There has been much uncertainty about China’s new ecommerce laws which will launch in earnest on 1 January 2019. The unknown direction around cross border ecommerce and the daigou trade is likely to have kept a few businesses up at night.
We are thankful to finally have some clarity around the new laws. Here are some of the key highlights of the new regulations announced on 21 November:
Cosmetics, Health Food, Infant Formula & Other Consumer Imports
Cosmetics, health food, infant formula and other retail products sold over cross border ecommerce will remain exempt from mainland Chinese registration, filing and certification. Speculation that cosmetics not tested on animals could not continue to be sold in China through cross border ecommerce has been laid to rest.
Exporting to Chinese Consumers through Brand.com Sites
The new regulations state that brands selling direct to consumers in China from their website or ecommerce platform based outside of the Mainland will be required to register their platform with Chinese customs.
Increased Purchase Limits
The single purchase limit will increase from ¥ 2,000 ($288) to ¥5,000 ($720) and the yearly purchase amount increases from ¥20,000 ($2880) to ¥26,000 ($2,745) per year. Cross border purchases that fall within the increased limits will be exempted from duties and receive a 30% discount on consumption tax and VAT.
Deterrents for Daigou
We noted in October that the road for daigou was likely to get tougher as Beijing tries to redirect cross border sales to the legitimate channels. The new laws have confirmed that all daigou who advertise online need to register with the government and pay full import taxes. In recent months, customs have stepped up airport checks, while Chinese courts have jailed several merchants for up to 10 years for tax evasion. We expect larger daigou will continue their trade, however tens of thousands of smaller operators are may see this as just too much trouble and quit – easy come, easy go.
Legislation as expected
Overall the regulations are not surprising news. Of late, Beijing has been promoting its stance towards free trade at events such as Davos and this month’s CIIE. Closing the door on cross border commerce would have seemed hypocritical and contradictory. Similarly, tech giants such as Alibaba and JD have invested significant sums in building their cross border businesses, and would have been in Beijing’s ear about the benefits of the service. Discouraging it would have driven more purchases to the less-trackable grey trade. Many Chinese consumers have also become fans of cruelty free cosmetics, imported health and formula products; taking these options away would have caused quite a stir, which no one needs right now.
The law is positive for cross border ecommerce and will see it continue to grow. However in most cases cross border should be seen a stepping stone to a wider range of online and offline sales channels in China. This will raise awareness and accessibility for your products and decrease your exposure to law changes and other risks. China Skinny can assist in developing a strategy for this.
You’ve got to give it to China: This week’s inaugural China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai – the ‘Canton Fair for exporters’ – has attracted representatives from 85% of the countries that the Olympics attracts, all hoping to sell their wares to China.
President Xi Jinping officially opened the expo speaking to political and business leaders from 172 countries. Xi pledged to increase goods imports to $30 trillion over the next 15 years, and services to $10 trillion. The goods figures were $6 trillion higher than the existing target of $24 trillion that the Ministry of Commerce had re-stated just hours before. However the figures are parallel with – actually below – how China has been tracking. China’s goods imports grew 16% last year to $1.84 trillion in 2017. The $30 trillion target averages $2 trillion a year indicating a very unambitious official growth target as Caixin pointed out. Comparing the import growth targets to the rise in GDP is even more underwhelming as illustrated in this graph, posted on Twitter by Economist journalist Simon Rabinovitch.
Among other announcements, Xi vowed to “firmly punish behaviour that encroaches on the lawful rights and interests of foreign companies, particularly IP infringements.” He promised looser restrictions on foreign ownership in the education and health care sectors, expansion of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone to another area, stepping up of cross-border e-commerce, along with reduced tariffs and lower “institutional costs” of imports.
Although many details of the expo have been shrouded in mystery until opening day, the show floor attracted over 3,000 businesses sparing no expense, exhibiting everything from flying cars to Maori food to an estimated 150,000 buyers from across China. To signify China’s importance for global trade, 130 countries are represented in the enormous four leafed clover-shaped exhibition centre, just shy of the 132 who have signed up for Dubai’s World Expo in 2020.
Attending the opening day were around a dozen prime ministers and presidents from countries like Russia, Vietnam, Egypt, Hungary, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, the Czech Republic, El Salvador, Kenya and Laos, the President of the World Bank, Director-General of the WTO, MD of the IMF, Jack Ma and Bill Gates and Australia’s trade commissioner in the country’s first high-level ministerial trip in over a year.
Like any big show in China, there is the obligatory mascot – Jinbao the panda, commemorative stamps, countless convoys disrupting traffic, and numerous deals announced such as Alibaba’s pledge to bring ¥200 billion ($28.8 billion) of imports over five years and JD.com’s ¥100 billion ($14.4 billion). It is anyone’s guess as to how many of the deals signed this week come to fruition, but the expo is an unquestionably positive step in promoting imports and potentially spreading their presence deeper into the hinterland. See photos of the expo here. All the best to our readers who are at the expo. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
A quick quiz to start this week’s Skinny: What is the most valuable marketing company in the world? Most people probably couldn’t care less, but there are a few folk in the industry who would say WPP. Whilst the company hasn’t had a great year, it remains the largest marketing company in the world measured by billings and revenue. The London-based conglomerate has a market cap of $18.9 billion, putting them ahead of the other well-known marketing companies such as Omnicom at $15.3 billion, Publicis at $12.6 billion and Interpublic at $8.3 billion.
