Many people in the West still believe that China’s tech giants are built on thieving IP, not creating it. Those folk will probably be startled to learn that the US-based magazine Fast Company ranked a Chinese firm as the world’s most innovative company in 2019.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the Chinese company is not the well-known Tencent of WeChat fame, or even Alibaba (they were 15th on the list), but a mere $43 billion company, Meituan Dianping, which most people outside of China have never heard of, and probably can’t pronounce.
Meituan is best known for food delivery, restaurant reviews, hotel booking, movie tickets and acquiring bike share giant Mobike. The company topped the table for “pioneering transactional super apps” making the most profound impact on both industry and culture while showcasing a variety of ways to thrive in today’s volatile world. In the first half of last year, the company facilitated 27.7 billion transactions (worth $33.8 billion) for more than 350 million people in 2,800 cities. That’s 1,783 services every second of every day, with each customer using it an average of three times a week. The company leverages user consumption data, including price sensitivity, to recommend other services they’ll like, taking advantage of its consolidation of service offerings, much like China’s other all-serving tech giants.
One of Meituan’s core services, food delivery, is representative of one of the most exciting consumer developments that has been happening in China over the past few years. We’re not talking the meandering Postman Pat or the daily milk round, these are on-demand delivery services that can have everything from noodles and coffee, to meds and adult toys, delivered around the clock in less than 60 minutes, often in half that time. It is a service that plays to a Chinese consumer who craves convenience and possesses little patience.
Delivery in China takes advantage of its densely-populated cities, allowing a concentration of delivery people. In addition, the broadening of products being delivered that are core to the New Retail explosion means delivery is no longer just at meal times, or located around ecommerce logistic hubs. Instead, this revolution is creating economies of scale across wider geographies, spreading the costs of delivery workers throughout the day.
One of the most powerful innovations in delivery is what happens behind the scenes. Like many things in China, companies are utilising their enormous pools of data, and making sense of it with Artificial Intelligence. Meituan’s Smart Dispatch system, for example, calculates 2.9 billion route plans every hour to optimise the delivery for its 600,000 electric bike riders to pick up and drop off up to 10 orders at once in the shortest time and distance. Since Smart Dispatch launched in 2015, it has reduced average delivery time by more than 30%, and riders complete 30 orders a day, up from 20, increasing their income.
Whilst economies of scale and tech systems are increasing efficiencies in the delivery space, this is accompanied by challenges forcing companies to continue to innovate. Labour costs of delivery folk seem to be increasing every few months and new laws are being rolled out to protect the workers. In answer to this, JD has been making deliveries by drone and is testing unmanned vehicles. Mckinsey estimates that autonomous vehicles and drones will deliver 80% of all products within 10 years.
For brands selling in China, the penetration of delivery is another example of the unique way that Chinese consumers shop and their expectations. This and other distinct purchase behaviour in China should be factored into development of marketing strategies. China Skinny can assist with this. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
We have just passed the 200-day mark of the US-China trade war, and what a 200 days it has been! Whilst we are finally seeing some positive signs that an agreement could be imminent, there has been plenty of commentary about the beating that America’s reputation has taken in China.
There’s no discounting that the spat has sped up the rise of nationalism in China, and there are consumers who may have directed their spending away from American businesses, but the impact has been much less severe than it could have been.
If we look back to the row between China and Japan in 2012 over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands, many Japanese brands were hammered and some even shuttered. Similarly, the South Korean fiasco over THAAD in 2017 was estimated to cost the Korean economy $6.8 billion that year. Apple has attributed its poor results to the trade war, and Ford and GM have had better years, nevertheless all-American brands like Coke have reported no impact, and Nike saw a stunning quarter last December. Even Tiffany & Co. saw a double digit rise in Mainland China sales during November and December of last year.
One of the key differences between the US-China trade war and the disputes with Japan and South Korea is that the propaganda machine has not yet ramped up criticism of the US. China also hasn’t introduced regulations such as it did banning tour groups to South Korea. Such plays wouldn’t be well timed during the already-precarious trade negotiations with the US.
Tourism to the US was a sector that many commentators expected would take a hit as a result of the frosty relations, much like Japan’s visitors fell 34.3% in 2012, South Korea’s dropped 60% between March to October 2017, and numbers sunk at other ‘out-of-favour’ countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.
