China: An Opportunity To Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone

For this week's chat, we sat down with Mr. Gianpaolo Bruno, the Director of the Italian Trade Agency (ITA).

Operating under the aegis and coordination of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the organization is an Italian Government's trade and investment agency entrusted with the role of supporting the international business activities of Italian companies on foreign markets.

During our conversation with Mr. Bruno, we get the chance to use his special insight and perspective to discuss the challenges and opportunities for Italian companies doing business in China.

How would you introduce your personal and professional experience in China?

As Director of the Italian Trade Agency’s (ITA) office in Beijing and coordinator of its offices in China and Mongolia, I have been in China since November 2019 and, so far, the experience has been very interesting and rewarding both from a professional and human standpoint, even though the year 2020 has been a very difficult one for everyone. China is a very interesting country, rich in history, culture, and tradition and I am enjoying the opportunity to study and to learn the features of its amazing civilization. From a professional point of view, I am having the chance to witness the dynamics of China’s brilliant economic development process and its acquisition of many comparative advantages within a vast array of sectors, particularly in the digital eco-system. This is strongly enriching my experience and my professional background, and I consider myself very lucky for this wonderful opportunity.

Considering your crucial position in a governmental organization dedicated to trading and investment, what are the advantages and challenges of being present in China?

I think that cultural differences must be carefully considered in a business relationship as this relationship may succeed only if the two parties acknowledge and include them as new values in their business code.

The advantages are tremendous: it offers the opportunity to open up your mindset, step outside your comfort zone and to develop new skills, cross-fertilizing with other cultures, creating an international network of valuable contacts, and having the chance to develop cross-cultural skills. This helps to develop stronger communication skills and confidence which represents an important competitive edge, without underestimating the associated lifestyle factors.

Regarding cultural differences: Italy is an Individualist culture. For Italians having their ideas and objectives in life is very motivating and the route to happiness is through personal fulfillment. China, on the other end - at least in principle, as this attitude is gradually changing with respect to the younger generations - is a highly collectivist culture where people are more inclined to act as a group and people act in the interests of the group and not necessarily of themselves. Another difference between the two cultures is the hierarchy level: Italian society, in general, has a shorter hierarchy level. This means that often, in a company, the bottom and middle-level management have more decisional power than in China.

All these general features exert some sort of influence on bilateral relationships and business models as well as on business negotiations.

From a diplomatic trend and policies, what do you think will be helpful for business expansion?

Diplomacy exerts a more and more important role in shaping bilateral cooperation relations among countries. If we look at the positive trend of China-Italy bilateral ties in the last few years we can easily ascertain that their strengthening is the result of the excellent diplomatic work which has contributed to defining the current framework of the cooperation between the two countries within the activities of the China-Italy Government Committee, a key instrument of our strategic partnership. This process has greatly enhanced mutual trust and a proactive approach towards a deeper integration between our business communities, laying the ground for a wealth of opportunities and the development of new projects in a wide spectrum of sectors of joint economic activity.

Italian and Chinese culture are getting closer, which are the biggest advantages you see?

As President Xi Jinping said, China and Italy are outstanding representatives of Eastern and Western cultures and the cultural dialogue between them is a great contribution to cultural diversity and intercultural exchanges in the world. As President Mattarella said, both countries must have a deep understanding of the value of interdependence and mutually beneficial cooperation in the face of an increasingly complex world, and they both need to push for high-quality people-to-people exchanges and jointly cope with challenges in the future. I think that these statements are the best answer to this question.

Business fairs and exhibitions are essential to business development. Which recommendation would you give to make the trade show experience more significant, efficient, and productive?

Participating in a trade fair should be regarded as a complex project to be designed and prepared very carefully. I believe that among the most important things to consider is the careful identification of existing clients and potential new ones to reach out through direct contacts. To this end, I believe that there could be support by a professional organization that beforehand could carry out the matchmaking process and, after duly sharing profiles with the client, set up a fully-fledged agenda of meetings. Furthermore, an independent third party could also help the participating company in trying to get insights about the main direct competitors’ moves during the exhibition. Another activity where a third party could bring additional value is providing advice for the communication strategy to be rolled out during the event, to improve its creativity and effectiveness. Third parties could also provide extra services such as preparing an information toolkit on the industry’s landscape for the company’s participating staff or supplying translation services or properly trained personnel to be at the stand on behalf of the company’s representatives. Finally, after the event, there could be a need for the participating company to get a proper follow-up, keeping in touch with contacts and leads acquired during the exhibition.

Which pieces of advice would you give to companies like us that service the international business?

I think that in today’s complex international business environment, service companies should primarily act as cultural mediators to properly guide companies and entrepreneurs through the hurdles of possible cultural mistakes and misunderstandings and to duly prepare them on how to behave and operate in a different cultural eco-system. Furthermore, service companies should advise their clients to carefully plan their strategy when approaching a huge and complex market such as China, utilizing all the levers of the marketing mix to clearly understand demand’s structure and dynamics, ensuring proper segmentation to precisely position themselves. Particular attention should be taken in assisting new entrants in deploying a consistent communication strategy to create brand awareness, accurately build up customer experience, and identify proper communication channels to deliver brand image and the company’s storytelling.

And with those precious suggestions, we thank Mr. Gianpaolo Bruno and his team for the time dedicated to this interview, wishing them good luck with all the future projects.

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