Before using your guess on the familiar marketing giants, you may want to consider the lesser-known companies, like Focus Media. Last week Alibaba acquired a 10.32% stake in the company for $2.23 billion, which as of yesterday had a market cap of ¥162 billion ($23.8 billion). Focus Media is the company behind many of the digital advertising screens in streets, subways and elevators across 300 Chinese cities.
With the acquisition, Alibaba plans to collaborate with Focus to merge offline media and digital marketing, slated as an upgrade to “New Marketing” which will support the growth of New Retail across all sectors. Focus has ambitious plans to soon control 5 million terminals covering 500 Chinese cities and reaching 500 million consumers.
Powering the evolution of Focus’s screens will be Alibaba’s vast banks of consumer data from the more than 550 million online shoppers on its platforms, 520 million AliPay users, and potentially the hundreds of millions watching Youku videos, navigating with AutoNavi maps, taking Didi taxis, browsing on UCWeb, ordering food on Ele.me, cycling on Ofo, using Weibo along with the more than 100 other businesses Alibaba owns a share in. When Alibaba figures out how to truly integrate and harness its massive data, there will be few stones unturned in consumer knowledge that can help direct what gets displayed on advertising screens or whatever they evolve to. Throw that in with their facial recognition technologies and you’ll have Minority Report-type advertising folks!
Alibaba’s investment into Focus Media will support its irrepressible expansion into physical retail and further strengthen its presence across the whole customer journey. What does it mean for companies such as the WPPs and Omnicoms of the world? The continued structural shift in marketing and advertising will force them to evolve beyond their traditional services.
One thing we have found at the Skinny is that while big data is valuable in planning, marketing and product development, it is a complement, rather than a replacement, to human creativity for determining how to best push consumers’ emotional buttons. It is likely to be a while before any machine can do that. Based on the early stage talks involving Alibaba and Tencent to buy a stake in WPP China, the big tech companies may be thinking so too. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Just as live sports are helping prop up the old world of television advertising, they can also be a potent force in international relations and trade. We saw it with the ping pong diplomacy of the early 70s, and as sport becomes an important part of life in China, it will be an increasingly significant driver for geopolitical relations and the goods and services trade. FIFA, the NBA, snow sports and other physical activities are taking advantage of this. As proud supporters of rugby in Asia, China Skinny would be grateful to start seeing some real rugby love in the Middle Kingdom.
With the FIFA World Cup kicking off in Russia tomorrow, the trend is looking positive. During the month-long football festival there may be times visitors feel like they’re at a Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao match. Although China hasn’t played in a World Cup Finals since 2002, an estimated 100,000 Chinese are expected to visit Russia for the Cup, dwarfing the 10,000 football-mad English expected to be there – and their team qualified! On top of that, Chinese brands Hisense, Mengniu, Vivo, electric bike maker Yadea and Dalian Wanda are joining the party to plug the World Cup sponsorship gap.
Like many things in China, Xi Jinping’s passions and policy are helping drive China’s enthusiasm for the beautiful game. The avid football fan Xi hinted last year that China will be bidding to host a World Cup in 2030 or 2034 and will be a “world football superpower” by 2050. Feeding into the grand plan, Xi has announced that the number of football fields in China will grow from less than 11,000 in 2015 to 70,000 by 2020. China will have 50 million regular football players including 30 million students by then, and 50,000 schools will have a strong emphasis on football by 2025 – up from just 5,000 in 2015.
The 100,000 visitors are a sign of changing times in China. They illustrate how Chinese are increasingly able and prepared to spend big bucks on their leisure pursuits. Back in 2002 – when consumers were much less affluent than they are today – no more than 50,000 Chinese went to the World Cup Finals in South Korea and Japan when China was actually on the field.
The swathe of Chinese visitors ascending on Russia will have been further tempted by visa-free travel to its northern neighbour. On top of that, China’s blossoming relationship with Russia will also drive preference – as geopolitical circumstances usually do with Chinese travel trends. Russia seems to be the flavour of the month with Beijing as they look to provide a scalable alternative to Western ideologies. The friendship comes at a good time for China as its dog box is marred with imprints of South Korea’s THAAD, ASEAN-contested island building and river damming, Japanese-disputed islands and historic invasions, the encircling of India and territory skirmishes, undermining of Australian sovereignty, Europe’s wariness of Chinese investment, lack of reciprocal access and sporadic trade disputes, and Trump.
As a symbol of their bond, Vladimir Putin was presented China’s first ever “friendship medal” by President Xi at a lavish event broadcast live from the Great Hall of the People. Since becoming president, Xi has visited Moscow more than any other capital city and Putin said that Xi Jinping was the only world leader who celebrated his birthday. Putin was in China last week for the enlarged Russia-China led Eurasian SCO bloc meeting as the G7 floundered. Russia, which is managing its own diplomatic challenges elsewhere has recently signed a series of deals with China who announced relations between two countries were at “the best level in history.”
In short, this year’s World Cup couldn’t have been better timed for Russia to tap into the opportunity that China presents. For the Russian businesses that stand to benefit from an influx of Chinese visitors – let’s hope you make them welcome. Mobile payments and the slew of other China-ready initiatives will ensure they have a better time, spend more and advocate Russia to the masses at home. And good luck to the 32 nations who made it to the finals! Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
The lure of WeChat for brands is clear; last year it drove $32.9 billion of information consumption and $52.4 billion of traditional consumption including travel, food, shopping, hotels, and tourism, according to a report from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology released this month. 34% of China’s data traffic happens on WeChat, versus the 14% on Facebook in North America.
