system? Indeed, the answers can differ significantly from those of German customers. These are precisely the aspects that help to complete the product development strategy. On the long road from prototype to market-ready product, it can take years. Here, manufacturers need to keep an eye on the latest information about customer expectations and wishes for certain functions/additional products, even for the next models. This requires a massive understanding of local needs, the importance of cars to lifestyles and user behavior in vehicles. Manufacturers must also be able to recognize the cultural requirements beyond the numbers and interpret them correctly for themselves. 

In addition, we find that the young target groups in the Chinese market are very open to innovations. They are willing to try out new things. Market researchers in the automotive industry should take advantage of this. Agile market research methods can be applied to generate even more relevant information. The launch of new products and services can also be prepared more effectively, and faster growth is possible by testing new innovative concepts, sprints and MVP (Minimum Viable Product). 

What are the typical challenges companies face when creating research projects in the Chinese market? 

Often the importance of the political, social and cultural background of the country for the correct interpretation of studies is underestimated. This is a major reason that leads to a wrong study result. In quantitative research, it is common for studies to be conducted in a global setting. A uniform questionnaire is designed and translated; the target group is defined as “nationally representative” with the same exclusion questions in all markets. 

In China, this could mean someone from Shanghai with an annual income of over 9,000 euros (average annual income in Shanghai). And it could just as easily mean someone from Nanyang, where the urbanization rate is below 50 percent (about 60 percent is the average urbanization rate in China) and the annual income is about 3,800 euros (average annual income in China is 4,000 euros). These two people could have no overlap in terms of socio-demographics, mentality and lifestyle. But what do they have in common? Shanghai and Nanyang are both among the 16 cities in China with more than 10 million people, and both cities have good Internet infrastructure, so quantitative online studies can be accessed. There is probably even better Internet coverage in Nanyang than in many major German cities. What we mean is that “national representatives” in China can be very different and thus different study results can be expected when demographic characteristics are considered. Moreover, the composition of a nationally representative target group may have very little to do with the actual target groups/customers of the manufacturers, as the example shows. Sure, we are presenting two extremely different examples here and there are many people who fall in between. But what we want to show with this example is that before any study, the target groups and screening criteria must be carefully discussed and defined from study to study according to the available information. 

Thank you Ruochen, for the insights into market research processes in the Chinese automotive market. We have gained an overview of the current situation and learned what typical challenges market researchers encounter. Look forward to the second part of the interview. 

Your contact:


Nicole Schleiffer
Director Automotive & Mobility