Arriving in China in 2030 may look quite different to how it does today, particularly if the last decade is anything to go by. For a start, expect to see less smokers, more walkers and less oily, salty and sugary food options, if Beijing has its way.
Whilst these things will hopefully happen in most places, they are likely to come about much quicker in China – particularly as a result of the Government’s Healthy China Action Plan for 2019-2030 released last month. The plan detailed 15 campaigns to promote healthy lifestyles and health at various stages of life, and to control major diseases. This included building health knowledge, balanced diets, national fitness, tobacco control, mental health and a healthy environment.
Most of us understand the impact that Government directives have on influencing behaviour and trends in China. They are enacted through Beijing’s powerful levers such as regulations, funding, support and its vast state media networks. They may even impact social credit scores positively or negatively. Private business investments tend to shadow government policies, and in most cases, consumers will inevitably follow.
It would be wise for brands to review the Action Plan’s objectives. The plan provides an indication of some of the issues Beijing will be focusing on over the next decade. One of the wide-reaching initiatives is educating the masses to improve their awareness of healthy living, with health literacy targeted to increase from 22% in 2022 to 30% in 2030. This aims to amend relatively poor health knowledge and unhealthy lifestyles, which include smoking, alcohol abuse, lack of exercise and an unbalanced diet. That is likely to impact the way consumers view products and services, and the marketing around them.
Many of the plan’s goals are on already on-trend, such as healthier eating and increased fitness, however it is likely that these will further accelerate now a strong plan is behind them. For example, the target is for consumers to eat 17% less sugar, 30-40% less oil and 50% less salt in 2030, using 2002 as a base. Whilst there is no new regulation around food processing yet, food and beverage brands should plan for this to be a possibility, and ideally incorporate it into new product development and messaging. The plan also aims to have each consumer eating at least 500 grams of vegetables and fruit daily, something which could be considered when determining ingredients for products.
Another core focus on the health plan is physical activity. The goal is for 40% of people to exercise regularly by 2030, up from 37% in 2022 – a mere 40 million extra people. That’s suggested to be 6,000-10,000 steps a day, 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise and 75 minutes of high intensity a week. 60% of students should score “good” physical health, up from 50% in 2022. The plan also aims to have the exercising adult populace supported by 7-8 hours sleep. Ultimately as a result, men should have a sub-85cm waistline, and women sub-80cm.
Brands as broad as tourism, fashion, vitamins and health providers should account for an increasingly healthy and health-conscience Chinese consumer. For example, hotel restaurants are likely to be more scrupulously evaluated for healthy food, and tourism operators can count on fitter visitors who are more open to physical activity. Like most things in China, political direction should be considered for any China-related planning, no matter how irrelevant it may seem in your home market. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
A little over seven years ago, our fledging little marketing agency wrote its first Weekly Skinny. The topics of the day were common myths about Chinese consumers, the importance of female consumers, food scandals, fakes and 300 million+ users on Weibo. On the surface, the subject matters weren’t too different from those today. Yet open the hood and you see a Chinese consumer, national swagger and marketing landscape that is almost unrecognisable from 2012.
The level of consumer sophistication has changed dramatically. In those days, you could just put a foreign product on the shelf and many shoppers would think it was incredible. No self-respecting consumer would be seen dead with a Chinese smartphone (they now account for almost 90% of smartphones sold) or Chinese brands across a slew of categories. KFC was the pin up kid for foreign brands, managing to balance its ‘aspirational’ foreignness with thoughtful localisation. If Chinese wanted to do the pilgrimage to the source in Kentucky, getting a visa for travel to Western countries was very difficult for travellers outside of tier 1 cities, and many within. Over the seven years, the number of outbound trips has almost doubled.
Over seven years, 130 million people – more than Japan’s total population – have moved from the countryside to cities, although a third of cities are shrinking. The average wage has grown almost 75%, and with it, a willingness to make discretionary purchases. There are around 150 million new passenger cars on the road and 125% more kilometres (29,000km in total) of fast train tracks. The Beijing-Shanghai connection has carried over 100 million passengers/year on average over that time.
One of the most obvious changes on the street is the ever-present smartphone. In 2012, just 288 million Chinese sported a smartphone. By the end of 2018, it was around 785 million. Online shoppers have increased from 242 million to 610 million last year, with their share of total retail growing from 5.3% to 25%. Gone are the wads of 100 kuai notes stuffed under the mattress, with mobile payments, and increasingly facial payments seeing the endangerment of legal tender. Mobile payments in China are now estimated to be over 100 times the size of the US.