There’s no denying WeChat’s enormous impact into everyday life in China as it has progressed to become a near unparalleled marketing tool. Yet its popularity has also made it hyper competitive. Official Accounts now number 20 million, with 3.5 million of those active, raising the bar for any brand hoping to make an impact on WeChat – seeing consumer expectations surge with it.
Last year over half of WeChat Official accounts saw less readership than in 2016. Whilst the way consumers use WeChat is continually becoming more sophisticated, many brands’ WeChat strategies haven’t done much to keep up. Few provide genuine value through entertaining and educational content. Even less build communities that engage and resonate with their target market and potential advocates. And many brands still see WeChat as a one-way communication stream to push content out to followers, and are yet to tap into the plethora of interactive functions available in the WeChat ecosystem or integrate offline touch points.
In most cases, WeChat initiatives do cost money. Many brands realise this and allocate a material budget for WeChat marketing. China Skinny gets many approaches from brands wanting a ‘WeChat campaign’, but often haven’t even defined their target market, positioning or what makes them unique from the thousands of other brands in their category. Without having these foundations, investing in WeChat will often be throwing good money after bad.
Although we hear so much about marketing opportunities on WeChat, in some cases an Official WeChat account isn’t appropriate for a brand. Take a small tourist attraction overseas for example. For many Chinese tourists, they are likely to only ever visit it once – and it will be just one of many places they’re seeing on their holiday. So few travellers will go to the effort and care enough to follow something that will fill their WeChat account with content that isn’t very relevant. Nevertheless, even if the attraction doesn’t have an Official Account, WeChat can still be very effective for that tourism business using less traditional advocacy initiatives or payments.
Brands shouldn’t blindly just invest in a traditional WeChat account just because everyone is talking about WeChat. They would be wise to ensure that they have the foundational strategy defined first and then consider the context of WeChat with regard to their product or service and positioning. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist with this.
For our British and European-based readers, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be in London at the Clavis Insight 2018 EMEA eCommerce Accelerator Summit on June 6 sharing ecommerce industry trends and case studies alongside GSK, L’Oreal, Unilever and PlanetRetail. More information here – we hope to see you there. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
When an estimated 500 new products and services launch in China every day, separating your brand from the rest can be an endless struggle. Of course an informed and intelligent approach to the market is vital in driving success, but recent times have seen high-performing brands begin to move towards more collaborative methods to open up opportunities.
Some of China Skinny’s clients and other aspirational brands are increasingly opting not to tackle China alone. New trends, business models and changing influences and touch points are constantly emerging, giving rise to the effectiveness of partnerships. They have allowed brands to more easily build meaningful and emotional connections with their target markets by engaging and accessing new channels previously out of reach for them.
Many of the highest profile b2b partnerships include China’s big tech companies. It seems there are almost daily announcements of an FMCG brand, car brand or retailer signing a partnership deal with Alibaba or Tencent. The Ford-Alibaba car vending machine is a novel example which captured imaginations across China and the world. Similarly, Tencent recently teamed up with Lego to develop games, videos and a social network for Chinese children.
Beyond the well-publicised and more obvious partnerships, there are many lesser-known collaborations that are sure to surprise those both in and out of China. With China’s sought-after millennials constantly looking for more ways to express themselves, fashion and music are at the heart of the most popular cross-industry collaborations. Unexpected partnerships have blossomed, including Lipton Tea joining forces with designers in a streetwear-inspired fashion show to reach a completely new body of consumers, and TripAdvisor who partnered with Beijing-based handbag brand Rfactory to create handbags emblazoned with the online travel firm’s logo. Blackmores have teamed up with top-20-world-ranking Tsinghua University to develop a health communication curriculum course for natural medicine. In addition to the aspirational associations and the perceived commitment to China, the course puts Blackmores in good stead, set to reach some of the industry’s most persuasive future influencers during their formative years.
Like anywhere, partnerships in China allow plenty of scope for creativity and can produce much higher returns than mainstream marketing initiatives. Yet they should be well-considered, appropriately executed and kept relevant to both the existing consumer and those targeted to justify the investment and risks that come with such collaborations. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist in identifying and maximising such partnerships.
On another note, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be joining an esteemed line up of experts at The Secrets To Doing Business In China forum in Shanghai on Friday May 18. Mix and mingle with China-based businesses and a large delegation of visiting Australian businesses in town for the Aussie Rules and SIAL. For more details tap/click here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
The strategies and recommendations that China Skinny developed five years ago were quite different than those we do today. When we cited the best examples of marketing in China, we would typically look to foreign brands. Back then, most domestic companies’ marketing plans were focused on price promotions and discounts.
Things have changed in recent years. The allure of overseas origins remains attractive with many Chinese consumers and there are some great case studies of foreign brands backing that up with a smart marketing strategy, yet our recommendations are increasingly drawing on lessons from domestic brands. We only need to look to the dairy category where imported brands have a natural perceived advantage for health and safety, yet domestic players still manage a 38% premium per litre for online sales. This is due to slicker marketing and usually a better understanding of the market overall. Our recent survey of Australian businesses with Austcham confirmed that exporters are increasingly waking up to this, with domestic brands seen as more of a source of competition than foreign brands – 50.7% versus 49.1%.
