By Domenica Di Lieto, founder and CEO of Chinese planning and marketing consultancy, Emerging Communications
When brands go to China they take their marketing practices with them. Of course, there is preparedness to adapt, to localise to media, perhaps bend USPs, but proven successful principles apply everywhere. Except they don’t. Not in China.
Chinese consumers are too savvy for imported marketing rules to apply. The brand as the hero is too contrived, it creates no resonance. To sell in China means telling stories around the target audience. The story is of how the product or service will integrate and add value to the life and aspirations of the individual.
In this situation, targeting is more about psychographics than demographics, which enables marketers to story board brands into the lives of consumers, and once the correct story is established only then is it appropriate to apply content, CX and media selection.
There are many, mostly big luxury brands, that stick valiantly to what works outside China, and they should at least be credited for using the best marketing assets. They utilise premier influencers (Key Opinion Leaders – KOLs), popular celebrities, and place highly creative content on essential social media platforms such as Little Red Book and Bilibili. But messaging is focused on selling, and not weaving a narrative around the perspective buyer. There is minimal relevance, and little reason to buy.
Indigenous marketers know how to communicate, and it is one of the reasons there is no longer a default bias towards what comes from London, Paris, Milan or New York. It is why domestic producers are increasingly taking market share in consumer markets once lauded over by those from outside.
It is as well to clear up another misperception. New arrivals having a heritage from the West can be an advantage, but this single fact alone does not impress. That ceased to be the case a long time ago. On sales platform Taobao alone, there are more than 35,000 different overseas brands. A new addition is unnoticed unless effectively supported.
However, a backstory from the Britain, Italy, France or elsewhere can have great value if used to correctly promote a history of authenticity, particularly if it is linked to individuality and craftsmanship. These attributes can be used as valuable USPs when supporting communication based on a brand being relevant to the values and life of buyers.
At the risk of seeming like a doom laden messenger, it is important to highlight another probable pitfall. Brand owners usually arrive in country with at least one gloriously successful product ready to take the World’s biggest consumer market by storm. Why change the brand positioning, it’s a shoe in. But it won’t be if left without very careful localisation. The chances of success of a blind entry into China’s cluttered and ferociously competitive markets is slim.
What this means is researching the market to what in the West, may seem like an excessive degree. When you are dealing with the most switched on marketing aware buyers ever known, you have to be absolutely sure of what they will buy, and why. Being the darling brand of the UK or anywhere else means little. Equally, to build the story around the buyer, you have to know what the story should be. For both positioning and story you need information, and lots of it.
Complete dedication to continuous deep learning is essential. It is what your rivals will be doing. Social media listening, data analyses, focus groups, behaviour tracking, and listening and testing via social media community management should be used continually and intensively to acquire consumer insight.
There will almost inevitably be a place in the market for a brand, but it is essential to understand exactly what it is. Also, what should be the essence of the brand, the aesthetic, how will it be relevant, what is the objective for it, what are the correct USPs, what will its cut through point be, and who are the competitors, why are they successful, what are their weaknesses, what else can you learn from them. There is no substitute for this information.
A strapline or slogan is also a major advantage. Most brands from outside China do not bother with them, but they have the benefit of enabling customers to understand brands quickly, and it helps maintain consistency of meaning.
These elements are basics most brands from the West don’t bother with. They assume that what works on home ground will work in China. It is why Tesco, ASOS, Pret A Mange, Top Shop, M&S and many others invested millions launching in China only to pack up and return home poorer, but often only a little wiser.
Lack of awareness is why Dolce & Gabbana thought a video depicting a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza with chop sticks was a good creative idea. It led to the Italian fashion house being wiped out in China, its biggest market by far. More than two years on, and no retailer or consumer goes near it. There is a long list of impressive names that have suffered less spectacular implosions, but nevertheless, lost millions of sales for similar reasons.
Another key feature of marketing in China is CX. The use of advanced consumer facing technology is to be seen to be believed. All marketers should go and see it whether they have an interest in China or not. Virtual changing rooms are standard, augmented reality screens for trying colour cosmetics on the side of beauty vending machines is common, the same with being served by a robot, facial recognition payment is everywhere, and dedication to omni channel means products can be bought instore with the swipe of a QR code for delivery to home within the hour.
For example, 7Fresh retail grocery chain has unmanned checkout kiosks, QR code labels that give detailed information on the provenance of fresh produce down to where vegetables are grown and fish caught, and customers pay using facial recognition through social media app. Purchases instore are delivered to the front door within 30 minutes, and online and social commerce buying within an hour of transaction.
It is important not to be side tracked by the shininess of CX technology. In China, there was early realisation that to be effective, consumer robotics, AI, AR, facial recognition and myriad communications options within social media had to be used only within the story created around, and relevant to the target customer.
Where many from the West see the possibilities of AR and think, how can we use it? Chinese marketers ask, what do our customers want now, what will they want next week, next month, next year? Once you have that information only then do you create CX to match customers’ preferred journey as part of the story you sell them.
It is also important for CX to be central to nearly every company function. Traditionally in the Britain, marketing has little if anything to do with distribution, trade sales and HR. On and offline departments usually run separately. We know from personal experience this creates flaws in customer journey. The product is out of stock, the shop cannot order it, the staff know nothing about the promotion. We have all been there.
Chinese companies bring all functions together as one for the objective of delivering brand and promise to customers in the way that best suits the buyer. There is no isolation or divergence of purpose, and there is only omni channel.
Of course, it is difficult to abandon years of received and proven marketing wisdom. Discarding what works is not easy, and learning a completely new set of rules in an unfamiliar culture is difficult. China as a consumer market environment is difficult, and it requires substantial investment. But it is far from impossible succeed.
It is medium and small companies from outside China that frequently do best. They are more often prepared to do homework, listen and quickly learn, and appoint the right partners, including marketing support.
It is inevitable that a marketing agency with Chinese experience is needed by any outside brand coming to China. Using one that has market research and planning ability is critical, as is having offices on the ground in China rather than trying to run campaigns from thousands of miles away. There are plenty that can produce impressive looking creative communication, but often there is an absence of strategy, effective story, audience research and positioning information. The result is great looking content that talks effectively to few.
And beware the big advertising group agencies – they are mostly managed by ad’ people from outside, and are known for producing the mega budget campaigns that consumers fail to associate with. It is one of the reasons European and US fashion houses are falling behind in China. The big agencies have also been known to initiate damaging brand crisis through campaign cultural faux pas.
Most of the calls I get from future clients are based on marketers wanting to know why their sales in China, or to Chinese inbound markets, are not working. The reason always stems from not doing enough homework before market entry. China requires complete dedication and investment. The rewards are bigger than anywhere else, but so too the commitment required.