Chinese Consumers Return to Paris 

Chinese consumers in the world’s fashion capital spend more than those from any other country, with 37 percent of their budgets slated for shopping, 18 percent for food and gastronomy and a mere 3 percent for visiting museums and historic sites.

Source: Chinese Consumers Return to Paris After Bad Year for Retail | Jing Daily

This is not just about Paris, but about how luxury shopping and international travel are inexorably intertwined in the minds of a great many Chinese tourists.

Proof: Paris is not alone. The same applies to Milan, New York, London, Beverly Hills, and any city where Chinese tourists gather. Walk into anything larger than a boutique at the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, for example, and there will almost inevitably be a Chinese-speaker on duty behind the counter.

The lesson for brands: Chinese are global consumers seeking experience and authenticity. The old formula of name+bling+advertising is dead, and the brands that fail to notice that are heading for hard times in China.

Going E

PARIS (Reuters) – French fashion brand Louis Vuitton, part of luxury giant LVMH (LVMH.PA), said on Friday it had launched an e-commerce website in China to tap a booming online shopping market.

Source: LVMH’s Louis Vuitton launches e-commerce website in China

Posited: That if your product can be sold online and you’re doing business in China, you need an e-commerce channel. Or two.

Some very smart people I’ve been talking to in Beijing believe that the best marketing in China is built with e-commerce rather than advertising at its core. Naturally, this does not apply as easily to some companies/products as it does to others.

But I keep this mantra close at hand because it reminds me that I spend too much time seeing marketing as one “P” (promotion) and not four (product, price, promotion, and place.) It also reminds me* that the only marketing that matters is the marketing that either sells more product or makes it possible to sell more product.

 

* I know, we’re marching through no-brainer country, but these things are easy to forget when you spend sixty to ninety hours a week with your head in “promotion” mode.

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.

Consumers: There’s More to Buying Power than the Paycheck

 

Catching up on reading over the weekend, I came across a report Goldman Sachs published in March about China’s “new consumer class.” (“The Rise of China’s New Consumer Class.”) The title is a bit deceptive: the researchers at Goldman note correctly that there is not a single class of consumer, but several. They’re partly right.

The problem with the Goldman report is that it focuses on income as a primary differentiator. While income has some practical value as a predictor of consumer behavior in China (poor peasants are unlikely to be potential buyers for Rolexes or megayachts,) that value is limited because incomes are not as closely tied to buying power as they are in other economies, and for two immediate reasons.

First, as one friend of mine noted on Twitter, incomes are notoriously hard to pin down in China. Reporting is spotty, and even the Chinese government lacks the wherewithal to really understand an individual’s income. What is more, there is a vast population of individuals who nominally make very modest incomes (government officials, leaders of state-owned enterprises, senior military officers), but whose actual buying power far exceeds their incomes. Add a third group – those who supplement their incomes via transfers from relatives overseas – and you can see how any company that targets its consumers by nominal income is going to miss a massive chunk of their addressable market.

Second, China’s consumers tend to consume based less on their income than on their desire for face and fulfillment. Purchases of automobiles (which are 12 to 14 times more expensive in China than in the US based on income and price differences), high-end mobile phones, and houses are far out of line with the incomes of those buying them. Parents and even grandparents will often kick in their own savings to help a young man make a downpayment on a house; newly-graduated urban workers will spend up to three months of their income on a mobile phone or a laptop; and the more entrepreneurial will take up a side business off the books or even engage in illicit activity to allow them to have the things they desire.

Classifying China’s consumers by income is, at best, an economics exercise. Classifying them by their values and priorities is far more relevant to businesses, and is a far better indicator of the degree to which you have a market – or not – in China.

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Quotable Friday: Sir Martin Sorrell

“I remain an unabashed bull on China,” said Sorrell. “There are worries about the slowing of growth but that was inevitable. It was natural it was going to slow. We are concerned about the stock market bubble and the fall in the stock markets has implications. Having said that, we still believe in the longer term in the economy. We think it is a short term phenomenon.”

Source: WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell bullish about China prospects despite sales slowdown | Media | The Guardian

 

Concept of the Week: Urbanizing In Place

Urbanizing in placeconcept – the idea that China’s urbanization is not being driven entirely by migration from the countryside to the cities, but that large areas that Beijing’s statisticians might once have considered “rural” are now considered “urban.”

