Whilst some luxury brands such as Burberry were initially reticent about using shopping sites such as TMall because of trepidation over the ‘grey’ market, the ecommerce site could well be one of the most beneficial platforms for smaller, lesser known Western brands to set up if they want to reach the breadth of Chinese citizens.
It used to be that your average netizen in China would hook onto one brand and stay with it… not any more
Lately, though, with the rise of social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo and online shopping through internet giants like Alibaba, greater choice has meant that China’s ever growing online army are more likely to follow several brands.
Whilst it may have taken a few knocks over the last year or so with government crackdowns, Weibo is still a favourite with Western brands hoping to get their marketing message across in China. Weibo is essentially a cross between Twitter and Facebook but is one of the major social media players with over 300 million registered users.
Long seen as the epitome of success in China, Western luxury brands have often been held up as the way to market abroad and an example of good social media optimisation that other, lesser brands need to follow.
It’s something that Western marketers may have steered clear of in the last few years but there is some evidence that aiming advertising at the older generation in China could have substantial benefits. The general apocryphal view is that it is easier to reach China’s ageing population through channels such as television and newspapers rather than online and that social media is just not for them.
City Tiers No Longer Tell the Whole Story for Social Media Marketers
For marketing purposes, companies have tended to look at China’s vast population in terms of City Tiers. Types of city have different characteristics and can affect the way many brands, especially in the West, approach them, both on social media and via other digital marketing methods.
Marketing executives in the West are busy checking the stats for Chinese social media to better inform how they promote their brands on social media.
Western brands that are trying to get to grips with social media in China know that it is a fast paced and often complex arena and, with nearly 600 million users and a year on year growth of over 165% for mobile shopping, it’s something they have to work hard to keep up with.
Here is our top trend for 2014:
Taobao, the eBay style customer to customer e-commerce strand of Alibaba online shopping, has created its own social app called Weitao designed to give more interaction between buyers and sellers on the platform.
Brands have long been aware that what sells here in the West doesn’t necessarily sell that well in the East and nowhere is this more noticeable than in China.
Often seen as cut off from the rest of the world, the country represents one of the biggest retail markets for brands and succeeding in it is something akin to the Holy Grail.
Renren has lagged behind many of the more aggressive and commercially successful social media and microblogging platforms in recent times though it still has over 170 million users. It’s often seen as a Facebook clone in the West, in the way it looks with the blue interface and how it behaves with status shares, like pages and the ability to post photos and chat with friends.
Having sold its group buying site Nuomi to the e-commerce giant Baidu recently, many could be forgiven for thinking that Renren was going to fade away as one of the major players in social media in China. The competition with Weibo and WeChat was just too fierce. In fact, Renren has been repositioning itself, is targeting the student and youth market, and released a new mobile app in November 2013.
The demographic for Renren remains from 13 to 30 years old, school children and those at university, and brands that have invested heavily in it as a marketing platform over the years have included Dell, which boasts over a million fans on their page, as well as Budweiser and KFC.
“The strategy on RenRen is pushy and strictly sales-oriented, with a multimedia approach including the promotion of other web platforms and mobile apps.” Digital in the Round (http://www.digitalintheround.com/renren-chinese-social-media/)
According to Joe Chenn, Chairman and CEO of Renren, they need to differentiate themselves from their competitors. They have struggled with generating advertising revenue from the mobile application which has led to an emphasis on gaming to attract users.
For brands that are targeting the younger demographic, particularly 18 to 24 year olds, Renren is still one of the sites they should be concentrating on. There tends to be a lot of gossip on the platform and if brands can plug into that they can create an impact.
Although there are restrictions on brands accessing the site initially, for instance Renren only accepts around 100 new brand pages a day, and it is more difficult to operate in than its Facebook counterpart in the West, it remains a key platform in China’s complex social media landscape.
Revenue for Renren has come through its development of online gaming rather than straight brand advertising and that trend is set to continue over the next few years. About 70% of users now logon via their mobile devices and brands that can leverage the gaming side of Renren to get their message across will probably have more success than those that don’t.
The problem for Renren will be existing outside the bubble of China’s social media landscape. Where Weibo and WeChat are making inroads into the West and challenging for a piece of the global pie, Renren may find it difficult to compete with established platforms like Facebook and that in the end may well signal its demise.
In the meantime, for Western brands trying to reach the affluent youth of China, it still holds the potential for good results.
