These authors, who conducted an inquiry in to the state of marketing education in China, found that seventy five percent of the students they interviewed say that what they learn in the classroom is not relevant in the marketplace. This fact underlines the rather poor state of marketing education in the world’s second-largest economy. The authors serve up a sound prescription for improving the way marketing is taught, and for making it much easier for western managers to hire local marketers.

In a recent report, the World Bank gave strong emphasis to its view that, in the case of China, soft skills like managing are just as important as hard technical skills, and perhaps even more important, given the country’s traditional bias towards the sciences and the sharp new challenges it faces as a socialist market economy. Within these “soft” skills, marketing should rank as a priority. As sellers’ markets are rapidly transforming themselves into buyers’ markets, and as manufacturing is taking a backseat to services and retailing, the demand for marketing savvy professionals is bound to grow – in China as elsewhere. Marketers are likely to be at the forefront in the quest to identify and develop new segments of customers. For China, however, there is one big problem: Where can it source the marketers it needs?

Ironically, perhaps, marketing in China does have a history; it stretches back over sixty years. Marketing was first found as a course in Chinese universities in the 1940s. The first Chinese-language marketing textbook was published in 1943, and a marketing curriculum had been introduced in Chinese universities before 1949. However, due to the sweeping political, economic, and social changes that took place in the early stage of new government, the national educational system stagnated or even regressed. Under such restrictive ideological and institutional circumstances, practitioner activities, as well as academic teaching and research relating to the market economy, almost totally disappeared.

Matters became much more favorable after 1978, when marketing education, which had been in abeyance for almost 30 years, was revived and began to rapidly expand. The first academic marketing course to appear in China was an introductory course for undergraduates in 1978 entitled “Socialist Market Theory and Practice or Marketing Principles.” With the passage of time other technical courses in marketing began to be offered as electives, such as “Market Research and Applications”, “Principles of Advertising”, and “The Psychology of Consumption.” However, few institutions possessed the capability for setting up a comprehensive program in marketing.

With the introduction of a “market socialist economy” in the 1980s and other changes in the economic system and in marketing practice, higher educational institutions in China began to initiate research in the specialization and diffusion of marketing theory. In the early 1980s several key universities, such as Beijing University, Fudan University, and Nankai University, set up trial marketing courses in their business or management departments. In June 1983, marketing was included in the required undergraduate course list for higher educational institutions under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Commerce. The marketing curriculum for undergraduate students has continued to be developed since; it currently generally consists of an introductory marketing course and other business-related programs in the first and second semester and about five to eight major courses later on.

The year 1984 saw the establishment of an important new organization, the Chinese Marketing Teaching and Research Association (CMTRA). It set out to promote the development of this new discipline by investigating the contents, methods, and problems related to marketing courses, by exchanging marketing teaching experience, and by raising the level of research on marketing. CMTRA has since significantly boosted communication and co-operation in this field in China.

In 1992, the government agreed on and established a new marketing major for undergraduates. The curriculum for the first Masters in Business Administration (MBA) was introduced in 1998, and institutions awarding MBA, and subsequently Executive Masters in Business Administration (EMBA) degrees, wasted no time in introducing marketing as a core course. These institutions also provided a range of further elective courses on different aspects of marketing for students wishing to prepare themselves for careers in that field. In 2002, with the approval of the National Education Ministry, a number of universities, such as Renmin University of China and Shanghai University of Fiscal and Finance, also set up the first independent doctoral degree programs in marketing.

By now marketing has become an indispensable discipline in Chinese academic business schools, which in turn are the most prosperous and fast-growing departments within Chinese universities. Currently, about 400 Chinese universities offer management programs, and all report rising demand for their marketing courses. As well as academic institutions engaged in the provision of marketing training programs, there are many non-academic bodies. These include the sales forces of companies, government and public sector bodies and non-profit organizations. Taking into account all these programs, not to mention the programs jointly run with foreign universities, the teaching of marketing has become widespread – one might say almost ubiquitous – in China.

The state of marketing education in China

But are these programs in marketing up to the challenge of training professionals who are sophisticated enough to succeed in today’s fragmented and fast-moving global markets? In our research we have investigated the top 15 business schools in China that offer MBAs and Executive MBAs and often doctoral and specialized Master’s programs in Marketing. Each had been handpicked by the government as a centre of excellence and had at least one leading foreign academic partner. We looked at what these programs were teaching their students, we talked to their customers – the businesses and recruiting firms – and we talked to their students themselves. We tried to find indicators that we could use to benchmark competencies in marketing education.

Chinese marketing courses can be sharply divided into two classes – indeed one might almost say, universes. One of these is driven by theory, the other is directed towards practice. The first seeks to equip students with largely context-free marketing knowledge – with universal models for product planning, for instance, or quantitative techniques for predicting customer choice. This is the typical terrain of the doctoral and masters programs. As well as a heavy helping of theoretical models and frameworks, they include a great deal of the pedagogic technique the Chinese call ‘force-feeding the duck’ – lectures, in other words. Paradoxically, while Western textbooks are widely used, we detected a marked tendency to claim Chinese roots for a knowledge system that is manifestly of Western origin.