In-place urbanization could occur in one of three scenarios.

The physical area of a municipality has been expanded to include what was once surrounding countryside.

In the second scenario, a village that was once considered part of the countryside has now grown into a town that a demographer or statistician would now classify as urban.

In the third scenario, a group of villages in a given area are considered to be conglomerated as a single administrative entity and reclassified as a single town.

In these cases, China’s urbanization is taking place without migration, and presents a different set of policy, marketing, and personal challenges and opportunities than classical migration-based urbanization.

Friday Irrevrence: Labels are Important

IMG_0060

My wife’s aunt brought this bottle of wine to a recent family dinner at the Liu Family Restaurant next to the National Art Museum of China (Meishuguan) in Beijing.

Nobody is happier than I to see Chinese vineyards jumping into the wine business. But someone should alert this particular winery that selling a wine without a year on the bottle makes it very hard for all but the utter tyro to trust what is in the bottle.

Shameless Plug Dept.: New Fast-Food Paper

Hutong West
Contemplating lunch
1253 hrs.

My most recent paper, this one on addressing the challenges facing fast food franchisors in China, “Jumping China’s Great Food Wall (pdf),” is now up on the Allison+Partners website.

Failing that, you can find the paper on Academia.edu here.

This is more of a practical paper than my last one, giving a quick overview of the uneven success enjoyed by fast food companies in China, and offering a series of prescriptions designed to avoid some of the more serious rocks and shoals, and mitigate the effects of many others.

Nokia Problem #342: We Ignored Journalists

In the Hutong
Watching the tourists shuffle through the Forbidden City
1055 hrs. 

Working on a long paper about China and the demise of Nokia, I came across this interesting little anecdote from a journalist friend from 2011.

“So if you want to leak something, especially since you’re such a big fan of NOK, you can let the world know that a certain journalist found out today that despite having submitted questions for an interview in late July, was informed today, 17 days after the initial deadline, and 10 days after an extended deadline, that the interview would not be available.”

Nokia did not melt down because of the way it handled its media relations. Nonetheless, I contend that the problems that led to the end of Nokia were visible in a hundred facets of the organization long before the high flying handset maker found itself a rump division of a rudderless software company.

Shameless Plug Dept: New Paper on Strategic PR in China

 

Hutong West
The cool before the heat
1855 hrs.

 

Public relations people have a word fetish. We invest the aphorism “words have meaning” with an almost scriptural infallibility. Yet when it comes to terms we use to describe our own capabilities, we become maddeningly imprecise, if not deceptively hyperbolic. The best (or perhaps worst) example of that is the word “strategic,” as in “strategic public relations.” In fact, we use it so much when referring to so many different things that the phrase has almost lost its meaning.

 

In a new paper published last month by Allison+Partners (“Strategic Public Relations in China: Actions, Behavior and Communications”,) I ask the PR industry generally and in China specifically to take a step back. I argue for a definition of strategic public relations that steps completely outside of the communications function: as it was originally intended by the founders of the public relations craft, PR begins with the actions and behaviors of a company, and the obligation of PR counsel to guide them. My point: it is time for all of us to become more strategic, and in no place more so than in China, where so many brands consistently fail to understand, much less live up to, the expectations of their publics.

 

For my fellow PR practitioners and anyone else who oversees a PR function, the paper is available for free download and review on academia.edu. It’s a fairly quick read.

 

 

 

Yahoo! China According to Susan Decker

Susan_Decker

An Insider’s Account of the Yahoo!-Alibaba Deal
Sue Decker
HBR Blog Network
August 6, 2014

American businesswoman Susan Decker, president...
Susan Decker at employee all hands meeting in Sunnyvale, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have not yet stumbled across Sue Decker’s article in the Harvard Business Review blogs, please read it. Decker, who left Yahoo! in 2009 after being passed over for the CEO post in lieu of former Autodesk CEO Carol Bartz, delivers her view of the investment that effectively saved Yahoo!, and her role in it.

First person accounts are always suspect: one is never certain about how much of the history so presented is objective and how much is subjective. Thus, it was reassuring that the editors of the Harvard Business Review chose to publish it as an interesting curiosity rather than a definitive account or a case study. Still, the article made me a bit uncomfortable, for a few reasons.