That’s China speed for you. They say China years are like dog years – what happens in seven years in some countries, takes a year in China. Based on that, we should be celebrating 50 years of the Skinny sometime in September.
Writing the Skinny every week has forced us to keep up with the macro and micro trends in China. It’s enabled us to see through the hype and often-dubious data and understand the constant changes in this market, something which is incorporated into every project we do. To mark seven years of the Skinny, we thought it would be fitting to share 7 Trends that are impacting Chinese Consumers today. Here they are.
One last note, any recent history of marketing in China would be amiss without including WeChat, which had around 150 million users when the Weekly Skinny was first published. It has now become a big part Chinese consumers’ lives. There’s no better way to learn about marketing on the super app than the China Chat conference in Shanghai this September. China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be joining the esteemed lineup of speakers. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Sleep deprivation, oh how horrible. It’s the giveaway sign of new parents or someone trying to juggle a demanding job with study or other extracurriculars. It’s also increasingly likely to affect Chinese consumers.
On the surface, many Chinese appear to be among the most capable sleepers on the planet – where else do people manage to nap while standing on the subway, or within seconds on a seat anywhere, even with the lights and noise of Chinese cities around them. Yet for 300 million Chinese people – almost a quarter of the population – sleep disorders are a genuine issue according to a recent study from the Chinese Sleep Research Society. Overall, the sleep quality of 94.1% of the Chinese public does not meet the recommended healthy standard.
It’s little surprise that many Chinese don’t get enough sleep: Chinese are working longer hours than before, and there are ever-more distractions in and out of the home. A recent Accenture study found 43% of Chinese spend less time at home than they did five years ago, versus just 15% on average from the 13 countries studied. Even at home, the smartphone screen and its alluring ecommerce deals, short videos, WeChat feeds and gaming are keeping Chinese consumers from the land of nod.
China’s lack of sleep has supported the rise of related industries. Sleep-aid supplements on Tmall increased by 300% last year, for example. However, like most things in China it is far from a one-size-fits-all, with data giving us an insight into how segments approach their issues overall. Consumers aged over 40 are more likely to favour treatment-based remedies such as natural foods and supplements, while those born in the 80s aim to optimise their sleeping environment, spending large on high-end mattresses, bedding and pillows. Folk from the 90s tend to buy products such as eye masks and sprays.
The steep growth in sleep-related products and services indicates that Chinese consumers are increasingly recognising their sleep issues, which has translated to an increase in resonant sleep-assisted marketing claims. Nevertheless, many consumers are unaware of the far-reaching downstream effects of a lack of sleep such as weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, strokes, cognitive function, lack of sex drive and even family harmony – all directly and indirectly related to family, success and health which are among the most important for goals for many Chinese consumers.
Brands should consider related sleep-related components when determining their product development, positioning and messaging hierarchy. Even categories that seem a little disconnected would be wise to consider it. We only need to look at Chinese tourists who claim the top reason for travelling overseas is to relax. As a hotel or airline, sleep-assisting pillows, seats or other features may increase your allure. China Skinny can assist to ensure you make the most of the opportunities. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
On the surface, Chinese consumers appear to be some of the most environmentally-conscious consumers in the world. For years, high profile studies have praised Chinese consumer’s sustainability habits, such as the National Geographic’s 2014 Greendex which ranked China second globally for its consumers’ environmental behaviour, applauding their high public transport and scooter use, and consumption of locally grown food.
More recently, China’s Electric Vehicle (EV) adoption has been the envy of every environmentally-focused government, accounting for 49.5% of EV sales globally. Yet with annual EV sales growth plummeting from 126% to 2% over the past 12 months, largely due to the reduction of Government incentives, it is fair to say the purchases were more motivated by wallets and license plate quotas than sustainability concerns.
At China Skinny, we’ve been following consumer attitudes towards sustainability for many years now. Whilst there have been some hopeful green-shoots, overall behaviour is still at its nascent stage relative to most Western markets. This is reflected in the 10+ billion plastic-loaded meal deliveries a year, or the nearly three-quarters of residents in top-tier cities who couldn’t identify how to properly sort their rubbish for recycling.
Chai Jing’s raw 2015 documentary Under the Dome showed great hope for educating a population hungry for answers about China’s toxic environment, but its runaway popularity ironically saw every trace of it removed in China less than a week after airing. This stole the opportunity to corral the population into more sustainable behaviour.