“Our goal is to reposition Renren as a young generation social hub, the best place to observe and understand the thoughts and behaviours of China’s new generation”. Chief Operating Officer for Renren, James Liu. (https://www.warc.com/LatestNews/News/Renren_targets_students.news?ID=32730)
is Tencent’s WeChat set to be the app of choice for both business and pleasure?
According to multimedia journalist Paul Bischoff on TechinAsia: “In China, all online communication converges at WeChat. The four-year-old chat app now functions as text messenger, Facebook, Reddit, Skype, IRC chatroom, Meetup, and Instagram – all rolled into one.”
It used to be that apps like Facebook and Twitter would take care of the personal and those such as LinkedIn would satisfy our business and work needs. With WeChat though, we have an app that is trying to break down the barrier between the two. Business meets social and personal. It works well in China’s social media world and it may well be heading West to challenge some of our established platforms.
In China, social capital is a vital prerequisite to success. Whereas people in the West might have one account for their personal life and one for business, in China it is often rolled up into one. And something like group chat is very important to our Eastern colleagues.
Networking groups are big in China
WeChat groups have a limit to the number of members. You need special permission to run one that has in excess of 100 people and if you run it, you must be able to moderate the content accordingly. For many Chinese businesses, selecting the right group to follow, and networking through it, can bring success and vital information exchanges.
With all its functionality, WeChat is an ideal platform for a varied range of activities from selling online and settling disputes to running a web style seminar. There are predictions that WeChat is going to overtake even Facebook as the world’s premier social marketing tool.
The benefit of Tencent’s platform for Western brands is that it is possible to categorize people according to their location and gender. More than half its users are aged between 25 and 30 and many are white collar workers who reside in first tier cities. And with business merging into personal with many of its users, this provides a unique opportunity for brands hoping to develop a marketing approach tailored for Chinese consumers.
The problem for brands trying to make their way on this multi-faceted platform is that it’s not quite there yet. There are still challenges in marketing your brand on WeChat.
According to Xiaofeng Wang from The Forrester Group: “The information that users share on WeChat is private and can be seen only by personally approved friends; as a result, WeChat is used more as a communication tool for friends to keep in contact. Users are less likely to repost brands’ information massively, as marketers expect them to do on Weibo.”
There are also restrictions on brand accounts for how many messages they can send to their fans. With the government crackdown on luxury items and self-indulgent behaviour, Western brands are still weighing up the options and discovering how best to leverage WeChat as a marketing medium. But the truth is that its growth in popularity across the globe may well make it a primary focus for many years to come.
The slowdown in China’s economic growth might be making some big Western brands think twice about investing in this lucrative market in the future.
At the beginning of 2014, both L’Oreal Garnier and Revlon planned exits from China’s competitive cosmetics market.
China is a large and complex arena in which to do business. Foreign companies have often had difficulty navigating it. Luxury brands appear to be suffering more than most, not only because of the economic slowdown but also the government’s crackdown on what it sees as unhealthy extravagance.
“As growth in China slows brands are starting to evaluate their portfolios in China and to focus on where they see the biggest growth,” comments Torsten Stocker, Hong Kong-based partner with consultancy firm AT Kearney
In truth, L’Oreal is not pulling out totally from the Chinese market. They will, instead, be concentrating on two main brands: L’Oreal Paris and Maybelline New York. China is one of L’Oreal’s biggest markets, they have a 17% share in it, and they see social media marketing as vital to their success there.
Lancôme, another luxury cosmetic brand in China, has a strong presence on many social networks including Kaixin, Renren and Sina Weibo. It uses prominent key opinion leaders to promote its products on their blogs and in videos. And its Rose Beauty Weibo page has over 900,000 followers who regularly visit for advice and chat, post comments and reblog to their friends and family.
Lancôme created a new campaign for this New Year encouraging their fans to create digital talking greetings cards. “A Merry Lancome New Year” was launced on WeChat, Weibo and their own community website with those who collect the most ‘likes’ eligible to win products from the company’s latest line of cosmetics.
One of the ways in which luxury brands have suffered with the government crackdown in recent months is its effect on the Chinese practice of gift giving. The reason luxury items have caught the attention of the government is because they have often been used as bribes in politics and business.
But the affluent Chinese who buy luxury products are also changing their habits and purchasing outside of China’s mainland. And, according to analyst and writer Michael Zakkour: “Chinese luxury consumers are turning increasingly toward spending their ample disposable income on lifestyle purchases in addition to pure social status products.”
There is no doubt that luxury brands are nervous at the moment. Some like L’Oreal and Revlon are altering their approach to the Chinese market. Others are engaging more deeply on social media to offset any decline in popularity. Government crackdowns can disappear almost as quickly as they appeared.