The “Everyone Failed” Gambit

First, the author frames an eloquent but ultimately unconvincing defense of Yahoo!’s failures in China (in essence, everything the company did except the investment in Alibaba) that can be summarized in as “yes, we failed badly, but so did everybody else.”

That’s partly true: the list of US Internet companies that tried to make a go of it in China and failed is long and distinguished. But the ledger is not quite as one-sided as Decker implies that it is. 

Google had a viable business in China before it chose to stare down the Chinese government. Amazon has a business and is still in the game, despite having to go head-to-head with China’s 900 lb. e-commerce gorilla, Alibaba. Evernote and LinkedIn are making headway with tightly defined value propositions that make sense for China and the rapid refresh cycles that local users demand. And let’s not forget little South African NASPERS, a firm largely unknown to Valleywags that somehow managed to run circles around everyone else, making a brilliant early investment in Tencent that may ultimately outshine even Yahoo!’s windfall on Alibaba.

Decker suggests that the relative success of each of Yahoo!’s moves in China can be explained by the degree of control exercised over the China venture by Sunnyvale. The less control Sunnyvale tried to wield, the more successful that venture became. If that explanation seems a bit too neat and simplistic for you, join the club. I’ll come back to it shortly.

The False Management Paradigm

Second, the author skims over the fact that the joint venture with Alibaba failed to produce anything of value aside from Yahoo’s partial ownership of its partner. The joint venture did not save Yahoo!’s China business: the company’s China operating unit, valued in negotiations at $700 million, sank quietly beneath the waves soon after the agreement that handed operational control to Alibaba was signed. If anything, the Alibaba agreement destroyed Yahoo!’s operating business in China, or, perhaps more generously, sacrificed it in the name of a harmonious relationship between the parties.

Given the outcome, one might be inclined to say that the sacrifice was worth it. Perhaps. But neither we nor Decker should harbor any illusions about what this means for Yahoo!: that the company failed as an operating business three times in China, and that despite her assertions to the contrary, the degree of control exercised by Sunnyvale had no influence on the final outcome. Tight control, loose control, or no control, all three models failed. The one management lesson she tries to deliver in the article is a canard.

The Forgotten Brand Problem

Third, there is no mention in the article about what happened to Yahoo! and its family of brands in China. The brands that Yahoo! owned during Decker’s tenure – including the “Yahoo!” brand itself, each represented a repository of goodwill. The Yahoo! brand in particular initially occupied a position of great respect among Chinese netizens, both because of its success and because of Jerry Yang‘s Chinese heritage. In the process of thrice failing to make a go in China, Yahoo! squandered that goodwill, and thus destroyed the value of its brand in the largest online market in the world.

As a senior finance officer, Decker certainly understands the value of goodwill, as does Yahoo!: much of what they paid for their acquisitions was based on the goodwill and the brand value of the firms acquired. Any reckoning of the net value of Yahoo!’s investments in China must therefore take into account not only the sunk costs and the book value of the assets written off, but also the brand value it destroyed in its largest addressable market.

That this issue remains unmentioned in Decker’s article is, to a marketer like me, a final though perhaps unnecessary indictment of Decker’s narrative. In the end, her piece is not the full account of the deal from the inside promised in the title. It is, rather, an effort both to stake a claim of some credit for Yahoo!’s Alibaba windfall and to exonerate Yahoo!’s leadership – including herself – for the company’s poor operating record in China during her tenure.

Decker richly deserves her share of the credit for the deal: in the end, it saved the company. What she cannot claim for herself or her colleagues any credit for operational success in China. Porter Erisman, a former Alibaba Vice President who recently released a documentary about his time working inside the company called Crocodile in the Yangtze offers this thought on how to assess Decker’s legacy and her account of Yahoo!’s success:

How Yahoo! performed as an operator and how they performed as an investor are two different questions. If we evaluate Yahoo! as an operator (both inside China and outside,) I think we can all agree that their performance was poor. If we evaluate Yahoo! as an investor, we should take into account their entire history of investments and not just cherry-pick one investment that paid off. On the whole, Yahoo! did well as an investor over the years (due to Alibaba) despite some obvious failures. But people investing in Yahoo! didn’t do so because they believed it was a private equity fund. Luckily, the Alibaba investment turned out well and made up for Yahoo!’s failures on an operating level.