On virtually every related research project China Skinny has done, we’ve found consumer responses are supportive of sustainable brands and products at a surface level, yet delving deeper into actual behavioural has found limited individual accountability for environmentally-friendly behaviour. Most consumers have expected Beijing to be the main driver for fixing the environment. As of Monday, we’ve seen the most significant step from Beijing to shift the onus onto consumers to act more sustainably.
From July 1, Shanghai residents must sort their garbage into four classifications – household food or kitchen waste, hazardous waste, recyclable waste and residual waste. Failure to do so will see individuals face fines of up to ¥200 ($29). Businesses face fines of up to ¥50,000 ($7,282). Shanghai has installed more than 13,000 waste stations, so far covering 75% of the city, and has replaced more than 40,000 streetside bins for different types of waste. The city currently generates more than 9 million metric tons of garbage every year – the equivalent of 1.5 million African bush elephants. In its quest to reduce this and make sense of the new recycling rules, it has used gags, memes and events with “performers striking forceful beats on tall garbage cans.”
Following Shanghai, another 45 mainland cities will introduce similar regulations, including Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. By the end of 2020, the 46 cities will invest ¥21.3 billion ($3.11 billion) to build waste sorting and recycling systems.
We only need to look across the Strait to Taiwan to see what an impact this could have. In the first 10 months of last year, nearly 60% of Taiwan’s waste was recycled. The daily amount of garbage during than period was 0.41kg, down from 1.14kg in 1997. When you’re looking at China’s scale, similar savings won’t just have a massive impact on its cities, but the world as a whole.
Like many things in China, Government-led initiatives are among some of the most persuasive drivers and shapers of behaviour. As consumers are forced to sort and recycle, sustainability will be brought to the forefront of consumers’ consciousness. Expect sustainability to be one of the most talked-about and thought-about factors of consumption in the foreseeable future – something worth factoring into your marketing strategy.
On the topic of trends shaping marketing in China, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner is joining CBBC for the webinar What’s Hot and What’s Not in a Slowing Chinese Economy on 17 July to share insights on trends and categories currently shaping consumer behaviour. Non-CBBC members are welcome to join. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
If you were peddling your products in Los Angeles and Chicago, there’s a good chance that you’d need to tweak the marketing strategy to account for differing lifestyles, varying tastes, disparate climates, different sales channels and varied cultural and emotional needs. In China, variations between cities are typically even greater. Many Chinese cities’ characteristics have been evolving since long before Columbus was leading expeditions to the Americas. These historic differences have helped shape regionalised consumer behaviour. More recent Beijing policies have further moulded differing consumer profiles. For example, residents in first tier cities have been able to travel abroad with more flexibility for longer than their lower tier peers, impacting their sophistication and maturity when travelling abroad, and their exposure to foreign lifestyles and products.
There’s no city that better illustrates the diversity of China’s megalopolis’ than the boomtown of Chengdu in China’s southwest. On the surface, it could be any Mainland city; thousands of grey apartment blocks sprawled across a flat grid of streets, dotted with adventurous modern commercial towers and restored ancient constructions, dissected by a winding river and heaving highways, obscured by a soupy smog more days that it isn’t. But filling those towers are a population arguably more independently-minded than consumers in other parts of China – with personalities as spirited as the peppers that are such as big part of the local Sichuan cuisine.
Chengdu is located some distance from Beijing’s policy makers. The mountains that encircle the city have provided a natural barrier for traders, invaders and legislators for centuries, isolating the city from the outside influences that have impacted other Chinese cities. Chengdu’s fertile soil and natural resources have seen it stay isolated for much of its history, allowing it to stay largely self-sufficient, with an attitude that’s both “mind your own business” and “anything goes.”
With the wealthy, sophisticated city of 16 million people increasingly on brand’s radars, China Skinny has delivered a number of research projects that include the Chengdu market. Their tastes and preferences are often the most disparate from other consumers in other cities we have investigated. One of our recent studies into the customer journeys of consumers in six mainland cities found the research and sales channels used in Chendgu were by far the most distinct.
Chengdu’s relatively lower rents have lured young, independently-minded migrants from across China, cultivating a hip, progressive culture that’s spawned San Francisco-style cafes filled with millennials. The many miles and mountains between Chengdu and Beijing has seen regressive policies about homosexuality hold less clout in the city, which has become a haven for the LGBT community, whose members are drawn to the relaxed, open vibe. Chengdu was voted the gay capital of China in a recent poll by gay dating app Blued.
