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Converging paths: The importance of paying respect to culture

No fortune cookie in china

Back in the day, before Harvey Hartman founded The Hartman Group, he worked for a time at Wang Laboratories with Edward Yang, then the senior vice president responsible for the Asia Pacific and Americas region. They went their separate ways – Harvey on a pathway into helping companies better understand consumer behavior and Edward to helping companies including Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and others do business in Asia – in particular his native China.

Edward and Harvey recently caught up in person and found that their seemingly separate paths actually have had a great deal in common: culture. A deep understanding of consumer culture (in general) and food culture (specifically) is the keystone of The Hartman Group’s unique, beyond-the-numbers insights, making the firm an often behind-the-scenes “secret weapon” for a host of Fortune 500 food companies. “Paying respect to culture” is the core principle guiding Edward’s advising corporations in their cross-broader businesses between East and West. 

Edward’s success in China, from his longtime relationships with government officials and top businesspeople to his passionate philanthropic pursuits leading the building of elementary schools through his board membership with Yunnan Project Hope, is tied to his understanding of the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. 

Edward Yang with children in China

These schools are for impoverished children who otherwise would never have the opportunity to go to school. The photo on the right is of Ed in Yunnan, his latest school opening. These kids just won the lottery by getting a basic education that we, here in the West, take for granted. He has had "graduates" go on to college and come back to teach kids just like they were before Ed built the school for them.

In Mr. Yang’s book “Confucius Says ... There Are No Fortune Cookies in China: How Understanding Chinese Culture Is Key to Building Relationships,” he points out that “starting on the right foot in any relationship requires learning about one another’s cultural differences. All social relations are most successful when built on mutual awareness and respect.” 

In the food sector, Harvey noted that many iconic U.S. brands are in a sunset phase in the West; they are no longer growing rapidly in their home country while seeing a “sunrise of hope” for their businesses in China. Mr. Yang agreed. He believes there appears to be a big opportunity in China due to a reverence for Western brands. “The Chinese want the best,” he explained. “What is successful in the U.S. is of great interest in China to duplicate.” 

“Consumers in China don’t trust their food providers and go to Western supermarkets,” Edward shared. 

People still hark back to the melamine-tainted milk incident of 2008 and have a sense that, despite two executions, the people truly responsible were not penalized and therefore the problem was not truly fixed, he said. 

That unfortunate situation opens a world of possibilities to U.S. food manufacturers and retailers, to bring beloved and well-trusted brands to a gigantic population of increasingly well-off shoppers. As Yang says, “China now possesses the world’s second largest economy, and its consumer demands a healthier and better lifestyle; I would sincerely encourage companies wanting to take advantage of the opportunities in China to seek professional help and then go East, America. Now!”



Culture Point Of View


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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