An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

Uber and Crystal Balls

No Uber, lah.

Back in June, Salon published a listicle detailing “5 Major Threats to Further Hasten Uber’s Decline.” Listing the sexual harassment lawsuits, the mishandling of a driver rape case, improper driver classification, the Waymo issue, and Greyball, it was better clickbait than it was journalism, doing little more than offering a summary of recent headlines. Thanks for the update, Salon.

While each of these represents a serious crisis, and while the company is being tested in its ability to deal with one, much less all of them, arguably each of these are, separately and collectively, crises that the company can survive.

Rather more ominous is the insight offered by RadioFreeMobile on the accelerating erosion of Uber’s global markets. “First Uber lost China, then Russia, and now it looks as if South East Asia may go the same way.”

He then goes on to detail the strategic investments made by Softbank and Didi into Grab, the dominant ride-hailing platform in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines, with a 97% share in those markets. A dominant market leader fortified with loads of cash means that Uber is essentially locked out of markets with over 560 million people, in addition to the 1.5 billion Chinese and 300 million Russians who will not be using an Uber service soon.

The big question now is where India and Brazil will go.

Uber is on its back foot in international markets. You can argue, as does RadioFreeMobile, that the distractions listed by Salon are not helping, and you’d be right. But those issues are not the cause of Uber’s missteps outside the US: the strategic flaws that have undermined Uber’s global expansion predate Salon’s list and are rooted in the nature of the company.

As I said recently on Twitter, when historians ultimately close the book on Uber, they will agree that the fall began with Uber’s failure in China. Not that Uber’s China missteps will be seen as the cause of the company’s demise, mind you, but as the first clear indication that its strategic miscalculations and flawed leadership left the rest of the world beyond Uber’s reach.

PR World

Over the past four years I have discovered that there is an implicit belief among many US public relations (PR) practitioners – especially in the large global firms – that PR around the world will develop to become similar to what it is in the US, and will follow the US lead as the profession evolves.

Axiom: it will not. If the PR industry manages to rise above its straightjacket of inertia and hubris, it will find itself changed by forces from India, China, Latin America, Russia, and Africa.

What keeps me awake at night is the fear is that ethics in the name of expedience will be the first sacrifice in that process.

A Reset Across the Straits

Map of the Taiwan Strait
Map of the Taiwan Strait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following up on my post last week about it being time for a US reset on China, it appears that the time has come for Beijing reset on Taiwan.

Without challenging the maxim that Taiwan and the mainland provinces all remain an inseparable part of China, and leaving aside the issue of of independence, let us step back and look at the situation without the filters of nationalist emotion.

Instead, let us assume that at some point, Taiwan will decide that its prospects would be brightest as a part of a single political entity with the mainland. It may seem hard to imagine, but given the great changes taking place in the world, it is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility.

If that is in fact Beijing’s desired end game, the leaders of the CCP need to ask themselves a practical question: given the choice, how would they like re-unification to unfold?

Does the Party‘s leadership want Taiwan to come crawling back, craven and broken, into the embrace of the Motherland? Does the Party want Taiwan resentful and permanently troublesome because of a loss of face in slinking back?

Or do Beijing’s leaders prefer that Taiwan should return proudly, willingly, and with face and good feelings, so that “reunification” does not simply paper over deep, abiding wounds that will fester )and eventually erupt?)

It would seem that a willing return would be the preferred endgame. And if it is, Xi Jinping has an historic opportunity over the next five years of his term in office to reset the tone and direction of cross-straits relations. Given the variety of powder-kegs that surround and suffuse China, this might well be a good time to place China on track for a win-win.

Memory Loss

Watching the winds in the semiconductor industry, especially in China, hints at a coming consolidation of products. To wit:

  1. Within 18 months, Intel will be back in the memory business in a big way, but not in the way we think about memory today.
  2. Within three years they will not be alone.
  3. Within five years, specialty memory producers will either diversify, be in mortal danger, be M&A bait, or some combination thereof.

 

Time for a Sino-US Reset

English: President and Mrs. Ford, Vice Premier...
English: President and Mrs. Ford, Vice Premier Deng Xiao Ping, and Deng’s interpreter have a cordial chat during an informal meeting in Beijing, China. ID #A7598-20A. Français : Gerald Ford, sa femme, Deng Xiaoping et une traductrice lors d’une réunion à Pékin en Chine (1975). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Watching the Sino-US relationship evolve, and then not evolve, since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I have to confess some disappointment. Let me qualify what follows by noting that I am not a fan of POTUS 45. I not only crossed party lines to vote against him, I left the GOP outright and joined a tiny third party when he was selected as the Republican nominee.