Beyond sexual liberation, Chengdu also leads China for many genres of music, its underground scene and youth culture. Much of China’s Hiphop and Trap has spawned from the city, with many of China’s biggest hiphop hits dispersed with the Sichuan dialect.
For brands hoping to connect with independently-minded consumers in the city, you’d by wise to ensure that your product, messaging, channels, KOLs and most importantly, your brand’s purpose, are resonant with the target market in the city because just transposing a successful strategy from Shanghai or Beijing won’t always work.
For most brands in China, it can be impractical to have an independent marketing strategy for each target city, however there can be consistent elements by city tier and/or regional city clusters which can be incorporated to make marketing more targeted and resonant. We’ve found that understanding the consumers in a specific city usually highlights some quick wins that can make your brand and product connect with local consumers and break through the clutter. China Skinny has a lot of knowledge and experience to help you with that. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Remember when you’d see the big tricycles stacked metres high with polystyrene, rubbish and furniture cruising the streets? Or the vividly-coloured Facekinis poolside or on the beach? Or how about the infants with split pants on a cold Beijing day? They were all China novelties that have largely disappeared from the bigger cities. Yet with each disappearing quirk, a new curiosity has arisen to ensure that there is never a dull day in China.
One area that has recently taken on a life of its own is beauty. Fashion, haircuts and even hair colours are becoming more varied and diverse daily. It is not uncommon to see young Chinese spending 40 minutes on a photo editing app polishing their latest selfie, or a young man in a public place diligently applying mascara – not just representing the exponential rise of male makeup, but also that younger Chinese are confidently challenging traditional social norms to be what they want to be, unfazed by state media’s direction on how to behave.
The pursuit of beauty has been important since ancient times in China. In the Tang Dynasty, makeup became a part of everyday culture, with women applying foundation powder, blusher and a dusting of light yellow powder. Bluish black eyebrows, lipstick, painted on dimples and ornamental forehead flourishes were also added. Whilst beauty is a little less novel than it was 11-14 hundred years ago, it is as relevant as ever for Chinese consumers and something that many of us should take note.
China Skinny has compiled numerous pieces of research asking consumers how they would spend extra money if they received it. Beauty always scores highly, often the top way young millennials would spend the windfall. Many Chinese will directly correlate the way they look with their chances of success – in both their personal and professional life.
One of the most poignant illustrations of the importance of beauty in China is the soaring segment of cosmetic surgery. Unlike in the West where patients are older when looking to have work done – more than 75% are over 35 in the US – 54% of Chinese going under the knife are under 28. This is fuelling an industry expected to be worth ¥360 billion ($52 billion) by 2023. Last month’s IPO of plastic surgery app So-Young soared 44% on its first day of trading and has settled to a value of around $1.5 billion. Almost 2 million users are on the app monthly, 79% more than a year ago.
In addition to the obvious beneficiaries of plastic surgery, cosmetics and fashion, many other categories are touched by China’s beauty obsession. For example, health supplement purchasers are often motivated by beauty benefits – even with target markets you may not expect like the 20-year olds buying anti-aging pills. Categories such as food and beverage are heavily influenced by the quest for beauty, with an increase in healthy food demand resulting from how they can improve appearances such as skin and hair. The fast-growing fitness industry is also heavily swayed by the aesthetic outcomes. The good news is that it isn’t just the Pechoins, L’Oreals and J&Js of the world who stand to benefit, with the majority of Chinese consumers showing interest in niche beauty brands.
The free-spending young Chinese in particular often strive to stand out amongst the masses, and looking good is considered a key component of this. When brands are communicating to their target markets, they should bear this in mind wherever plausible. China Skinny can help determine if and how this all fits for your products or services.
In other news, China Skinny has moved its Shanghai HQ to a bigger and better office. We’re still in central Jing’An District, a block from our our office on Jiangning Road. We love visitors, so pop by any time for a coffee, tea or just to say ni hao. You’ll find our address here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Countries trading with China have seen their share of geopolitical tensions of late: the trade war with the US, Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, foreign espionage claims in Australia, threats of Huawei bans across countries from New Zealand to Poland, European talk of China being a “systemic rival” and threatening tighter rules on its investments in the region, a host of ongoing tensions with ASEAN countries over the South China Sea, and so on.