Domestic brands are also much more likely to have stronger distribution networks and more of an appetite for lower tier cities, which are the fastest growing markets in China. Of the 50 million new households that are expected to enter China’s middle and upper classes between 2016-2020, half of them are likely to be located outside of China’s top-100 cities according to a BCG-Alibaba study. Although incomes in smaller cities are less than in larger cities, the lower cost of living means more cash is available for discretionary purchases. Further, rising property prices and increased indebtedness help fund consumption from consumers starved of the choice available in China’s high-tier cities.
Traditional domestic brands are not the only source of local competition for foreign brands in China. One of the newest competitors to the mix are the key opinion leaders – the same folk that foreign and local brands are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse their brands. Just as George Clooney built his billion dollar tequila brand and Gwyneth Paltrow with lifestyle brand GOOP, China’s influencers are realising their value not just as endorsers of other brands, but to launch their own brands such as Zhang Dayi’s own fashion label and Mi Zijun’s snack shop.
The most potent new string of competition isn’t going to come from celebs though, it is likely to come from the platforms who are selling your brands themselves – China’s online giants who are becoming increasingly powerful in both the online and offline world. Although China have been late adopters of private-label brands, it is another area the big ecommerce platforms are likely to lead. Netease is the latest platform to launch its own private label, Yanxuan, selling clothing, furniture, and appliances from the same Chinese suppliers who manufacture for international brands like Kering’s Gucci, Burberry, and Deckers’ UGG. It follows Taobao’s Xinxuan which launched last year, and JD’s Jingzao in January.
The ecommerce platforms have the data to evaluate the attractiveness of the private label products coupled with the ability to test them with little risk. Just look at the 80,000 smelly Thai durians Alibaba sold in a minute. While Alibaba may be best known for its multi-billion-dollar acquisitions such as RT Mart and food delivery Ele.me, it is making plenty of smaller purchases that could add to its arsenal of home brands such as NZ dairy company Theland. Some would say it could be a conflict of interest, particularly given Alibaba’s ability to dial brands on and off, but it is the inevitable reality of supplying dominant retailers much like supermarket chains in the West.
New sources of competition all cement China’s position as the most competitive marketplace on the planet. Even categories that have been out of reach of domestic players such as the auto industry are now starting to see more and more threats from hungry and smart domestic brands – both Alibaba and Tencent have made notable investments in car manufacturers. Brands should be aware of who their competition is in order to carve out their unique place in the market and not become too reliant on one channel. Agencies like China Skinny can assist with such market mapping, gap analysis and differentiated branding and positioning. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
If you’re in China buying a tub of skincare online, a tray of New Zealand kiwifruit at the local fruit store, an expensive bottle of wine dining out, or even a well-known condom brand at a convenience store, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up with a fake. Unlike Western consumers who take things at face value, Chinese consumers are inherently untrusting of things for sale which contributes to them taking quite a different customer journey for products and services than consumers elsewhere.
Up until five years ago, the prevalence of fakes saw many consumers just accept it as a likely consequence of shopping in China. In 2013, China’s massive retail market saw just one million consumer complaints to relevant government departments. At the time, Americans numbered less than a quarter compared to China’s population but made more than twice as many complaints overall. The sudden rise of social media encouraged some aggrieved Chinese consumers to take complaining into their own hands. In 2011, a wealthy businessman in Qingdao disappointed with his Lamborghini’s service hired nine men to destroy his sports car with sledge hammers, and circulated the video on social media, which was followed by a run of copycats. But overall, most consumers seemed to just grin and bear it.
That is no longer. Last year consumer complaints grew 44% to 2.4 million – edging closer to America’s 2.7 million complaints. As China’s consumers have grown more sophisticated and assertive, so have their channels of recourse. Consumers are more aware and confident about the options available to them meaning brands are much less likely to get away with the things they used to. This is further exacerbated by the rise of ‘professional complainers’ who troll supermarkets for products with incorrect labelling and claims, unlawful additives and multiple production dates, earning ten times the purchase price in compensation.
As consumers have become more proactive in dealing with issues, CCTV’s annual 315 consumer watchdog broadcast has become less relevant. Once one of the most potent beacons of consumer protection, the show was notorious for bankrupting businesses it singled out. Even überbrands such as Nike and Apple took material hits after being shamed on the show in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Last Thursday’s 315 show confirmed how much less of an impact it makes these days. Just a fraction of the media and online buzz now accompanies 315 relative to the golden days five years ago. Nike was singled out again last year, but it appeared to do little to break the label’s stride in China. Brands are also much better prepared these days with comprehensive crisis plans, illustrated by VW who apologised within minutes on Weibo after being singled out on 315 this year, again. The show has been unable to find its mojo since CCTV joined a string of other state media for corruption involving shows such as 315.
Yet with the fall of 315, the rise of complaints has been augmented with enthusiastic complaining – and praising – on digital channels such as social media and online reviews on ecommerce and travel platforms. In short, it is becoming more difficult to fix actions that annoy Chinese consumers. Much like anywhere, brands should be particularly vigilant to do what they can to keep consumers happy, within reason. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Happy Year of the Dog! For our readers who took a break, we hope it was a blast.