Erisman makes a superb point: Yahoo! did brilliantly as a private equity fund and poorly as an operating company. Nowhere was either more true than in China, so I suspect that if we – or Marissa Mayer – are ever to understand what makes Yahoo! tick, we will find the answers in a thorough, unbiased, and balanced account of Yahoo!’s China odyssey.

We will have to wait for someone else to write that account. In the meantime, please read Ms. Decker’s article. If nothing else, it is a valuable contribution to the oral history of American business in China.

Rethinking Mobile Advertising in China

Mobile Advertising Lags China’s Smartphone Explosion
Angela Doland
Advertising Age
January 24, 2014

Reporting from Shanghai, AdAge‘s Angela Doland writes a thought-provoking piece on how mobile e-commerce continues to outpace the growth of mobile advertising in the world’s largest smartphone market. As a percentage of all e-commerce, mobile is creeping into the double-digits, reaching as much as 21% during major holiday promotions.

At the same time, after years of effort, the most optimistic projections would have mobile advertising reach 3% of total ad spend in China this year. Given that Chinese users spend some 40% of their media consumption time staring at their mobile screens, you can understand the frustration of the advertisers.

Mobile Advertising Done Right

On the one hand, this trend should not surprise us. History teaches that effective advertising techniques for any new medium emerge only after an often extended period of trial and error. E-commerce initially grew much more quickly as a percentage of Internet-based revenues than advertising, and advertising was slow to find purchase in print news, radio, and television.

What this suggests is that the problem is not whether advertising can be adapted to mobile. The problem, rather, is that advertisers have yet to find an approach that makes the channel compelling.

Mobile Ad 1.0

There are three ways to approach mobile advertising. The first is to approach it as another channel for online advertising. This is where you talk about text-based advertising, display banners sized for the mobile screen, mobile search-based advertising, and ways to insert clever ads into music, videos, books and games consumed on a phone or tablet. Let’s call this “Mobile Advertising 1.0.”

My experience is that this has been the common approach in China, but that the challenges involved in making it work across three carriers, a half-dozen operating systems, hundreds of devices, and thousands of apps have made it difficult to get economies of scale. This alone might, in fact, explain why we are yet at such low numbers. Would it be easier with one carrier, one phone, and one operating system? Indeed. But I suspect that is not the real problem.

Perhaps, instead, we are misunderstanding the channel, and need to rethink how we do things. Back in 2006, I was in the room when my friend and former client Ian Chapman-Banks explained to a Japanese reporter that the reason that mobile advertising was having so much trouble was that we had failed to understand the value proposition.

Mobile Ad 2.0

Ian’s point (and I am paraphrasing heavily here) was that advetising as we know it was based on reaching out to chunks of people with similar characteristics at a given point in time. Mobile, Ian noted, had the ability to enable us to deliver a specific message to a specific person at a specific location and specific time.

In other words, what was keeping mobile advertising from being effective was that we were not using what made it fundamentally better than mass media advertising. This is the first time in history that advertisers could reach a person of their choosing at the time and place of their choosing, and all advertisers seemed to worry about was where to stick the banner on a small mobile screen.

Mobile advertising would be effective, Ian implied, when we figured out a way to make these capabilities work for the advertiser. Clearly, we are still looking for that combination, yet given the speed with which mobile is evolving and the innate conservatism of the advertising industry, this should come as no surprise. The key was to experiment and to keep experimenting.

The Mobile Ad 2.0 argument, then, is that if we want to figure out how to make mobile work for the nearly 1 billion mobile users in China (not to mention the rest of the world,) we have to experiment. Ian, who at the time had a generous marketing budget at his disposal, had allocated 10% of it to what he called “R&D:” money to try new channels of advertising and marketing that would not be evaluated alongside traditional channels, but that were just there to make sure that when something new worked, the company would be ready to exploit it.

So we aren’t at Mobile Ad 2.0 yet, but if we stick with it, we will get there eventually.

Is there a Mobile Ad 3.0?

Late last year I wrote a post that summarized why there are a number of ways to approach social media, each of which is guided by the marketing or technology silo from which one has emerged: practitioners who come out of advertising see social media as an advertising medium; people who come out of direct marketing see it as a direct marketing channel; PR people see it as a means of delivering messages; and so on.