But it’s not all bad news for luxury brands and the people who market them. The past 10 years has seen rapid growth in the economy and many see the current slowdown as a return to a more stable market that will benefit all Western brands trying to sell themselves in China.
“After a decade of rapid growth, the past two years have been a reality call for luxury brands in China. Rather than a downward trajectory, brands should think of the slowing market as a stabilization of rates that weren’t sustainable in the long-term.” The Jing Daily.
The continued explosion of smartphones throughout China will provide marketing teams with major challenges over the next few years. The country is opening up and it’s not just people in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, where the affluent few live, that brands will be able to reach out to.
Tier 1 and 2 cities have long been seen as areas where luxury brands from Rolex to Yves St Laurent have been successful. Even specialist food products are beginning to get a foot hold in these places, fulfilling the need for luxury items that set individual consumers apart from their compatriots.
“Online groceries are developing quickly in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities,” says Yougang Chen, a McKinsey partner in China. “China’s urban consumers enjoy niche food products, and many kinds of products are not easily available in supermarkets.” (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-02-13/how-to-reach-china-s-avid-online-shoppers)
So who are these new customers hitherto beyond the reach of social media marketers in the West? Around 54% of China’s people live in cities and that figure is growing as more office jobs are created attracting people from the rural areas looking for a better and more prosperous life. China’s cities are divided into tiers from 1-6 depending on population and economic value.
Tier 1 cities such as Beijing and Shanghai represent highly developed markets for Western brands and are home to consumers who are considered affluent. Tier 2 cities such as Nanchang and Zhuhai have been attracting increasing attention from brands because of their growing wealth and greater propensity for consumerism.
Below Tier 1 and 2, the classification, originally introduced by the Chinese government, becomes a little less easy to understand. But the truth of the matter is that smartphones are opening up these areas to greater consumerism and Western brands will have to get to with it.
Brands like Proctor and Gamble have been making contact with the less affluent members of Chinese society for years, even before the advent of social media and internet marketing. And Proctor and Gamble, the maker of household and personal-care products, has three of the top five brands in China: Colgate, Pampers and Crest.
Following some mistakes in the late 80s and early 90s, they realised that a one size fits all strategy wasn’t going to work in China and they had to get to know their consumers better. The way they did this was to send out 1000s of their employees to stay with and observe families around China, using that information to develop the right products for those people and the right marketing approach.
What brands need to understand, if they are going to sell to new markets which are being brought closer by the expansion in smartphone usage, is that they are not a uniform body of people. In other words, they are not the affluent rich.
“The city-tiered approach that Chinese marketers mastered well in traditional and digital marketing won’t work for mobile. Why? Because consumers of all levels of mobile sophistication can be found in all types of cities — and even in rural areas — and engaging them will require a nuanced understanding of a marketer’s particular audience.” Xiaofeng Wang (http://blogs.forrester.com/xiaofeng_wang/14-02-13-how_to_reach_your_unique_mobile_audience_in_china)
Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) are important weapons for brands hoping to get their message across on social media, particularly in China. They are the people netizens listen to and the value of their endorsement to your product or service cannot be underestimated.
They use platforms like Sina Weibo and WeChat and they can range from national renowned celebrities, organisations and thinkers, to local experts. Their followers number from a few thousand to millions and they can be travel writers, journalists, chefs, photographers, actors and actresses, pop stars and fashion icons. Their followers trust their opinions on where to go on holiday, what clothes they should wear, what they should eat and what TV they should watch.
Large brands use multiple KOLs to spread branding power, spending significant amounts courting the famous and successful. Smaller brands with more limited budgets can also increase their reach by utilising experts and respected fans who are active on social media and have a good following.
Finding a useful KOL
According to Angie Au-Yeung, National Digital Marketing Manager, China, for Lee Cooper, there are 3 keys to a successful KOL:
Find a KOL who fits your brand. For instance, if you are selling a fashion product to the young affluent in China’s Tier 1 and 2 cities, you are more likely to choose a young, attractive celebrity KOL rather than a renowned architect or popular politician to market your brand.
What do you want your KOL to do? Do you want them to pass on your brand message in their posts? Do you want them to become an ambassador for your brand? There are various levels a KOL can operate on and getting the right balance is vital for a successful social media campaign.
What are the metrics for your KOL? Fan base size and demographic are important. The rise of smart phone usage in China means that you can reach a wider cross-section of the country than ever before. If you are going to invest time and energy in a KOL then they need to be able to reach out to the people who will be interested in your product.