The tensions are said to have been responsible for restrictions on Australian coal shipments, suspension of Canadian canola exports, the delayed launch of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism festivities (which finally took place on Saturday), and Wall Street bankers’ claims that an informal boycott of US goods is the root of Apple’s woes in China.
There’s no question the results of tensions can be challenging for exporters, but they aren’t a scratch on what happened to Japanese brands in 2012 over an island territorial spat in the East China Sea. It was one of the most fearful displays we have seen when it comes to how powerful China’s state media can be in swaying public opinion. Anti-Japanese sentiment soared among consumers, driving protestors to wreak an estimated $126 million worth of damage to Japanese-branded goods, buildings and related sales. In two waves of protests, hundreds of Japanese-branded cars were smashed and overturned, rocks were thrown at Japanese restaurants, Japanese factories were set ablaze, Japanese buildings were broken into and ransacked, and stores selling Japanese goods were vandalised, causing many to shutter, including the $8.8 million destruction of an AEON supermarket.
The week between 15-21 September saw the Japanese car manufacturing industry suffer losses of $250 million due to the production of about 14,000 cars being suspended, with subsequent sales in September dropping by close to 50%. Tourists to Japan plummeted by nearly half in the month that followed.
Yet if Japan is anything to go by, exporters losing sleep over their current geopolitical tensions should be heartened. Japan has good stuff, and most Chinese consumers couldn’t stay away, no matter how deep-rooted their Anti-Japanese feelings were. Chinese tourists to Japan grew more than five-fold from 1.4 million in 2012 to 7.4 million in 2017. Since then, visiting Chinese spending in Japan was so lavish that a new term — “buying explosion” — emerged to describe the way Chinese tourists descend on particular Japanese retailers, buying everything from Japanese rice, to toilet seats, to condoms. Even Japanese car sales have soared, with China expected to overtake Japan on volume last year.
However, probably the most astonishing indicator of Japanese love by Chinese consumers is restaurant data released by the Japanese External Trade Organization. The number of Japanese restaurants in China grew from about 10,600 in the beginning of 2017 to 40,800 at the end of the year. Even by Chinese standards, that is phenomenal growth!
The key takeaways from our Japanese friends is that the impact of geopolitical tensions – as undesirable as they are – are generally short term blips, if they have any impact at all. If you make quality products and services that connect with Chinese tastes and preferences and are marketed well, the shoppers are likely to stay loyal, or soon come back wanting more. Here’s to that.
On the subject of Chinese restaurant and food preferences – Japanese and the others, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be sharing valuable insights at the Foodomics Conference in Auckland, New Zealand on 10 April. It would be great to hear from you if you will be there. More info here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Fancy a tonic favoured by Chinese emperors that cures painful joints, frail kidneys, and weakness and anemia in women? Or how about a milk beverage that will enlarge your breasts from an A-cup to a D? Perhaps a coconut drink that whitens your skin and will make you more buxom?
Believe it or not, these are all advertising claims in China, and not by small fly-by-night operations. The cure-all tonic was a top-seller from Hongmao Pharmaceutical, who outspent P&G in 2016 to become China’s largest advertiser. The breast-enlarging milk drink was the product of China’s largest beverage group Wahaha, and the magical coconut juice comes from the producers of China’s most popular coconut milk.
Reports of such advertising and other headline-grabbing news such as hordes of Chinese tourists lured to Sydney University believing it was a setting in Harry Potter movies may have some believe that Chinese consumers are a gullible posse. Don’t be misled. Whilst some consumers in lower tier cities are making discretionary purchases for the first time and lack some confidence, most middle-affluent class Chinese are incredibly sophisticated. While we’re seeing a rise in impulsive purchases, Chinese consumers typically don’t take things at face value and do significantly more research before purchasing products and services than their Western peers.
Much of this research comes down to an inherent lack of trust. This is confirmed in virtually every project China Skinny works on, in which Chinese consumers’ purchase journey involve an extensive series of touch points across online and offline channels before a purchase is made.
Most readers will be aware of the fake vaccines, fake condoms and even fake zoo animals. Yet Chinese consumers can’t even rely on cross border ecommerce, which is held up as the beacon of trust – supposedly straight from the source from a more dependable origin. In reality this isn’t true; 40% of cosmetics sold through cross border on Singles’ Day ’17 were fake for example.
