Mark Tanner

When China’s Social Media Machine Takes Flight

2017/04/19 Mark Tanner
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A doctor flying from Chicago to Louisville last week had only morning appointments on his mind. Yet within hours, his pre-flight plight would reverberate around the world. Bloody, bruised and manhandled by United Airlines, Dr David Dao’s treatment was followed by what has become a case study in PR mismanagement. Resulting effect; a despised brand devalued by hundreds of millions of dollars. China’s role in the matter is not insignificant.

The man’s Asian ethnicity clearly struck a nerve with Chinese consumers. On Weibo, it was the top-trending topic, viewed nearly 700 million times over hundreds of thousands of ferocious posts, with the original video watched 750 million times in two days. On WeChat, searches for ‘United Airlines’ grew from 14,920 on April 10 to 35,631,015 the next day. Even state-media was all over it, condemning the ‘arrogant and cold-blooded’ airline.

Mega-celebrities in China but completely unrecognizable to a US flight attendant, China’s all-important KOLs were quick to share their personal anecdotes: JD.com CEO Richard Liu announced it reminded him of the “three times” he’d experienced a “nightmare” with United, musician Gao Xiaosong spoke of a couple of horrific experiences and arrogant staff, and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen was vocal in announcing that United Airlines is now on his personal blacklist.

Quantifying China’s effect in this saga is telling. A report on Bloomberg noted that United’s stock price was largely unaffected for the day following the forcible removal; it wasn’t until the following morning’s reports that the social media storm had spread to China that the stock price took a significant hit. With 135 million outbound Chinese travellers last year, it’s best not to anger the horde. United runs more non-stop flights to Chinese cities than any other US airline and carries around 20% of Chinese-US traffic – accounting for an estimated $2 billion share of its revenue.

Among many things, the episode illustrates that poorly managed crises in your domestic market can often flow on to China with a vengeance. Whilst China’s Internet may appear cut off from the rest of the world, there are few things that don’t get noticed – be it through VPNs, millions of Chinese living, studying and travelling abroad, and even state media.

The level of detail Chinese consumers knew about the incident was impressive – right down to the terms and conditions of the lousy compensation offered to passengers if they left the flight and how it fell short of what regulations demanded. When Chinese consumers get a bee in their bonnet, it’s not unusual for hundreds of millions to jump on the bandwagon.  Whereas this case can seem a bit doom and gloom, this en masse social engine can equally engage in a positive light.

Little can prepare any brand in China for a United Airlines-scale backlash, however a basic understanding of Chinese consumers and the market can be the difference between costly blunders and happy customers.  For that reason China Skinny has put together a free 5-day email course, with concise advice summarizing the key things to know and look out for when selling in China – find out more here and spread the word!   Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.

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