China is a planet for itself. The culture, life, and business are somewhat secluded from the rest of the world. Foreigners that work and study in the most populous country on the planet know that you can forget everything you know about life once you step behind the red curtain.
I had quickly come across the term white monkey when I moved to China,. Like other foreigners starting their journey in China, I had a hiring agent. She was great at bridging the gap between western culture and China.
What I soon discovered was that my body type was a valuable commodity in Chinese markets. I would get preposterous job offers by simply walking down the street. Sometimes, sneaky agents would pretend to befriend my girlfriend and me only to use our whiteness for their business ends. But my story is not the most bizarre one here.
Have you ever heard about DeRucci? The luxury mattress company? The wise European-looking billboard guy? Yes, that guy. The face of DeRucci, one of the biggest mattress retailers in the world, was an unknown teacher from rural China that was a victim of white monkey exploitation. Today, DeRucci has more than 3,600 retail salons around the globe, selling millions of mattresses each year with the face of an unknown older gentleman.
When you visit DeRucci webpages, you are immediately welcomed by his face. Airports in Asia, Europe, and America often sport billboards with the DeRucci man. Australia holds the famous sleeping DeRucci contest, and Twitter feeds often explode with people claiming DeRucci phobia that prevents them from flying because of the Derucci billboards near airports.
Rent-a-Foreigner in China
China has the biggest rent-a-foreigner market on the planet. If you don’t live in China you have probably never heard about it. Foreign faces and foreign friends are usually seen as a way to boost individuals’ social status.
I would often find myself sitting next to a billionaire just because I’m not Asian. The businessmen in question would need to appear cool over a casual dinner. And I would almost never be told, until the end of the photo-op.
The businessman would rarely ever speak English, but they would pay the bill. The assistant would ask for photos and I would receive unwarranted gifts. The white monkey stuff went so far once, that the Shaanxi provincial general of the Chinese army asked for the presence of a foreigner during a social dinner. We had a ton of baijiu and exchanged fake smiles. While his supporters cheered. The whole event was surreal, and I came on a note of “you have to try this Chinese food, the best thing around.” I’m a sucker for good food.
You can start weeding out White Monkey offers after the initial few months. Unfortunately, individuals that take white monkey gigs are plenty. The jobs pay well, and the only qualification is the color of your skin.
Some make the most out of white monkey business by becoming brand ambassadors. DeRucci guy is another story. He became the most recognized face in China, without getting much benefit.
DeRucci guy is a wise-looking older gentleman that has been the face of Derucci since 2004. Nobody knows who DeRucci guy is, but the folktale says that he’s an English teacher that works in rural China. He supposedly accepted a photoshoot for $1,500.
Nobody could predict what was about to happen. $1,500 for a few photos sounded like a splendid deal most would take. The mattress company soon rose to international fame and erected DeRucci billboards not only in China but also in the US, Australia, Germany, and 17 other countries. DeRucci had almost 4,000 store locations around the world in 2019.
His face probably greeted you at airports. You probably saw his face on a billboard truck around New York City. And if you ever visited China you won’t forget this face any time soon.
The rebrand started in Dongguan in 2004. The mattress manufacturer wanted to capture the Chinese market by offering prestige and luxury with their products. The company representatives went out to provincial towns and searched for foreign schools. Teachers in China are widely respected to the same level of being a lawyer or a doctor, and they earn accordingly. English teachers can earn average US salaries by teaching ABCs to Chinese kids.
Derucci was an English teacher, according to folktales. The representatives and marketing division of a newly rebranded company spotted a perfect opportunity to boost their products. The older gentleman was offered $1,500 to do a short photo shoot.
The older gentleman accepted the deal, participated in a short photoshoot, and vanished off the face of the planet. Nobody truly knows who the Derucci guy is and where he could be today. You won’t be able to find more than one pose of the guy on the Internet, and the company never acknowledged the model behind their brand.
DeRucci is a fully Chinese company, and just by looking at their Ads, you know that DeRucci is not the founder. The company also presents itself as a European luxury bed manufacturer, which it definitely is not. DeRucci man is not the founding face like Colonel Sanders in the case of KFC.
Chinese Marketing 101
Chinese marketing is not like any other marketing. Although you can give credit to placing an older-wiser-looking gentleman to represent the mattress quality, the motive comes from a deeply troubled marketing tradition.
China has a different set of values, needs, and market sentiments, according to Tom Doctoroff. DeRucci's campaign was successful because it touched on key consumer points.
- White friends and foreign brands are social statuses
- Older men are perceived as wise and widely respected in China
- DeRucci guy looks like an Italian mattress maker
The reason why Starbucks is more expensive in China is not because of better quality coffee. A grande latte is 20% more expensive in Shanghai than in New York. And the Chinese don’t even drink coffee. China is a tea-drinking nation. But Starbucks is social status. Young professionals gather at Starbucks to be recognized.
The DeRucci man hits on every marketing point for Chinese markets. The Chinese manufacturer reported US$700 million in yearly revenue for 2019, making the company one of the largest mattress manufacturers on the planet.
China is a different place for marketers. The country has a fair share of bizarre stories that are hard to understand for people living outside the Peoples’ Republic. DeRucci's face is one of the most recognized faces on the planet, even though we don’t really know his real name.
I would often fall into the trap of accepting white monkey gigs, and it took a while before I could recognize the sneaky agents and fake friends. Many foreigners, partially out of ignorance, fall into the trap of becoming a brand face that’s trying to bank on the exclusivity of having a foreigner in China.
If you accept a white monkey gig, you are not protected by any law or treaty. White monkey employees often get paid vast sums of money, but they never get recognition for the work.