What is different with mobile is that, in part because the challenge in putting mobile to work is, at the moment, much more technically intensive, the companies, departments, and agencies playing in that field have been those with lots of money. In short, it has been the advertising people. For that reason, we tend to talk about mobile as an advertising platform.

That exposes an assumption that is not necessarily supported by the facts. Zooming out of our ad-focused myopia one step further, then, we have to ask this: does mobile marketing need to be advertising-based, or are we missing something?

It’s Mobile Marketing, Jim, But Not As We Know It

In addition to allowing us to target an individual based on habits, time, and location, mobile also allows us to engage that individual in a conversation at a specific time and place. Mobile market research is based on that premise, and some of the early results hae been promising. As long as market researchers do not bombard us to the point of insensitivity with intrusive polls, and provided that we make it worth someone’s while to respond (good information is never free), this is likely to be a fruitful channel for some time to come.

Mobile has great value for point-of-sale applications based on near-field technology that go beyond completion of a sale. I walk into a hotel, and I am already getting notes on Foursquare about specials in the coffee shop. That’s a good start: it would be better if those specials were relevant to my dietary needs (e.g., “hi, David! We have great vegetarian options for you today!”)

Or how about direct-response on demand? When driving from city to city, I could tell Google’s Waze app on my phone that I needed a Sinopec station, and it would tell me distance, directions, prices, and offer me a coupon for stopping in.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a Mobile 3.0, and I think there should be, the opportunity is to start from the targeted user’s wants, needs, location, situation, and time, and work backward to the advertiser. This demands an intermediary who can make the match, of course. That’s why I think services like Criteo are going to translate well into the mobile space, and, in the long run, so will Baidu and possibly Tencent. The real gold rush will be for those companies who have the mass of advertisers on the one hand and the mass of users on the other.

Hence, Baidu’s ongoing interest in mobile. IF there is a single Chinese company that should make mobile advertising 2.0 or 3.0 happen, Baidu is it.

No PR Playground

What I am still trying to figure out, though, is where public relations has room to play in mobile. I have heard a few ideas, but I don’t see anything compelling so far. Classic advertising and classic PR don’t yet have roles to play in mobile to the degree that advertising does with online and PR does with social.

Yet every time I sit down and watch another compelling mobile technology demonstration, I am reminded that the tools we are creating today will be hopelessly antiquated, irrelevant, or both in five years. At some point, we are going to figure out how to make a connection between a company and a mobile user work out well for everyone. But we aren’t there yet.

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Will Chinese Pay for Content?

Hutong Forward
An undisclosed location
in the American Midwest

1649 hrs. local

Happy shoppers
Happy shoppers (Photo credit: Phillie Casablanca)

A contentious debate about China in the media industry is whether or not Chinese will pay for content. Most intelligent observers would answer no: Early experiments selling music were not encouraging, and with search engine Baidu offering links to free downloads, and later a legitimate streaming service, China’s mostly-young internet users could be forgiven for thinking “what’s the point of paying?”

Indeed, piracy of music has been so rampant that many thoughtful commentators, including Eric Priest at the University of Oregon, have championed the use of “alternative compensation systems” that presume that nobody will pay for the content itself. Like, ever.

At the China 2.0 conference at Stanford last month, there was gloom in the room when the people funding content plays took the stage. Annabelle Yu Long, the CEO of Bertelsmann’s China Corporate Center and managing director of the music giant’s Asian investment arm, noted that China, with a quarter of the planet’s ears, represented only 2% of Bertelsmann’s business, and this after decades of effort. The rest of the money people on the stage – Jenny Lee of GGV Capital, Raymond Yang of WestSummit Capital, and David Chao of DCM – Chinese all, agreed with the simple proposition that the Chinese do not pay for content, ergo they would not ever pay for it. As it is, so shall it ever be.

Getting Beyond ASCAP’s Messages

But as the discussion at China 2.0 progressed, and the panelists exhausted their messages and began to share experiences, a more nuanced truth came out. After talking about music, ebooks, and even movies, one of the panelists summed up by saying that as Chinese users become more prosperous and as quality and convenience become more important, they are  proving themselves willing to pay for music, movies, and even ebooks.

Two days later and an hour away at the annual conference of the Hua Yuan Science and Technology Association (HYSTA), the discussion was more optimistic. Oliver Lu of AppAnnie showed a chart that compared app downloads in China over the past several years to app revenues. Interestingly, over the past three quarters, the rate of growth of revenues has passed – and nearly doubled – the rate of growth in downloads. Chinese are starting to pay for apps. The numbers are not huge – your average Chinese spends 1/12 of the average Japanese user on apps – but the trend is clearly pointing in a positive direction.