So all of that said, we have reached a point in the relationship between the US and China such that a reset is in order. It has been 44 years since Nixon went to China, and nearly 40 years since Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping recalibrated the US-China relationship.

That relationship was formed when the United States was entering the fourth decade of its Cold War with the Soviet Union and the Sino-US tie-up promised to subtly but importantly shift the balance of power in favor of the West. It was formed when China was crawling out the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution, and out from under the long shadow of Mao Zedong.

That relationship was framed between a large and slightly desperate third-world country that constituted absolutely zero threat the world order and a developed nation that boasted the most prosperous economy in history, the most powerful military on Earth, and leadership of an international system that it had forged with its allies a mere three decades before.

Four decades hence, China has changed, the United States has changed, and the world has changed. Yet we have been conducting this bi-lateral relationship on terms that are increasingly irrelevant and unrealistic. Let me put that another way: the US continues to conduct its side of the relationship on that basis. China has made clear to us for a long time – without ever actually saying it – that it will conduct its relationship with us on terms dictated at least as much by immediate expediency as decades-old agreements.

So it is time for a strategic reset in our relationship that accurately reflects what China is and wishes to become, who we are and what we wish to become, and the fluid state of the global order.

The call that Trump placed to President Tsai of Taiwan, representing as it did a break from diplomatic tradition if not international accords, once appeared to be Trump’s opening gambit in his version of that reset in the Sino-US relationship, and a possible change in the rules that govern that relationship.

That no longer seems the case, and one can hope that the change in tone from the White House reflects a practical desire to compel a resolution to the North Korea question rather than acquiescence to a Chinese view of international affairs. Putting off a reset in Sino-US relations for too long will only make the necessary changes all the more disruptive.

Happy July 4th!

Mi Home

IMG_0240

Back in the Hutong
Thinking Geek
1427 hrs.

Visiting Xiaomi’s Mi Home store near company headquarters in Beijing.

At first glance, the store’s appearance bears a passing resemblance to the retail outlets of a famous Cupertino fruit company. As with many Xiaomi’s products, though, what is surprising and delightful about the Mi Home store lies beneath the surface.

If I can sum up the difference simply, it is this: Apple stores are a celebration of the devices. Mi Home stores are an on-ramp into a what can best be seen as a modern lifestyle enhanced and simplified at a hundred points by digital devices.

Apple talks about the digital home, but it is mostly smoke and mirrors. Xiaomi is actually delivering in a relevant and affordable way, and the Mi Home stores make that plain.

A growth-focused Apple would be advised to take notes – for their product development teams, not their lawyers.

Three Reasons Alibaba Wins

Someone asked me the other day why I thought Alibaba was such a huge winner in the China e-Commerce game. I see three reasons.

  1. Trust. For a long time, people in China were wary of e-commerce in China because they were simply afraid of getting ripped off when buying goods sight unseen. We didn’t really face that issue in the US to the same extent, because Sears, Wards, and JC Penney had been selling goods to Americans sight-unseen for over a century. Over that time, we had not only discovered which mail-order brands we could trust to “deliver the goods,” we also compelled the creation of terms, conditions, and practices that formed an (often unspoken) contract between retailer and buyer. When it created Taobao, Alibaba put together a series of terms and conditions that allowed both early adopters and the mass market to trust them enough to send their money into the ether. That trust went deep enough that, with Alipay, Chinese now trust Alibaba with their money.
  2. Experience. Alibaba understood from the outset that it needed to offer a an efficient and enjoyble buying experience, but that it did not need to go crazy. The company understood that it had a low bar. The Chinese retail experience was always miserable, and has improved only a little over the past two decades. Simply by making the experience a bit better than what you get at a typical Chinese retail store, and spending the rest of their effort on reliability and trust, Alibaba won.
  3. Scope. As Jeff Bezos understood, the key to winning in electronic commerce was not to focus on being the best bookstore, or grocery store, or anything store. The key was becoming the go-to place to shop, regardless of what you want to buy. Alibaba used Taobao to build unmatchable scope in a very short period of time. Now the default choices are traditional retail and Taobao, and everyone else has to fight harder for consideration, even as a specialized niche site.

It is difficult to see how anyone might knock that wall down.

Still, Alibaba faces two challenges. First, it has to figure out how it can continue to sustain high growth once it has secured its role of China’s national online department store. That market does not continue growing at double-digits forever, and Alibaba is already hunting for how to grab the next large chunk of users’ wallets – or extend its strengths abroad.

