Kirsi Mantua-Kommonen, who will be defending her dissertation in Aalto University’s School of Business, examined the provenance of cultural colour meanings and their role in modern China. According to Mrs. Mantua-Kommonen, many cultural forces such as ideology and religion have by nature a very persist role in meaning-making, whereas forces such as globalisation and economic development challenge and transform these meanings. Modern meanings draw from the dynamics of these relatively more persisting and relatively more transforming cultural forces.
‘I employed the example of the colour of a hat in my dissertation’, says Ms Mantua-Kommonen.
‘When someone in China says that a man is wearing a green hat, it means that his wife is unfaithful. This meaning dates back several dynasties when a husband apparently had to wear a green hat as a label of being shamed. The nature of this meaning reflects from Confucian ideology, and is extremely persistent. The meaning of the saying links with the colour of a tangible hat and has even been transferred to other accessories such as a green scarf or tie. Therefore, it is worth acknowledging when giving gift, for example. On the other hand, in other circumstances the significance of the colour green in China is positive’, she explains.
Red is still the most typical colour for a Chinese company's logo as in traditional Finnish companies it is blue.
Hat is used as a metaphor in China in other contexts, too. For example in the 1990s, when it was well known that state-owned enterprises (SEO’s) had many advantages over private companies, the private companies often used a “red hat strategy” i.e. they tried to give the impression of being state-owned so they, too, could enjoy these advantages. Red is still the most typical colour for a Chinese company's logo as in traditional Finnish companies it is blue.
A new generation every five years
Understanding the origins of colour meanings led Kirsi Mantua-Kommonen deeper into the mental landscape of the Chinese consumer, which has rapidly been developed due to the opening up of the country.
‘In China the speed of change is described by saying that a new generation is born every five years’, explains Ms Mantua-Kommonen.
‘There is a particularly remarkable value shift between those born before 1979 and those born after 1979 and having been raised as the only child’, she continues.
Now these younger generations are of working age and involve a significant consumer group. As her empirical research progressed, Kirsi Mantua-Kommonen was surprised to notice the lack by Finnish companies to take into account the particular features and needs of this substantial group with high purchasing power. Her accumulated cultural knowledge and the obvious gap in the market in the tourism sector, led to the founding of a start-up company.
I noticed that Chinese tourists in Finland were being offered unsuitable and poorly packaged services.
‘I noticed that Chinese tourists in Finland were being offered unsuitable and poorly packaged services. The offer for wealthier tourists was mainly in Lapland and even there the quality did not always match the high price level. The sales and packaging of services was largely in the hands of Chinese, experiences were unauthentic and the grey economy was rampant. I wanted more Yuan to be kept by Finnish entrepreneurs’, she explains.
In two years, AuroraXplorer, owned by Mantua-Kommonen and three other founders and two business angels, has grown into a company that employs seven people full-time and caters the Chinese guests with services for leisure travel, business travel and camp schools in Finland, other Nordic countries and central and southern Europe.
‘In Finland, the small tourism sectors compete among themselves, even though we should collaborate with other European countries and find ways to attract the flow of Chinese tourists here instead of to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zeeland', Ms Mantua-Kommonen points out.
Experience in nature and camp schools
AuroraXplorer has built travel service offerings that cross country borders with for example a reputation earned for nature-related experiences, art and design, and Kimi Räikkönen’s success in F1.
‘We look at Finland and Europe from a Chinese perspective. When we are able to touch the hearts of our Chinese guests, then they are happy to open their wallets, as well, sums up Ms Mantua-Kommonen. One example was a group who visited Professor Björn Weckström and got to see his retrospective collection under his personal guidance.
The children, who study in an international school, talked fluently with the professor about Greek mythology and listened intently to a story about a piece of jewellery bought from Professor Weckström for the George Lucas’ film Star Wars. The following day the group visited a jeweller’s shop where the children’s parents spent some 42,000 Euros.
‘This included a few Princess Leia necklaces by Björn Weckström and Lapponia, headed off to China,’ laughes Ms Mantua-Kommonen.
Another product that is growing rapidly is the camp school.
‘We have, for our part, joined in the efforts to raise the awareness of Finnish primary school education in China, and it is gradually starting to bear fruit through camp school sales’, states Ms Mantua-Kommonen.
As a researcher/CEO engaged in Sino-Finnish business, she is naturally meticulous about colours.
‘In Finland for example, a CEO should not dress in very bright colours. As a woman, black or red are safe choices. In China you can dress more colourfully. Another example is the use of photographs in communications. We choose the more colourful pictures for China and I prefer to turn them a degree or two towards more saturation. Also, people bring colour to pictures. For example, an empty landscape is not as interesting to a Chinese person as a landscape in which there is at least one person’, explains Ms Mantua-Kommonen.
Ms Kirsi Mantua-Kommonen’s dissertation Provenance of Cultural Colour Meanings. The Green Hat and other narratives from Sino-Finnish business encounters will be examined at Aalto University's School of Business on Friday 16 September 2016. The public examination will take place on 16 September at 12 noon in the Assembly Hall of the Main Building (1st floor) at the Aalto University School of Business, (Runeberginkatu 14-16, Helsinki). Professor Theo van Leeuwen (University of Southern Denmark and University of Technology, Sydney) will be the opponent, and the Custos will be Professor Eija Ventola.
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Photos: Janne Kommonen, Lily Zhao, Laura Sarikka, Yan Dong