HONG KONG: Chinese definitions of success are rooted in Confucian culture so consumers there typically regard material possessions in a different way to Western consumers, a leading industry figure has said.

Tom Doctoroff, Asia-Pacific CEO of advertising agency JWT, told the Asia Society that "materialism is really an indicator of hope for the future", reported the South China Morning Post.

"They are not just status projectors, plain and simple," he said, "they are tools of advancement and the willingness to invest in these types of products is strong, even among the youth."

Advancement, however, was not about simply copying Western consumers. "They [mainland Chinese] want to be seen as citizens of the world, absorbing foreign influences in a Chinese context," Doctoroff explained.

This could manifest itself in a divide between public and private where people would go a Starbucks coffee house or a Häagen-Dazs ice-cream parlour to demonstrate they could afford such luxury items but then buy local branded white goods which were not widely seen by others.

Doctoroff noted, however, that as incomes increased and as people entertained more at home they would increasingly consider foreign brands in this context.

The desire for luxury products was undimmed, he said, but added that the marketing for them was very weak. This was down to the fact that "they are largely dominated by a belief in their product almost as a religion and it's often dominated by culturally oriented or absolutist creative directors in different cities".

One consequence of this, he suggested, was that some brands had found it difficult to strike the right balance between being relevant locally while still retaining an international aspiration.

Another aspect he had noted was how people used their understanding of luxury products – such as knowing the difference between an Italian fabric and a French one – to show their developing discrimination as they moved up the social hierarchy.

This had led to brand "stretchability" and a multi-tiered structure with higher prices for the most elegant or even bespoke items.

Underlying all this was a culture almost diametrically opposed to Western individualism. "[I]t's about co-existence and regimentation and entrenched ambition", said Doctoroff. "You have to pull yourself up by mastering convention, whereas in the West it's about challenging it."

Data sourced from South China Morning Post; additional content by Warc staff