The second challenge is that as e-commerce matures, more companies will figure out how to build their own retail empires, much like Xiaomi – and, to a lesser extent, Apple –  has done. Once Taobao and TMall have accustomed people to buying big brand merchandise online, the value for brands of building their own sites begins to grow. Alibaba will be challenged to address the defection danger in the coming 2-3 years.

For now, though, Alibaba sits pretty, all based on an unimpeded view and unmatched understanding of the Chinese consumer.

When Lux and Tech Collide

However, the cost of providing customers with devices and gadgets to gain access to new tech and maintaining them is not a small expenditure for most luxury fashion businesses. What’s more, when a customer is enthusiastic about testing a hi-tech headset in a store, it does not necessarily guarantee that he or she has the desire to purchase a $1,500 handbag.

Source: Village: How to Combine Tech and Luxury Fashion in China the Smart Way | Jing Daily

I confess that when I began my career thirty-odd years ago, I saw the luxury fashion industry as an easy target for ridicule: alien rituals and strange affectations aside, I found it hard to give credence to a group so focused on the capricious whims of the planet’s most pampered posteriors. That perception was both short-sighted and immature.

The opportunity I had to watch China’s luxury market sprout and blossom has given me a different perspective. Luxury consumers are an informal yet exacting standards body. I have found that the more that we can conduct any consumer-oriented business or marketing activity in accordance with the standards of this rarified niche, the better we can serve all consumers.

That’s why I was fascinated by this London panel talking about the use of technology (specifically augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR)) to sell more luxury fashion.

One truism I’ve never forgotten about luxury customers: they all want the most fulfilling possible experience delivered with the least possible friction. The gratuitous application of kludgy technology (and, let’s face it, while AR and VR are getting better, neither are ready to fulfill their promise) seems to be a guaranteed way to chase luxury buyers out of your store.

Which leads to a second truism: The well-to-do are not early adopters. They’re the demanding knife-edge of the mainstream user, the guardians of the far side of the chasm twixt “niche product” and “widespread adoption” into which so many promising inventions fall.

If you can tweak a technology or product to the point wherein you can match the exacting standards of the luxury consumer, the big-time awaits. Smartphones went mainstream when the iPhone passed the lux test; satellite radio went wide after Damlier, Toyota, Nissan and BMW were able to make them accessible to finicky upscale buyers; and electronic cars went mainstream when Tesla introduced its luxury roadster and Toyota made the Prius hip with the well-to-do.

China is no exception to this rule. The Chinese luxury consumer often shares as much of her psychographic profile with her counterparts in Europe and North America as she does with her home-girls in Shanghai or Bengbu. Until you can offer her a great experience with the minimum of friction, forget about being first-to-market: go back to the lab.

Flavor Fail

It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...
It’s the picture of Italian ice-cream in a shop of Rome, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lobby of my hotel in Beijing had a happy hour ice cream special: a scoop of Movenpick ice cream for RMB 25 ($4). Intrigued, my family ordered a few scoops.

I ordered Cappucino, and watched the server mark from the bin clearly marked as such. It was with great surprise, then that when I put the first dainty taste of ice cream into my mouth I tasted not the expected creamy espresso, but the cloying super-sweetness of butterscotch.

The staff could not figure out the problem, but to someone who has managed companies in China, the issue seems as clear as day: somebody got it mixed up in the kitchen, and figured “hey, what the hell, who is going to notice?”

Ending “Marketing gratia Marketing”

Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, thi...
Aggressive marketing campaigns are common, this one features Coco Lee (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Source: From Mini Apps to KOLs: 6 Effective Luxury Marketing Campaigns on WeChat | Jing Daily

Jing Daily, the leading publication covering the business of luxury in China, does regular features spotlighting social media campaigns using WeChat to engage luxury buyers.

One recent example:

4. WeChat x Online to Offline (O2O): Chanel

From April 12 to 24, French luxury powerhouse Chanel opened Coco Café, a pop-up café-themed beauty store, in Shanghai. Visitors to the store could order a cup of coffee and some snacks provided by the brand while browsing beauty products and enjoying customized make-up services. Coco Café has been a huge hit, attracting thousands of visits to the site every day. Chinese social media was filled with photos taken by consumers in the store, who seemed undeterred by the long line snaking around the block. VIP customers could avoid the long lines by reserving a spot on Chanel’s official WeChat account ahead of time.

The campaigns are clever, and the coverage is thought-provoking. What is unclear, and what the article never probes, is whether any of these campaigns do anything to increase market share, drive more sales, increase brand awareness, or drive business goals. And that highlights a larger problem.