One of the defining factors of the last lunar year was the Government cracking down on overly-leveraged Chinese conglomerates, particularly those who’d made “irrational” trophy acquisitions abroad. Some of Beijing’s highest profile targets have been in the news this month, with Wanda selling 17% of Atlético Madrid football club and $16 billion of deals since last year and Hainan Airline’s parent HNA hard times continuing. Yet the most extreme example is the elusive insurance company Anbang famous for its $1.95 billion purchase of New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 2014 and $30 billion in deals since. Last week, Anbang was taken over by the Government.
Whilst the tightened curbs on capital outflows and closer scrutiny on deals saw Chinese outbound investment plunge 29.4% last year, the Dog has started off with some well-known foreign brands becoming Chinese-owned, as Chinese companies continue to extend their global reach and appeal through acquisitions. The string of recent high profile investments mostly concern European luxury brands following 20% growth in the category in China last year, and Chinese nationals making up a third of global luxury purchases.
Last week, Club Med’s owners Fosun purchased France’s oldest fashion house Lanvin, following Shandong Ruyi’s acquisition of Swiss luxury brand Bally earlier this month. Volvo’s parent company Geely also became the largest shareholders of Germany’s Daimler. The announcement came not long after Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz was blasted by China for quoting the Dalai Lama – a symbolic move given the quote was on the China-banned Instagram and a sign that even marketing teams targeting markets miles from China may want to start reading up on Chinese sensitivities (subscribe here).
Yet whilst Chinese boardrooms may have spent the lead-up to the festival finalising luxury takeovers, on the ground China’s largest gifting period highlights other interesting insights.
At China Skinny we always watch CNY purchases closely, as the importance that Chinese place on these gifts for family and friends acts as a good barometer for what Chinese perceive as valuable and on-trend. This year’s theme was healthy and imported food. A People’s Daily article claimed imports accounted for 63% of Chinese New Year-related purchases whereas Alibaba’s platforms saw imported produce grow 300% from last year’s festival. Ymatou saw imported food grow 60% with Belgium chocolates, Spanish olive oil, American nuts and Australian oatmeal high in demand.
Overall, spending during China’s mega-festival increased 10.2% on last year – a sign that Chinese consumer confidence continues to bubble along, although it was slower than last year’s 11.4%. Other categories that saw runaway growth included smart home appliances and cinema, which jumped 67% from last year. We hope your fortunes follow suit this year. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Talk about China’s remarkable digital consumer ecosystem is often dominated by ecommerce, WeChat and mobile payments. Whilst there’s no discounting their impact on the market, there are a host of other significant digital channels that are very relevant for Western brands looking to understand Chinese consumers and sell to them.
Have you heard of Kuaishou? It’s an Instagram-style photo sharing app with 400 million users which has evolved into a livestreaming and video platform. Kuaishou is valued at $18 billion, over three times more than mega-toy brand Mattel. The relevance of photo and video for Chinese consumers (and most consumers these days) should entice brands to consider the platform in their marketing mix.
Similarly Meituan-Dianping, best known as a restaurant and entertainment guide, is often likened to China’s version of Yelp, but is significantly hungrier with plans for ride sharing, hotel bookings and more. It has a market cap of $30 billion – a similar value to the West’s internet darling Airbnb. Foreign brands in the food, beverage, entertainment, lifestyle and tourism categories could be wise to take a look.
The current cool kid on the block Toutiao is most famous for its AI-powered news app with 120 million daily users. It also owns other apps such as the red hot Watermelon Video livestream quiz, musical.ly, and others. Much like Meituan-Dianping and Airbnb, Toutiao’s market cap is $30 billion.
Unlike a lot of the high valued tech companies of the past, many of China’s behemoths have healthy ways of making money. Chinese consumers are increasingly prepared to part with cash online, helped by the effortlessness of payment platforms. In fact, Chinese spent 270% more on apps in 2017 than 2015 – $35 billion. By comparison, American consumers spent $15 billion last year, a 75% increase over two years.
Chinese consumers’ obsession with apps is altering behaviour in almost every aspect of daily life in China -it is also shifting spending patterns. China’s big-spending online shopping females have finally been knocked from the top spot for digital spending by males, largely due to the explosion of gaming and, as a result, food delivery. That gives some hints to brands about another possible way to reach the often elusive Chinese male consumer.
They’re a few of the main ones – there are plenty more and then the fast-coming trends such as livestream quizzes and travelling frog games that are taking China by storm, all providing clues about how to unlock the potential of the mighty Chinese consumers.
Who are China Skinny? We are a marketing agency on the ground in Shanghai conducting research, building strategies, and executing them for over 100 multinational brands both big and small, across 20 categories. What’s your biggest China problem? Contact us to see how we can help. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Earlier this month Beijing released a discussion draft of its Ecommerce Law that has sent China watchers and businesses searching earnestly for some clarity. It promises to dramatically tighten up the cross border commerce opportunities that make up one of the most important and fastest growing channels for foreign brands exploring the China market. Like many government mandates, it strikes a confusing contradiction; adhering to the trend of increased control over China’s online consumer space in the face of all the talk of China opening up to the world from its helmsman.