Play with Me, Pay for Me

The difference lies in a generational shift – as well as a cultural shift – in consumption and a presumption of value. My generation thinks of content in terms of music, video, movies, and books. China’s post-80s and post-90s generations, on the other hand, grew up eschewing those formats because those were the most tightly controlled and least interesting.

Instead, they grew up playing games, and that cohort is only just reaching the age where they can afford to pay good money for their interactive diversions. Over half – 53% – of the revenue of Tencent, China’s huge portal and social media player, comes from games, which are now a $6.3 billion business in China, more than search advertising and display advertising combined. Ten of the top ten downloaded mobile apps in China are games.

A Future that Pays

That’s great for game developers, you’ll think. But what about everyone else in the content business. But that is exactly a the point. Once you get Chinese used to paying for one form of content (games), the door can then open for them to start paying for other forms. Develop the habit, create a value around legal versus pirated downloads, and you are on your way.

Call me a pollyanna, but it genuinely seems too early for the content makers to write China off. Use models like Eric Priest’s in the meantime if you have to, but lay the long term groundwork so that when your audience has more money than time, you are ready to capitalize on a very different kind of Chinese content consumer.

Whom Can You Trust with your Social Media in China?

Hutong Forward
Counting the helicopters outside my window
1629 hrs. local

Note: Over the summer I taped a segment for Thoughtful China where I talked briefly about what agencies to use for social media. The response has been huge, so I wanted to expand on my point here, especially as so many people are in the later stages of planning their China marketing efforts to begin after Chinese New Year.

Yunnan 2009-02-04 08-10
Internet cafe in Yunnan (Photo credit: sweart)

Most companies in China have yet to realize out that making the best use of social media demands more than a twenty-something customer service person posting links to content on the corporate website. This is understandable: social media is a relatively recent phenomenon (compared to, say, print media, or even the web), and the art of using social media for business is evolving with blinding speed. That means that today’s smart social media strategy is obsolete tomorrow.

This has provoked the companies who want to stay ahead of the game to turn to outside agencies. Unfortunately, the solution is more confusing than the problem. Jockeying for relevance and revenues, nearly every kind of agency in the marketing business is cooking up products and services to help companies handle their Chinese social media programs. Social media absorbs so much of the Chinese public’s time and attention that agencies feel they either must create a social media offering or consign themselves to the junk pile of history. The one-upsmanship between agencies is earnest, and sometimes desperate.

Elephants and blind men, meet social media and agencies

That would be fine if the solutions proffered were similar. They’re not, because each type of agency sees social media through its own prism, and approaches the medium accordingly. Advertisers approach social media as another form of advertising, or as an appendage of offline campaigns. PR people approach it as a fast channel to reporters or as a way to bypass journalists altogether. Digital agencies approach social media as a way to drive hits to digital content lodged elsewhere. And social media specialists want us to believe that social media is so different that it demands a special mojo, and it should be left to them as experts.

Ultimately, the agency a company ends up choosing for social media management is usually a function of how the firm has organized its internal marketing function. If there is a social media team, the agency is likely to be a specialist social media house (after all, if you are a specialist in social media, how would it look if you hired an ad agency?) If, on the other hand, advertising covers social, the ad agency will get the nod. And so on.

(I won’t bother to talk about companies who hire agencies to scoop up masses of zombie followers or who astroturf social sites with fake laudatory posts: any firm engaging in that kind of behaviour is going to get its just desserts in the form of bad publicity and ultimately negative ROI).

Social Done Better

This approach is understandable, but it is bass-ackward. What social media does that is unique is provide a space where people, not brands, dominate the channel. It is a space that is not just about promulgating a message, but about listening, responding, and demonstrating that a brand can be a person, too.

The real ROI from social, therefor, comes from the conversations people have about a company and its products with minimal encouragement on the company’s part. In short, the he trick to winning in social media is to get other people talking about you and delivering your messages far more than you do about yourself in all other media, and the more influential those people are on the behaviour of others, the better.