There is nothing wrong with using technology to deliver clever campaigns in marketing. But when the technology is being used on tactics and campaigns with vague objectives like “increase engagement with the brand,” “deepen affinity,” or “increase visibility,” something is broken. Each of these phrases is euphemistic shorthand for “conduct activity in order to be seen conducting an activity.” In short, marketing for its own sake. Or worse, marketing for the sake of marketers.

The true promise of technology in marketing is the ability to reduce the size of a target market down to the single individual. I call this “sniper marketing,” the ability to market to each targeted individual personally, using the right pitch, the right channel, at the right time, and in the right place, and do so in a way that makes the entire experience fun and meaningful.

What so much of marketing – even good marketing – remains, especially in China, is spray-and-pray: get in front of a whole lot of people in the hopes that, somewhere in that mass, is a subset of people who want to buy your product. All of the people reached who are not in that subset represent money wasted by the company, time wasted by the consumer inconvenienced with superfluous messages, and credibility wasted by marketers for touting campaigns that deliver anemic returns on the time and money invested.

We should applaud the creativity behind the campaigns on Jing Daily. But we should withhold our cheers, recognizing that these efforts were but a temporary stage in our efforts to do much better. Because companies are not going to put up with this type of activity for much longer.

It is time we evolve past this interim phase in marketing technology set about using the tools we have been given to downscale marketing so that we can conduct a million individually-targeted campaigns for the same money (or less) than it would cost us to conduct a mass campaign aimed at a million people. The result will be orders of magnitude greater effectiveness, measured in the only currency that matters: additional sales and deeper customer loyalty.

Anything less, and we are betraying the trust given us, and marketing will follow farriers and feather merchants into premature obsolescence.

 

Concept of the Week: Bio-luddite

Bio-luddite (n.) a person opposed to the introduction of new biological technologies, usually without regard to the scientific evidence regarding their safety.

Bio-luddism is nothing particularly new, but it is becoming more important as the rate of spread of biological innovations increases, as the rate of innovation increases, and as this becomes a matter of concern not just for a small number of markets, but for the globe.

China, which was one of the major beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, understands the value of genetic modification. What it has yet to do with any kind of credibility, though, is make a public case for the safety of genetically modified organisms separate from hand-wringing about the abuses of a small number of very large ag-tech companies. If the failure continues, bio-luddism in policy-making circles may eventually serve to slow or throttle competitiveness China’s biotech industry.

The Greenpeace China Coal Fail

Coming out of a long winter and into the pre-summer months (I daren’t call it “Spring,”), the season offers constant reminders to those of us living on the North China Plain* that China is far from solving its most serious air pollution problems. There are those, however, who live far outside of the Ring Roads who believe that things are a lot better and continue to improve.

Last year, ThinkProgress published an article under the breathless title “It Only Took Four Months for China to Achieve a Jaw-dropping Reduction in Carbon Emissions.” The article detailed a recent study by Greenpeace which noted that China reduced its coal use by 8% in the first four months of 2015 over 2014, resulting in a 5% drop in CO2 emissions. A Greenpeace analyst suggested that this shows that industrial output and thermal generation are decreasing, while use of renewables like hydro, wind, and solar are growing.

There are prima facie reasons to question Greenpeace’s excitement.

  1. Any reduction in coal use comes off of a very high base. China burned over 4.2 billion metric tons of coal last year, enough for two tons of coal for every living man, woman, and child in China, PLUS enough for three tons each for every man, woman, and child in the United States. While any reduction in the overall number is a good thing, China has a very long way to go.

  2. Greenpeace is using government data to support its narrative. Leave aside any general reservations about the Chinese government as a source of data: in this case alone, the government has an abiding interest in telling its people a positive story, and thus in massaging or falsifying the data. Greenpeace’s defense of the government statistics – that that the government gains nothing by revealing a drop in industrial output – is at worst inadequate and at best debatable, especially as the other side of those figures is the shift to the service sector. Further, I’d argue that the government is actually under quite heavy pressure to be seen to be doing something about pollution, and that it has much to gain by gaming the figures on coal use. When the source of your data has both motive and opportunity to play fast and loose with the truth, it behooves one to seek less intrinsically biased sources. †

  3. Similarly, there is no transparency as to methodology in collecting and analyzing these statistics, so we have no way of knowing if this came from a change in the way use is measured. Changing the way the game is scored is not an uncommon hammer in the Chinese statistics toolkit.

  4. There is no way to confirm or gainsay these statistics because there is no credible, disinterested third party with access to the information on which these statistics are based, or that can provide data from other sources against which to balance the conclusions.