Whilst some details of the discussion draft are uncertain, it will send shudders to some imported brands selling in China. Foreign retailers will be unable to sell online in China without going through a platform controlled by a Chinese-owned entity with the relevant licenses. Whereas the vast majority of online sales currently go through these channels anyway – Taobao, Tmall, JD, etc – it doesn’t look positive for Amazon’s ecommerce business in China, who this month sold their China-based cloud computing hardware due to the new cyber security laws. It also provides little hope for foreign brand.com stores.
The draft also seeks to shut down online sales as a way to import illegal products into China. If ‘illegal’ includes products currently not allowed to be sold in Mainland China, it will dramatically impact the most popular cross border category: cosmetics and skincare, where foreign products can’t be sold in China if they aren’t tested on animals. Only approved products will make it through the gate so it is likely to affect many categories.
As the China Law Blog eloquently put it, “the plan is to funnel all cross-border e-commerce through a limited number of processing centers, all of which are controlled by the national government”. Daigou traders are unlikely to be tickled pink by the rules.
The unfortunate reality of the draft regulations is that they will make the already dominant platforms such as Alibaba and JD even stronger. As their listing and support fees can be a prohibitive expense for smaller brands and the platforms are getting more crowded by the day, it is becoming increasingly harder to even get a listing on the platforms, let alone be noticed.
The wonderful thing about China’s current cross border commerce environment is how sales are spread across many more channels – Alibaba’s platforms account for just a third of sales, versus three quarters of China’s ecommerce overall. Although most of the other cross border platforms are Chinese entities and won’t be negatively affected by the new rules, those foreign-based sites may not fare so well – a real shame given many successful foreign brands now in China first sold into the market from their own foreign-based sites.
Like many previous ecommerce-related laws in China, the devil will be in the finer details and enforcement, but the draft should send a clear signal about the direction of ecommerce in China and highlight the importance of not relying on one precarious sales channel. Agencies such as China Skinny can ensure you are best prepared for such a risk. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
The big bull of ecommerce festivals comes charging into town this Saturday to much anticipation. Singles’ Day and the week that follows will see millions of frenzied electric scooters ferrying an estimated one billion deliveries to offices and apartments across the mainland. If you wanted proof that the Chinese consumer has become a force to be reckoned with, then this is it.
Purchases during the 24-hour period and presales represents over one-fiftieth of China’s annual ecommerce sales, with some brands even making half of their annual turnover on the day. However, many sellers will not make a dime from it. For a number of brands it is an opportunity to accumulate much-needed sales numbers and consumer reviews which are vital to Alibaba’s, JD’s and other platforms’ search results algorithm. It’s also important for consumer perceptions given they are much more likely to buy products that already have sales histories and glowing reviews, further emphasising the need for top notch end-to-end service, even with the added volume from the festival.
Although consumers are very much in a spending mindset, it is not just a case of throwing up a promotion on Tmall and expecting the masses to tap ‘buy’. There will be 140,000 brands – including 60,000 international ones – promoting 15 million products during the festival, so much like the rest of the year, smart marketing tactics will help.
Alibaba has taken the day from just being an online shopping fair to an annual celebration firmly cemented in the festival calendar, arguably the one that generates the most buzz after the Spring Festival-Lunar New Year celebrations. Its evolution to an entertainment-focused event has been vital to its continued growth. Every year, countless pundits have commented that its growth rates couldn’t continue, but with every 11.11 it continues to soar, growing 32% last year to $17.8 billion. This year is likely to be tougher for such growth, with consumers already showing fatigue from the endless ecommerce festivals playing on word associations with dates and China’s festivals. But falling on a Saturday will help, particularly with the entertainment and brick & mortar focus is likely to see sales figures continue to climb.
For a consumer who has been conditioned to expect more glitz and lights with each subsequent promotion, Alibaba has to deliver an ever-more engaging experience. Alibaba is following many of the themes from last year, with big name celebs herded together in a TV countdown gala again directed by David Hill. Tapping into China’s growing love for hip hop, Pharrell Williams will be making the trip to Shanghai’s Mercedes Benz Arena to perform and give the inevitable fly hand gestures and selfies with Jack Ma. ¥250 million ($37.7 million) worth of hongbaos (red envelopes) will also be there to sweeten the deal.
Offline continues to be an ever-bigger part of 11.11, with Alibaba opening 60 new ‘Retail-powered Pop-up Stores’ across 12 cities in China taking inspiration from innovations such as Lancôme’s augmented-reality virtual makeover app at Singapore’s Changi Airport. There is also the conversion of nearly 100,000 stores throughout China into “smart stores.” If you’re in China, it would be worth going to have a look.
If your brand is participating in 11.11, we wish you success and sustained growth following the event. If you’re shopping on the day, we hope you find some good deals and are entertained.
In other news, China Skinny is seeking a smart, passionate marketing manager to join our all-star line up in central Shanghai. If you or a friend is looking to be titillated during working hours and learn oodles about China marketing and consumers, please let us know. Click here for more information. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Welcome back to our China-based readers; we hope Golden Week panned out well.
China’s dynamic startup scene typically takes a consistent path. New ideas usually follow innovations that have been successful overseas, then quickly morph to serve the unique needs of Chinese consumers; capitalising on the distinct ecosystem of embedded mobile payments, devout smartphone usage and lack of privacy concerns.
Any sniff of success and a slew of others will follow. Close to five million Chinese graduate with science, tech, engineering and mathematics degrees every year, many who are optimistic about becoming the next Jack Ma. Most who launch startups will fizzle, but a select few will get funding, followed by more, and more capital, often from one of the big gorillas Alibaba, Tencent or Baidu – bringing the crucial support and channels to scale up to the next level.