Although China updated its advertising laws in 2015 to be much more punitive, many false promises continue to slip though. China has the most fragmented bricks & mortar retail landscape of any major economy, and an online sector containing tens of millions of stores that even Alibaba and Tencent struggle to control in light of their advanced data mining and AI. The regular scams have been one of the drivers behind China’s $9 billion key opinion leader (KOL) industry, who are often more trusted than brands even though close to 70% of KOLs have fake fans and engagement. Regardless, over 60% of Chinese consumers are receptive to online influencers compared with 49% in the US and 38% in Japan.
Although China’s marketing landscape is littered with fakes, foreign brands shouldn’t take Chinese consumers to be fools – they are anything but. It is good to be aware of the misleading claims out there, but don’t dare to try it yourself. It will be found out and shared on social media en masse. Chinese consumers are unforgiving to those who disrespect their intelligence, particularly foreign brands. China Skinny can assist to ensure you can still succeed by keeping everything above board.
On another note, we’re hiring! If you’re a native English speaker based in Shanghai who is curious, intelligent and personable and happy working across diverse and fascinating projects, go ahead and apply. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
While you may be lamenting the need to constantly evolve your marketing mix to stay ahead in China, you can rest assured that even WeChat faces a similar challenge.
Although China’s super app hit 1.083 billion monthly active users in September last year, each sending any average of around 45 messages a day, WeChat faces headwinds to stay relevant to Chinese consumers. Readership for articles referred by friends on Moments has been dropping and Tencent’s share of screen time is being cannibalised by newer, easier-to-use and more entertaining alternatives such as short video platform Douyin.
That’s why all eyes were on WeChat’s founder Allen Zhang’s four hour speech at Tencent’s conference last week, about how he plans to reinvigorate the app to mitigate the risk of it becoming obsolete. Zhang got philosophical in acknowledging that WeChat has lost the veneer of authentic discovery that endeared it to users, because people were becoming too sensitive to their online personas on Moments.
Across the board, Chinese consumers are seeking more authenticity: from the way they travel, to the brands they buy, to how they project themselves on digital platforms. Women ‘beautification’ app Meipai discovered this as user numbers plunged 55% as Chinese women sought more natural and less formulaic portrayals of themselves. WeChat is hoping to evolve from photoshopped and choreographed Moments feeds, to a more real account of what people are really experiencing. To enable this, WeChat has launched a new video-streaming feature, not unlike Instagram’s feed, so people share their lives in real time, not through carefully curated photos and messages. Even the user interface aims to keep it real, with the typical ‘send’ button, replaced with ‘this will do’ to remind people their social feed doesn’t have to be airbrushed and polished.
Another area in which WeChat is pinning its hopes to counter the app’s saturation and encourage more engagement per user is Mini Programs. The WeChat-embedded ‘light apps’ are already hugely popular, but curiously, the majority of traffic isn’t coming from the famous mini programs you may have heard of, but rather the long-tail applications used by niches such as parent-teacher groups or your neighbourhood grocery store. Given WeChat is installed on virtually every smartphone in China, app developers are not concerned with having to create separate tools for Androids and iPhones, it is one simple app, seamlessly installed and launched from the comfort of WeChat. Tencent is thinking, if ‘there’s an app for it’ wouldn’t it make sense to make it a Mini Program?
Something that hasn’t received due airtime is the impact that the new ecommerce laws will have on WeChat. Commerce is one of the areas showing great promise on WeChat, with its transactional nature providing a logical way for the platform to grow revenue. Yet many of those stores have been run by smaller vendors and daigou, attracted by WeChat’s low barriers to entry. The new laws mean that it will be a lot more trouble to set up and maintain a simple WeChat store – or any online store – with the new taxation and reporting requirements. There are already signs of changes in the way smaller vendors promote their wares on WeChat as they try and skirt the laws, but for many, the effort won’t be worth the reward.
Regardless of its challenges, WeChat remains China’s super app with no other app being better positioned to evolve and stay relevant to Chinese consumers. To Allen Zhang’s and Tencent’s credit, they have recognised that they need to do this. There are some good lessons for any brand in China – you may be ‘killing it’ in China today, but you need to constantly review your position to stay that way. China Skinny can assist you with just that. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
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, with the new, complete translated cross border list here.
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.
China’s daigou are both loved and loathed, depending who you talk to. For Chinese consumers, they deliver quality western products – from vitamins to luxury handbags – that are sometimes unavailable in the Mainland, often at a lower price, and more likely to be authentic. For consumers in places like Australia, they have been known to empty supermarket shelves of products like infant formula, prompting supermarket chain Woolworths to reintroduce the two-tin limit this week.