  5. Even if we take these statistics as correct, there is little clarity as to what forces are driving the decline in coal use, so we are uncertain what caused them, and whether that cause is a one-off occurrence, a short-term phenomenon, or the harbinger of a genuine trend. If we do not look at wide range of factors, we cannot tell whether this was caused by uncommonly warm weather, a fall in the price of other energy sources, or a temporary decline in the economy caused by the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-based one.

If this is not sufficiently convincing that China’s coal use statistics may be unreliable, at about the same time the Greenpeace report, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley published a damning report of revised Chinese government figures that raised estimates of Chinese coal use every year since 2000 by as much as 17%. The culprit: “gaps in data collection, especially from small companies and factories.”

Greenpeace did not have to rely on government data. Researchers who dug deeper into the economy to come up with estimates, like Akaya Jones at the United States Energy Information Administration in Washington, came up with estimates that were apparently much more reliable than the government’s original figures, and far more so than Greenpeace’s.

We often criticize the Chinese government for getting statistics wrong. Playing fast and loose with critical measurements is wrong, but we expect no less from a political system for whom the truth is whatever serves the nation’s rulers. Greenpeace, however, does not get a pas.

Perhaps the organization just wanted to turn out a report on China, was pressed for time, and threw this together. I can only hope this is the case, because there is another, less flattering explanation: that Greenpeace did this in order to curry favor with the Chinese government, to show that it could go along to get along. If this is the case, it would not only be inexcusable, it would also represent a betrayal of the organizations mission, a betrayal of its stakeholders, and an abdication from its role as an environmental watchdog.


 

*- Or even those of us who USED to live there, return frequently, and have family there.

† Greenpeace itself has no lack of detractors who question the organization’s data on other issues. Whether those criticisms are valid or not is moot: by using a questionable source of data in a high-profile research paper without even flagging the potential problems, Greenpeace opens its methodologies and conclusions on a range of issues to re-examination.

 

The Other Wanda Question

Apropos of my post last week about Wanda, a quick thought.

One of the issues that remains a matter of our ongoing fascination with Wanda revolves around a series of important questions that remain largely unspoken: Do Wang’s purchases in the US constitute a simple diversification of his investments? Are they part of a strategy to globalize his businesses?

Or are we witnessing something quite different, Wang’s slow divestment out of China and the flight of his capital to safer havens abroad? And if not a flight out of China, is he at least shifting his money out of real estate?

The company bears close scrutiny if for no other reason than they are a harbinger of what is likely to be a larger trend, and understanding the forces that drive this trend are going to be essential in helping business address Wanda as a strategic challenge, and policymakers address it from a regulatory standpoint.

 

Cadillac takes on Tesla

Source: Cadillac has a secret weapon in its quest to beat Tesla at self-driving – The Verge

All very interesting, but it serves as a reminder that GM is still playing catch-up with Tesla in the space.

I’d still by a Tesla before a Cadillac, and I reckon I’m not alone in either the US or China. What about you?

Apocryphal, to be sure, but it suggests that the venerable marque has a brand problem that innovation alone will not solve. I suspect that winning in China will be critical for the future of the Cadillac brand, determining whether it keeps up with Lexus, or whether it struggles to keep pace with Lincoln.

Huawei’s PR Struggles

And so within the space of half an hour the Financial Review was shown the new and old face of corporate China.There’s paranoid Huawei that will not answer questions and refuses to explain itself in any detail to its stake holders around the world. Then there’s the likes of Green Valley, which represent a new, more open face to corporate China.

Source: Huawei’s epic PR fail | afr.com

This is an oldy but a goody, and I do not mean to pick on poor old Huawei: the organization is led by people for whom transparency and engagement are just not a part of the plan. This is not an especially Chinese failing: I have watched American, European, and Japanese companies build public relations organizations that were little more than beautiful stone walls.

I agree with reporter Angus Grigg completely: let us hope we see more openness from Chinese companies, rather than less.

What concerns me, though, is that for every wise, open, and transparent company that I encounter, I still come across a dozen more who believe that that the “new” face of corporate China is not private, independent, or entrepreneurial, but government-owned, government-subsidized, and expert at blowing smoke up the hindquarters of foreign journalists.

And of course, that’s not new: that’s a giant leap backwards in China’s evolution into a nimble, innovative, and commercial economy.

Which is why I talk so  much about public relations in China here. The degree to which a nation, and organization, or a company is prepared to institutionalize an ongoing, open, and wide-ranging conversation with its stakeholders has great predictive value about its success, and the degree to which we should feel comfortable dealing with it.