For that reason, the agency that should be handling your social media in China should be:

  • A firm that is used to cultivating influencers over time
  • A firm that understands how to develop, deliver, sustain, and support powerful messages; and
  • A firm that knows how to monitor opinion, respond rapidly and appropriately in the face of a crisis or opportunity, whether that is a product problem or a corporate scandal.

To me, that’s not an agency full of creatives, of people who write apps, or of social media “experts.” It is, on the other hand, an agency filled with smart communicators. Find one of those, and you have found the agency to help you in China’s lava-fluid social media milieu.

Branding from the Ground Up

In the Hutong
Surrounded by snow
1721 hrs.

I am usually suspicious about “thought leadership” pieces on marketing that come out of the major management consultancies. These firms have proven strengths in organizational design, operations, production, logistics, and strategy, but when they venture into marketing they tend to stumble for a range of reasons that would fill a book.

I was doubly suspicious of the McKinsey Quarterly article “Building Brands in Emerging Markets” by Yuval Atsmon, Jean-Frederic Kuentz, and Jeongmin Seong because their approach lumps all emerging markets together.  But while the article has its shortcomings, there are nuggets of critical insights in the paper for businesses operating in China.

China is Different…

The authors correctly note that Chinese consumers generally rely more on word-of-mouth to guide their purchasing decisions than do their counterparts in most other countries, especially the U.S. The in-store experience is also more important here. Chinese are more accustomed to changing their decisions at the point-of-purchase rather than leave a store if they can’t get what they came in to buy. Indeed, many consumer marketers find that point-of-sale is the second largest chunk of their budgets (next to advertising) because they will lose at retail what they won in advertising.

Finally, it is increasingly important in China to eschew a purely national approach to marketing and target consumers with a more local approach. China is a patchwork of local habits, climates, dialects, diets, and sub-cultures, and we are reaching the stage in the nation’s development where marketers can no longer afford to ignore that.

…But the Difference is Changing…

Aside from its geographic overreach (“emerging markets” are not all the same) and its broad-brush approach to consumer goods, I have two major quibbles with the article. First, the authors offer a snapshot of consumer behavior but ignore trends that might undermine their points; and second, apart from geography they treat all Chinese consumers as an undifferentiated mass.

First, where people get their advice is changing. While the authors state that only 53% of China’s consumers find online recommendations credible, they leave out the fact that well over half of China’s consumers don’t have access to the Internet.  If you are a company (like, say, Coca-Cola) who needs to reach most or all of China’s 1.2 billion consumers, the Internet is about half as important as friends and family. Conversely if, like a growing number of companies, your target consumer is likely to be online – that is, if she is young, urban, educated, and has money to spend – the importance of the internet is sorely understated.

What is more, as credible online resources emerge, there is mounting evidence that the 560 million Chinese who can get online are giving outside sources greater credibility. As early as 2009, Sam Flemming’s CIC Data noted that over half of online consumers actively sought online feedback on a product prior to purchase, and that nearly 90% paid attention to online buzz on a product whether they sought it out or not. In that case, the Internet runs a close second to friends and family in the purchasing decision.

The importance of the retail shop in the purchase process is changing as well. I spoke with a senior marketing executive for a consumer electronics brand last week who told me that online sales – e-commerce – had suddenly become more important than in-store sales. A growing number of consumers was apparently hearing about the product from advertising, checking with family, checking online, going to the store to look and feel, and then going home and buying the product online. China’s online retail business has now passed an average of $40,000 per second and continues to grow. If the final point of sale is online, how does that change McKinsey’s equation? We don’t know: McKinsey ignores the internet.

…So let’s not Whitewash the Nuances

Finally, the authors ignore the importance of several demographic factors, most specifically age. Although it should be axiomatic, a growing body of research in China delves into how differently the increasingly prosperous older (55+) consumers behave than their under-30 counterparts. Friends and family are essential to the elderly, but for most purchasing decisions the youngsters are relying on peers and the Internet. Older consumers are more likely to purchase in a store, younger consumers are more likely than the grandparents to buy online.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical of the authors: these are, after all, nuances that would not fit into a 3,000 word article. But these oversights point to the problem with taking the management consulting approach to marketing. Grand strategies and broad generalizations may make for mind-tickling patter with clients, but as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” The day is long past when marketers can view Chinese consumers as an amorphous mass with uniform habits, and I would wager that applies in Brazil, India, and South Africa just as well.