Some brands detest daigou for undercutting their traditional sales channels and diluting their branding with rogue messaging, however brands who used to oppose them have increasingly embraced daigou as another channel to build awareness and preference for their products. The success of brands like Blackmores, Swisse and A2 Milk in China can be widely attributed to the daigou trade. Even Unilever is targeting Chinese in Australia to sell their soup in the Mainland.
By some estimates, there are half a million people working as daigou globally, from large sophisticated operations, to easy-come-easy-go students studying abroad who can earn some extra money as easily as sending out a few WeChat posts. These foot soldiers can be another powerful marketing and advocacy channel, particularly when they are harnessed strategically.
Yet daigou can be a fickle bunch. Bellamys discovered this in 2016, when they alienated the same daigou who had built their brand in China and saw their stock price collapse by more than half and the CEO ousted. Bellamy’s isn’t alone with its reliance on Daigou. Earlier this month, the share prices of many of the world’s luxury giants took a hit as Chinese customs ramped up anti-daigou efforts with prosecutions for people bringing in over ¥5,000 ($728) of undeclared goods for ‘personal consumption’, with one flight seeing 100 passengers arrested after arriving at Pudong Airport.
The Chinese Government is another player in the daigou-loathing camp. They have little view into daigou trade and would much prefer legitimate cross border commerce through the big platforms so they can better monitor, control and tax imported products. Now there is also increased impetus as Beijing hopes to maintain consumption growth in light of the trade war and a slowing economy. Shifting some of the estimated $100 billion annual daigou goods trade to legitimate channels will further increase official retail growth.
The new ecommerce laws coming 1 January, although still vague, are likely to impact daigou in the most concerted effort yet to temper the grey trade. It is expected that daigou will be made to register with the industrial and commercial administration departments and pay tax on imports. This will include Daigou who have traditionally been less visible by conducting business on WeChat Moments and streaming on live platforms. Beijing is unlikely to be able to stamp out all daigou trade, but it can certainly have an impact as we saw with the daigou tax in 2016 which froze virtually all grey trade before being retracted.
The new regulations should be a wakeup call for many brands on the vulnerability of Chinese regulation and fickleness of the daigou themselves. Since 2016, numerous brands have shifted from having all of their eggs in the grey trade basket to more balanced strategies. For those who haven’t, you’d be wise to start as soon as possible. China Skinny can assist with identifying these risks and developing such a strategy. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
The brains trust at Amazon are likely to be scratching their heads wondering how thathappened. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars and 14 years to wrestle market share from the almighty Alibaba and JD-Tencent-Walmart syndicate, they have managed just a meagre 0.7% share of ecommerce retail in China. Ebay suffered an even worse fate after throwing hundreds of millions at China before effectively giving up on the market in 2006.
Yet in less than three years, ex-Google engineer Colin (Zheng) Huang has managed to defy all odds with his ecommerce platform Pinduoduo. Not only has he blindsided Alibaba’s rural operations, he has also surpassed JD’s daily user count by cleverly targeting China’s underserved smaller cities. 65% of his 343.6 million active buyers live in third tier cities or lower.
“The new consumer economy isn’t about giving Shanghainese the life of Parisians. It’s about providing paper towels and good fruit to people in Anhui province,” says Huang. The strategy has paid off. Pinduoduo’s IPO last week valued the company at $23.8 billion, catapulting him to become China’s twelfth richest person.
Pinduoduo has also changed the online shopping experience into a social one where users are constantly reminded of other shoppers and their friends incentivised to join – something that has a struck a chord with lower tier shoppers who have traditionally been less forthcoming about buying online. Every Chinese consumer loves a deal, but those in smaller cities are themost price sensitive, unable to resist ten boxes of tissues for $1.90, bed sheets for $1.50, umbrellas for $1.51 and PCs for $150, even if there’s a good chance of fakes. Unlike the search-focused interfaces of Taobao and JD which deliver thousands of results, Pinduoduo displays products more like a news feed with a few hero products, making the whole experience less overwhelming and more fun for many.