Engaging with KOL bloggers
Beyond the obvious high-ranking celebrities and others who are in the public eye, there are opportunities for social media branding with China’s large and ever-growing band of bloggers. These are generally people who have a hobby or passion that attracts enough of a following and respect for their opinion to have promise as a promotional tool for brands.
“Building relationships with bloggers in China can be time consuming and requires a degree of commitment but…it can bring fantastic success to a brand in the way of genuine advocacy and provide the local breakthrough endorsement which is essential for traction in China.” Elisa Harca, Marketing Consultant. (http://www.clickz.com/clickz/column/2322997/bloggers-commentators-and-kols-harnessing-the-power-of-chinese-influencers)
More highly valued by consumers than their Western counterparts, discovering valuable KOLs should be a priority for all brands seeking to make inroads into China’s marketplace and sell their products.
For brands operating in China’s vast and complex social media landscape, one thing that can’t be avoided is the government’s almost pathological tendency to censor content.
Generating a marketing campaign that gets China’s 600 million online population talking about your brand can have dire consequences – if you get it wrong. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have all been banned by the authorities and LinkedIn’s new Beta platform, launched in China last month, has had to agree to government restrictions to gain a licence to operate.
Whilst brands may be able to monitor their own content, they don’t have much control over what people say once their message is out there. Many popular brands use well-known Chinese celebrities to promote their products and these Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) can also get on the wrong side of government restrictions that can often seem as confusing as they are censorial.
Actress Yao Chen, the face of Tourism New Zealand in China, became entangled in a political protest when she quoted Solzhenitsyn to her 33 million Sina Weibo followers in support of freedom of the press. The quote: One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world, didn’t sit well with the government censors.
To some, China’s censorship can seem complicated and often random.
“Last year, TV regulators restricted popular genres such as dating, variety and talent shows as part of a crackdown on “overly entertaining” programming. They also banned commercials during dramas, one of the most popular formats in China. No explanation was given for the rules and ad prices soared as supplies decreased overnight.” Anita Chang Beattie, Ad Age (http://adage.com/article/global-news/censorship-china-media-marketers/239187/)
Of more concern to Western brands may be the ever changing list of government censored words and phrases ranging from the “Dalai Lama” and “evolution” to “instant noodles”. It may sound strange to the outside world, but there is reasoning behind these bans, mostly to do with the desire to reduce dissent.
Banning of words can often happen swiftly and without warning but they can also be reinstated just as quickly and mysteriously. In 2012 it was reported that the word Ferrari was banned following the death of a son of an ex-aide to the former Chinese President Hu Jintao. In February this year a similar thing happened with another Ferarri belonging to yet another member of China’s young elite.
Luxury brands, for so long the success story for Western endeavours in China, haven’t been exempt from government bans either. In 2013 there was a blanket ban on advertising for those who promote “incorrect values and help create a bad social ethos”.
The Jing Daily quoted at the time: “As such, radio and television stations have been ordered to pull any advertisements that promote extravagant gift-giving — i.e., “waste” — for items such as high-end watches, rare stamps and gold coins.”
This followed on from a ban of advertising in outdoor spaces that promoted “hedonistic or high-end lifestyles”. Fortunately for luxury brands, this ban did not extend to digital platforms where most of their affluent fans do their shopping.
While brands can often be caught unawares by Chinese censorship, there is still hope that the rise of social media and the increased use of smartphones is going someway to devalue the government’s attempts to control what its people see and say.
In the meantime, brands need to have one eye on current censorship trends if they want to avoid wasting their marketing budget on campaigns that don’t pass an often inscrutable set of censorship rules.
Many businesses forging a new media strategy in China, see the country’s premier micro-blogging site, Weibo, as the Twitter twin of the East. However, there are some fundamental differences between the two and simply moving your Twitter strategy over onto Weibo may be more of a mistake than you think.
It’s not just about 140 characters. Chinese can contain five times more information than English in that short space. This means Weibo provides an opportunity for a more layered dialogue and greater interaction between fans and companies trying to market their product. The Chinese love to comment and Weibo gives them the tools to do this and more.
A picture paints a thousand words. Businesses can do worse than look to the fashion industry for examples of good practice in social media strategy in China. For a recent Art of the Trench exhibition in Shanghai, Burberry used pictures of people in the city wearing the iconic trench coat on their Weibo page.
Images and video were also transmitted live from the event. The result?