Over the past few years China has been awash with investment capital, and with so much money sloshing around these startups can shower consumers with subsidies, discounts and freebies ensuring they get hooked. What follows is a war of attrition, where startups fiercely compete with incentives, burning through cash with unprofitable business models until the less-resourced competitors fall away or are swallowed up by a better-funded player. Mergers and consolidation always follow with the winner usually taking all.
When just one dominant player remains, the sweeteners lessen. We saw this with Meituan and Dianping in 2015, which provided an estimated ¥58 billion ($9 billion) worth of discounts and subsidies for restaurants and movies in 2015 combined. Since announcing a merger late that year, incentives have dropped off. Similarly within three months of the ride hailing apps Didi-Kuaidi-Uber merger, a typical ride that cost ¥8 climbed to ¥13. If we look across almost every online category in China – much like other places – they are dominated by a single player. Ctrip-Qunar control around 80% of the online travel market, Alibaba accounts for a similar amount of ecommerce, likewise Tencent and social media.
We’re starting to see similar consolidation for the latest hot sectors in China’s tech world. Baidu recently bowed out of the food delivery space selling its Xiaodu subsidy to Ele.me. And on the bike sharing front, where over 30 companies vie for pavement space, riders and critical mass, players are starting to drop off. Market leaders Mobike and Ofo are already said to be in merger talks.
Fortunately China’s tech scene isn’t just evolving to one big network of monopolies. Some areas are still passionately contested driving innovation and deals for consumers. In what would be a surprise to many, Baidu isn’t the leading search tool in China for products. In mature categories such as online travel there are flourishing niche sites that can be better-targeted than the leader. In ecommerce, less price-sensitive and more sophisticated consumers tired of trawling through the expanses of Alibaba’s platforms often swap to niche platforms in areas such as luxury, food and cross border, where Alibaba accounts for just a third of sales. Brands would be wise to consider them.
On the subject of cross border commerce, China Skinny’s Ann Bierbower will be sharing advice about effectively reaching and selling to Chinese consumers at the Reach Global Customers Through Ecommerce seminar in Los Angeles on October 24. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
A little over five years ago a fledgling Shanghai-based marketing agency was unable to find relevant and reliable marketing information about China. Hopeful of filling that gap, that agency started the Weekly Skinny. Our goal was to aid busy marketers with concise, transparent and timely insights to assist them in making decisions, as well as demonstrate China Skinny’s understanding and expertise in the China market.
Since then, around 250 newsletters have been sent, equating to over 300,000 words – the equivalent of 25 Master’s theses – covering the latest news, trends and advice that is consumed weekly by readers from thousands of brands, public organisations and journalists.
Over that same period China Skinny has worked with over 100 brands on research, trend analysis, market entry and market growth strategies. The projects, together with authoring the Weekly Skinny has helped us intimately understand Chinese consumers and the China market. Marketing in China is barely recognisable from five years ago, with changes and trends that would happen over decades or generations in other markets transpiring over the past five years.
To mark half a decade of the Skinny, we thought it would be fitting to list five key observations we’ve noted over that period:
1. Digital China
China was late to the Internet game, but it has made up for it over the past five years. At the turn of the decade, Chinese consumers started coming online in droves. They were finally given a voice through social media such as Weibo, bulletin boards, forums and review sites, and they took advantage of it. Users started to leave the confines of Internet cafes with connected smartphones costing less than $100 a pop.
Yet much of what was online in China was a rudimentary rip-off of popular Western apps. Weixin (which had just been rebranded WeChat for international markets) was one of the more innovative startups with a few features that weren’t available on WhatsApp or Kik. It had well under a tenth of the active users it does today, who used it for a fraction of the time. Even ecommerce was primitive, with almost all shopping happening on C2C platform Taobao and the majority of sales being cash on delivery.
Oh how things have changed. Ubiquitous smartphone ownership with mobile payments at 50 times the rate of in the US has enabled applications to easily monetize almost anything, creating sustainable innovations that are now leading the world. WeChat’s popularisation of the QR Code has helped heave the offline world into the digital sphere cementing O2O, the sharing economy and the Internet’s place at the heart of marketing in China. More advertising yuan is now spent on digital than any other channel. Online sales of goods and services is now double that of China’s top-100 physical retailers.
The maturing Chinese consumer is placing much more emphasis on experiences, whereas in 2012 it was all about accumulating nice things to show off status. Accessible experiences such as frothy frappuccinos at Starbucks, gaming or going to the cinema, to more aspirational travel have become a hot ticket for many consumers. The number of overseas tourists has doubled over the past five years and a much larger portion travel beyond Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Group travel has been superseded by free independent travel, placing less focus on shopping while there, although it remains the top activity. Chinese also look for experiences in their homes, which have become larger, more modern and less of a place for functional habitation, but for enjoying the finer things in life such as nicer furniture, higher quality food and beverages and even activities such as baking.
3. Local players
All that time ago when the Weekly Skinny began, most Chinese consumers wouldn’t be seen dead with Chinese branded products. Around 70% of smartphone sales were Nokia, Samsung and Apple for example. Now over 80% of smartphones are local brands which provide owners plenty of street cred. The popularity of Japanese rice cookers and toilet seats in China was a catalyst for Beijing to introduce their Supply Side Reform to improve the standard of Chinese products.
