A glance at any air quality index will reveal that China’s notorious pollution problem persists. Yet while Washington wavers on its environmental commitments, Beijing is implementing policies to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, investing trillions of yuan into renewable energy and improving smoggy cities, toxic waterways and filthy farmland.
Government policy, regulations and investments are in no doubt vital to improving both China and the world’s environment. Yet within China lies a much more potent force that remains relatively untapped – its 1.4 billion people. The mobilisation of even a small share of Chinese consumers will have immeasurable long-term benefits for the environment.
For the most part, Chinese consumers still largely leave the responsibility of fixing the environment to the Government. The product of a system that couples consumers’ belief that all-powerful Beijing will solve its macro problems and the futility of trying to make a difference as 1 of over a billion people. The odd beacon of hope emerges to educate and engage the masses, the most notable being the Under the Dome documentary. Initially promulgated by the Government it spread like wildfire before being banned just days later.
Alibaba has also driven some initiatives. On one side, it has led the rise of ecommerce in China which is creating significant emissions through packaging, delivery folk and a host of other factors. So to help counter that, the company is using its scale and reach to make positive change environmentally. In 2014 it aimed to build awareness and participation about China’s water pollution but achieved limited coverage. Late last year it launched its Ant Forest Program which uses its established base of 450 million Alipay users to build awareness about carbon footprints, deforestation and planting trees.
In just 9 months the initiative has attracted 200 million users to gamify their carbon footprint tracking. Users are awarded “green energy points” with scoring based on how environmentally friendly a purchase is – such as paying a bill online instead of travelling to a store to do it, or buying a metro ticket instead of fuel for a car. Points allow users to grow virtual trees. They can invite, share and compete with friends in their tree-growing escapades. Virtual trees can be converted to real trees, which saw over one million trees planted by the end of January 2017.
The Ant Forest Program is a step in the right direction to engaging mass awareness as to how individual behaviour can impact the environment. It also provides a few takeaways that can be applied to marketing strategies that aim to engage with Chinese consumers. The first is the gamification of the initiative; making the whole exercise fun, fuelling consumers’ craving for mobile entertainment. The next is the social aspect; the ability to share, invite and build status amongst peer groups. The social factor drives the sense of gratification from doing something they think good. Lastly, using an already-established app with little effort to partake offers the chance to feel like they are making a difference with a minimum of effort.
The initiative also highlights how apps such as Alipay have evolved from one-dimensional payment tools, to much wider social, interactive and marketing platforms. We obviously see it with WeChat, and a host of other apps such as Ctrip, which is not just a holiday booking tool but a powerful communication channel for reaching Chinese tourists on holiday, to health apps that can be used to promote food and lifestyle products. They are all good channels to consider when developing a marketing strategy for China – we can help with that! Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.