There are countless takeaways that we can learn from the success of Pinduoduo; here are four that we found particularly interesting:
1. Pinduoduo’s success is a metaphor for many businesses hoping to tap the China opportunity. They have gone beyond theovercrowded megacities and into the less glamorous outcrops in the hinterland. Given half of the 50 million new households expected to enter the upper and middle classes between 2016-2020 will be located outside of China’s top 100 cities, there is no shortage of opportunities out there. The right products, targeted in the right smaller cities, in the right way, can be very fruitful in China;
2. Pinduoduo is further proof that investing squillions in building your own app could be better spent developing a Mini Program inside WeChat. Users need a very good reason to download a standalone app, whereas something embedded in WeChat is seamless, hence the 62% of users who shop on Pinduoduo through their WeChat Mini Program;
3. The power of social advocacy shouldn’t be underestimated in China. Pinduoduo has done a remarkable job of tapping into shoppers’ WeChat contacts and taking them along for the ride by incentivising them with discounts, prizes and even free goods;
4. And lastly, much like we saw with Luckin Coffee a few weeks ago, even markets like ecommerce that appear to be sewn up by the giants can still be ripe for the picking. The speed, complexity and fragmentation of China’s growth is constantly opening up gaps and new opportunities, some which may turn into $23.8 billion operations giving the gorillas a run for their money.
But don’t go flipping the birdie to Alibaba and JD just yet – they may be expensive, hyper-competitive and in many cases unprofitable, but Pinduoduo is unlikely to be a white knight for many foreign brands at this point in time. The average order value is just $6, compared to $60 on JD and $30 on Alibaba’s platforms. Discounts as much as 90% are not a sustainable strategy we’d recommend for the guardians of premium products that form the faithful Skinny readership. But take the opportunity to learn some good lessons from Pinduoduo’s success, keep abreast of how it evolves and give China Skinny a call to ensure you have the optimal ecommerce and marketing strategy for China. 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.
Out for a lunchtime stroll in most Chinese cities, you may not get that refreshed feeling you get elsewhere in the world. China’s carbon dioxide emissions have grown almost 150% since 2000. Although growth has flattened out this decade, emissions have crept 17% higher than in 2010 when Chinese power plants emitted as much nitrogen oxide as the rest of the world’s cars combined.
Similarly, there’s a good chance that the water you showered in, washed your clothes with, cleaned the dishes and rinsed your food with was less than pristine with over 70% of the watersheds that supply water to China’s 30 largest cities severely polluted. Then there is the 19.4% of farmland that’s contaminated by organic and inorganic chemical pollutants and by metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic.
It’s not breaking news that China’s pollution has been responsible for a sharp rise in respiratory diseases such as Asthma, caused cancer rates to soar, and contributed to host of other issues as far reaching as infertility and obesity. Pollution coupled with sedentary lifestyles from more white collar jobs and gaming, poorer diets and even rice consumption has seen 11% of Chinese suffer from diabetes and a further 36% are prediabetic. There are countless other ailments on the rise in China, but you get the point.
With the above factors an everyday reality of living in China, it is unsurprising that the H-word is on almost every Chinese consumer’s lips. Health is something that Chinese have proactively addressed long before microscopic pollution particles blanketed Chinese cities. Use of yin and yang principles have dated back since at least the 3rd century BC. Considering the changes in China just over the past generation, there are more reasons than ever to balance out the yin with the yang.
Virtually every category with a health label in China has been hot over the past five years, resulting in venture capital investments in healthcare growing from $1 billion to $12 billion in China between 2013 and 2017. This has seen some innovative world-leading companies evolve from China, such as Shenzhen-based medical devices company Mindray which invests 10% of its more than one billion dollar annual revenues in research and development – a rate unheard of with Chinese companies not long ago. Mindray is the market leader globally across several segments and is likely to be helped further by Beijing’s streamlining rules for drugs and medical device approvals last October.
One of the most exciting health companies coming out of China is Tencent-backed WeDoctor in Hangzhou. Hoping to become the ‘Amazon of Healthcare’ the $6 billion dollar company already has 160 million registered and 27 million monthly active users by focusing on unclogging bottlenecks in China’s struggling health system. The company is one of many less-traditional channels that health-related companies hoping to ride China’s burgeoning health segment use to sell their products.
Beijing’s three-year action plan on air pollution control released last week is likely to improve China’s air pollution, but many other health issues will continue to plague China for some time yet, accelerated by its ballooning elderly population. Demand for localised and well-marketed health equipment and medicines, healthy food, healthy living and even healthy holidays will continue to soar in China. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist to ensure you make the most of the opportunity. 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.