But it is the second “universe” in marketing teaching – the practical – that gives the real cause for concern. While the curricula of most MBAs and Executive MBAs look cutting-edge, with an array of options ranging from the Marketing of High Technology Products to Cyber-Marketing and E-Commerce, from Relationship Marketing to Advertising and Enterprise Image Management, the reality is often far from state-of-the-art. As with the first ‘universe’, there is a heavy stress on theory, leading to a sterile classroom environment, rote learning, a lack of diverse viewpoints and lacklustre range of applications.

The underlying reason for this is by no means hard to find. It is that the first ‘universe’ dominates the second through its most successful products – the doctoral and masters students who aspire to be – and almost always end up becoming – the teachers of the marketing professionals. The division between theory and practice gapes wide in the absence of faculty that could fertilize both with a supply of useful practical insights and experience.

Seventy five percent of the students that we interviewed gave the non-applicability of classroom knowledge as the main reason why they subsequently failed to match up to employers’ expectations – a view which was strongly echoed by the firms themselves. Once they are on the job, Chinese marketers often require basic remedial training. This incurs heavy costs, says the Chinese Marketing Teaching and Research Association. The message to Western businesses in China seems obvious: bring or grow your own marketers.

The need for reforms in marketing education

But what can Western businesses realistically do to supply their employees with the experience missing from their marketing toolkits? Two main approaches appear to be on offer, each of which in turn can be further subdivided according to location: the first is to train Chinese marketers, either in China or abroad, while the second is to train foreign marketers to work in China, again either in China or abroad, as shown in the table below along with examples of actual corporate experience:

    China Foreign
China Motorola claims impressive success extending its corporate university to Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, teaching sales and marketing courses to its employees, suppliers and
J-V partners.
Volkswagen has formed a partnership with the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, to immerse its expatriate European managers in the competitive dynamics of their local markets.
Abroad UK headquartered Standard Chartered Bank brings over high potential Chinese managers to training programs in Oxford University, exposing them to brand management and market research. The Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada runs a China Business MBA stream to prepare non-Chinese students with local case-studies, helping future employees gain insights into the China market.

While these approaches may help fill some short-term gaps in professional marketing expertise in China, the firms we interviewed were adamant and unanimous in their view that transforming the basics of marketing education in China itself is vital if the nation is to maintain its ascent as an economic superpower. Specifically, these firms highlighted six individual needs:

  • The need for marketers who can ring-fence a network of dealers through effective loyalty programs. Given the available talent, sales and distribution currently represents the crucial crunch point in Chinese marketing. In particular, enforcing dealer contracts remains problematic in China in the face of the temptation to go for quick profits.

  • The need for marketers who can adapt and implement new product launches, while at the same time maintain confidentiality. The consumer pull for new products makes it an attractive arena for fresh marketing graduates who sense a quick buck in return for their efforts. However, the prevalence of copycatting, and a lack of properly planned roll-out often leads to disappointment.

  • The need for marketers who are adept at translating PR in to sales. In China, a novelty-craving public makes “event marketing” the dominant PR tool and preferred method of market entry. Skills are fairly strong here, but failure to follow-up often means the full harvest of a successful PR event is never reaped.

  • The need for marketers who are able to grasp the totality of a campaign and can create a consistent marketing mix. While brand consciousness is high and rising among Chinese consumers and marketers alike, the challenge of adapting a global brand to local conditions is formidable. Brand is often confused with a slogan, value proposition with image, and advertising seen as the only way to build brand awareness.

  • The need for marketers who understand, and are willing to play by, a holistic scorecard of performance measures. Strong trading instincts make Chinese marketers past-masters at price-promotions and deal-making – but often at the expense of profitability.

  • The need for marketers who are sensitive to consumer demands and can serve as active conduits to their colleagues. Despite a formal understanding of segmentation, the tendency to lump diverse consumer segments together still dominates marketing mindsets, leading to missed opportunities to differentiate markets and grow the business.

So, where does all this leave the teaching marketing in China? While our research has shown that the development of marketing is well under way in China, a range of severe road blocks can be anticipated as a result of the country’s flawed approach to nurturing marketing talent. Now – and for the future – the challenge is to change mindsets from the ad-hoc to the systematic and from the tactical to the strategic, to avoid the overly theoretical and to combine sound practical instincts with state of the art analysis.

About the Author

Dr Guo-qing Guo is Professor of Marketing at Renmin University of China, Beijing.

About the Author

Kunal Basu is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Management, McGill University, and a Fellow in Strategic Marketing, University of Oxford, Templeton College, where he is also the….
Read Kunal Basu's full bio

About the Author

Kunal Basu is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Management, McGill University, and a Fellow in Strategic Marketing, University of Oxford, Templeton College, where he is also the….
Read Kunal Basu's full bio