“The brand saw an increase of 15, 548 followers in just a 16 day time period and saw an average of 20 active followers a day.” Courtney Gerring, Digital PR at Fashionbi. (http://www.marketmechina.com/burberrys-powerful-weibo-strategy-and-the-benefits-of-weibo-campaigns/)
Get yourself verified. Sina Weibo brought in verified accounts much earlier than Twitter. Unlike Twitter, where it doesn’t appear to have the same impact, without it on Weibo you will have a harder time attracting fans.
Be careful what you post. There is censorship in China, a fact businesses looking to get a foothold in this arena have to deal with. Common sense can get you so far but you also need to keep an eye on what is in/out of vogue. In China, censorship of content, keywords and images changes with the tide. A site like weibowatch.com regularly provides a useful list of up-to-date banned or sensitive words that businesses should be aware of.
Latch onto influence. In other words, it pays to know your public. Get to know the key opinion leaders and build a relationship with them and you will be able to better reach the Chinese public. Particularly on Weibo, these verified individuals get a lot of reposts and comments on a daily basis.
Keep one eye on public events. In July 2011, a huge rainstorm hit Beijing leaving thousands of office workers stranded in the city. Durex posted on Weibo that it would be a good idea to put their product on their shoes to keep those feet dry – the post was shared between 50 million Weibo users.
Timing is crucial. To build up fans it helps to have an idea when the majority are checking their posts. For instance, a large number of Chinese commuters look at Weibo while travelling to and from work.
With over 500 million users and almost two thirds of fans spending an average of 3.9 hours a day using it on their phones, Weibo is one of the most influential social media channels in China and one that businesses looking to be a success in the country need to be serious about. Optimising for Weibo may be more challenging than its Western counterpart but, done effectively, can give foreign businesses access to a large and influential portion of the population.
“While the controls are tighter, one must realize that social media is infinitely more open than other media in China, and Sina has built a solid product integrating images, video, structured dialog, and longer tweets. As a result, Sina Weibo has become the media of choice that people flock to find or share information, and to voice or hear opinion.” Former Google China head Kaifu Lee. (http://techcrunch.com/2013/02/18/kaifu-lee-still-upbeat-on-chinas-social-media-despite-sina-and-tencent-weibo-suspension/)
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Luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and jeweller David Yurman have all used Valentine’s Day as a reason to launch social media campaigns in China these last few weeks and their approach should act as a guiding light for other brands looking to establish themselves in China.
The reason for their success?
The increasing growth of China’s affluent rich – those richer than the middle class but not so well-off as the super rich.
“Today, the affluent are 120 million strong and their annual buying power is $590 biliion. By 2020, this group will number 280 million – 35 percent of China’s urban population or 20 percent of its total population.” The Age of the Affluent by The Boston Consulting Group (http://www.bcg.com/media/PressReleaseDetails.aspx?id=tcm:12-121760)
Lancome, for Valentine’s this year, launched a competition on micro-blogging site Weibo, asking fans to send in love poems for their partners, with those who shared or tagged entered into a free draw for luxury gifts. Audi and Swiss watch brand Tag Hever ran similar ‘send a message to your partner’ campaigns.
Luxury brands are way ahead of others in their approach to social media and e-commerce in China. They work hard to build relationships and interact with their consumers, aided by the rapid growth of smartphone usage and building on their own international reputations and brand desirability. They are purveyors of the must-have Western products that the affluent, seeking status and recognition, desire above all else.
The Chinese affluent are seen as sophisticated e-consumers who like to travel abroad and who are more open to adopting a new brand. According to Youchi Kuo, co-author of the BCG report, learning to sell your brand to this community will also have a knock on effect at home: “By mastering the affluent market in China, which appreciates luxury but is also conscious of value, companies will be better equipped to reach their local affluent customers.”
But it is the way that luxury brands interact with their fan base which can inform new social media campaigns – understanding the Chinese consumer psyche and how they interact on platforms such as Weibo and WeChat. They use social networking a lot, more than we do in the West. One of the clear distinctions between China’s affluent and those in the West is the age. The Chinese affluent are much younger and tend to trust foreign brands more than those from home.
However within this large group there are factions that see the world in different ways and the challenge for marketing executives is to target the right people and not waste their marketing budget on a one size fits all solution. For example, there are sections of the Chinese affluent who want a status symbol while others look to hide their wealth.
“One of the clearest factors distinguishing China’s wealthy consumers from their foreign counterparts is their youth: some 80 percent are under 45 years of age, compared with 30 percent in the United States and 19 percent in Japan.”