Local movies have edged their way into bigger market shares which has a halo effect for many categories. The film industry has been helped through Government regulation and opening cinema chains in more nationalistic smaller cities, yet a lot of it is a result of Chinese movie makers upping their game. The same could be said across most sectors, where local manufacturers have learnt the trade making things for international brands, and investing in marketing, research & development and evolved to true contender status. Local brands often understand the market better than foreign competitors, and have wider-reaching distribution networks across China, which has seen them outdo foreign competitors across many categories.
4. Health & Environment
In early 2013, much of China experienced unprecedented air pollution. In Beijing for example, the air quality in January was 17% worse than smoking lounges in American airports. The Airpocalypse prompted the Government to take a more transparent stance to acknowledging pollution and helped locals realise that ‘fog’ was different to ‘smog’. China Skinny had done research in 2012 into why Chinese migrate, with a child’s education being the top reason, by far. The same research in 2013 saw pollution become the primary motivation. Living among air pollution, water and soil pollution, constant food scandals and more sedentary and stressed lives in the city than the countryside caused consumers to become a lot more health conscious overnight. Products like Oreo cookies went from doubling sales every couple of years to virtually no growth by the end of 2013 as consumers opted for healthy, and safe, food and beverages. This drove demand for good, clean imported products. The focus touched everything to an explosion of sports and fitness, with around 5 million new gym memberships signed up every year since.
5. Premiumization & Substance
In a few short years, Xiaomi became the pinup brand for smartphones, bringing fully featured smartphones to the masses for a low cost, coupled with glitzy flash sales and Apple-esque ads. Sales soared and in 2014 it became the market leader, and then growth suddenly halted. An increasingly affluent consumer class no longer just wanted something because it was cheap, they wanted value and quality. In 2015 sales of smartphones costing over $500 grew at 45% versus 2% for the market overall. The same premiumization applied to almost everything – even rice which saw 25% trade up versus 3% trade down over four years to 2015. High- and mid-end products on Alibaba’s platforms grew from 26.2% in 2012 to 34.4% in 2016. Even humble instant noodles saw sales drop by billions of tubs as consumers of all demographics opt for better quality fare.
Yet unlike a few years ago where a foreign brand with a high price tag would likely see double-digit growth, Chinese are increasingly shrewd in their evaluation of brands, both local and imported. Brands need to have substance, backed up by values that align with consumers’ own. Although Chinese consumers still love a deal, they are prepared to pay more if it is backed up by quality and value.
And that’s five. Our apologies that this week’s intro was longer than usual – we’ll try and keep it short until we’re celebrating 10 years! Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
China Skinny works with clients across 17 industries which has given us a well-rounded perspective of Chinese consumer behaviour. It’s been a helpful way to identify what works in one category, how it can be applied in others and any affinities between them.
One of the most dynamic industries we work in is food & beverage, which has welcomed some of the most innovative and exciting marketing we’ve seen in China. There are mega-brands with annual marketing budgets exceeding a billion dollars, to niche players that cleverly hone-in on specific target markets. Costly celebrities and KOLs are a regular feature in campaigns; 39% of Chinese food & beverage ads have celebs in them, versus 10% in the UK and US, according to Millward Brown.
Premiumisation has become a commonplace buzzword in China and its effect is seen at every level. Even rice saw 25% of consumers trade up between 2011-2015 versus 3% who traded down, according to McKinsey. Premiumisation and health concerns have also led sales of the workingman’s favourite instant noodles to drop by billions of tubs. Buzzwords such as healthy, natural, organic, GMO-free, functional and probiotics are increasingly making their way onto Chinese labels and with it, heftier price tags. Between 2012 and 2016 the portion of high- and middle-end product sales grew from 26.2% to 34.4% on Alibaba’s retail platforms.
The one thing almost all successful food brands have in common is their adoption of digital channels. Food & beverage has become the fastest growing ecommerce category and will continue doing so following significant investment in cold-chain and cross-border logistics. 60.5% of fresh food is now available online versus 26% in 2014. What makes the online food & beverage category interesting is that it is much less dominated by Alibaba and JD, with niche food-specific platforms accounting for a larger share of sales. With ecommerce now as much a marketing channel as a sales one, food & beverage brands are embracing it and the diverse opportunities it brings.
Traditional offline food brands are also embracing technology. China’s giant ¥3.5 trillion ($507 billion) eating out industry is taking to mobile payments. 45% of McDonalds China’s sales are now paid for through a smartphone. China’s insatiable appetite for food delivery has seen a storm of food delivery apps surface, which prompted KFC’s parent Yum China to buy a controlling stake in Sherpas this month. Apps developed by food brands provide a host of useful tools and are now used by 60% of Chinese consumers, according to Kantar.
No mention of online channels would be complete without the good old fashioned Daigou purchasing agents promoting their wares through WeChat, Taobao and other niche platforms. Although the fear of regulations was circulating again online in China last week, enthusiasm doesn’t appear to be waning for the grey channel. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and the US have seen an army of Daigou on their shores. A NY Times article earlier this month reported that as many as eight in 10 of the 136,000 Chinese students in Australia are involved in Daigou businesses in some form.
Food & beverage is abound with opportunities in China, particularly for brands that embrace China’s unique and exciting channels. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist with that. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.