In late September, Ctrip reported that flight bookings to the US were down 42% for the October Golden Week holidays – one of the busiest weeks of the year for international travel. Other anecdotes have flooded in from travel agencies, echoing similar falls. So it will come as a surprise that Chinese tourist numbers to the US actually looked quite healthy in 2018. Although the national figures are yet to be published, Los Angeles reported a 6.9% increase in Chinese tourists last year to 1.2 million visitors. New York also hit record numbers last year, hosting 1.1 million Chinese visitors. It appeared Chinese tourism to the US took a hit in the early months of the trade war, but by November, the US Commerce department was projecting a 2% increase in Chinese tourists.
Like we’ve noted in previous Skinnies, tourism generally builds an affinity with the country, its cuisine, culture and lifestyles, which has a halo effect on preference towards many other product categories. In a world that seems to be more divided than it has been in a long time, China’s tourist growth to the US is refreshingly good news!
On the subject of tourism, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be sharing some insights at the beautiful Terranea Resort in Los Angeles for the Visit California Outlook Conference on February 12 & 13. Please pop by and say ni hao if you’re there. More information here. 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.
Earlier this month JD launched its first 7FRESH, a 4,000 square metre grocery store in Beijing that follows many of the new retail concepts from Alibaba’s Hema stores. JD heralded the supermarket the first of 1,000 stores that could open in the next three to five years. Hema also plans to significantly ramp up its presence, with 2,000 stores planned over the same period.
The focus of 7FRESH is a “personal and educational” hands-on shopping experience including “magic mirrors” that sense when customers pick up a product, and display product information such as nutritional facts and origin. JD also plans to introduce smart shopping carts allowing consumers to shop hands-free, which will be particularly helpful for shoppers with kids in tow. Facial recognition allows shoppers to check out and pay using the technology, able to walk out directly with the purchases or have them delivered within 30 minutes.
It is part of the growing new retail trend in China which has seen online giants shake up the bricks & mortar scape by creating richer, more convenient shopping experiences which drive significantly higher sales than traditional retail stores. Much like Alibaba’s Hema, JD is using big data from its 266.3 million shoppers to help craft the experience.
Physical stores still account for more than 80% of China’s retail overall and well over 90% of grocery sales, so JD and Alibaba’s battle for supremacy will be interesting to watch. Unlike the pure ecommerce world, where Alibaba has significantly higher margins by farming out most marketing, stock holding, fulfilment and customer service to brands, in the physical world it will be operating a more ‘full service’ model like JD.
Whilst JD’s market cap is just one-seventh of Alibaba’s, it has some very powerful organisations behind it. Tencent is the largest shareholder of JD, owning a fifth of the retailer. Its super-app WeChat leads China’s o2o and social media spheres, which will provide valuable data and influence to assist in the success of 7FRESH. Tencent’s new retail grocery ambitions will also be supported by the stake it purchased in Yonghui in December, yesterday’s investment in Carrefour’s China business and Saturday’s launch of its first unmanned WeChat store in Shanghai.
Walmart – the world’s largest company by revenue – owns 12% of JD and is likely to provide insights and support to 7FRESH from its wealth of retail experience including 22 years in China. It will not only help Walmart gain traction in China’s previously elusive ecommerce and new retail segments, but it will also provide plenty of learnings to roll out in its Walmart stores in China, and potentially to its stores in the US and globally.
In short, there is no better player than JD to take on the mighty Alibaba in the new retail game. Two hungry, data-focused, well-funded and well-oiled players, and a host of other competitors, will ensure the rate of innovation in China’s retail segment will continue to dazzle. It will also create another segment where China is likely to lead the world and possibly export its systems globally. New retail in China is happening, and happening fast, and brands that best understand and embrace it are most likely to succeed in the years ahead.
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.
Back in 2012 scouring content for the Skinny, it seemed almost every week there was another article praising KFC’s success in China. It was the Western pin-up brand; finding the much sought-after balance that tempted the masses with its alluring foreignness, but localised its offerings just enough to appeal to Chinese tastes – with the menu sporting old favourites like congee.
For every 10 bucks spent on fast food in China, KFC accounted for 4. It had almost 4,000 restaurants, with another 16,000 planned. There were movie placements, celebs munching on drumsticks, lovebirds courting one another over buckets … then Bird Flu and a series of scandals happened.
KFC has never really recovered from the dark days of ’13. In 2014 the menu was ‘overhauled’ for the first time in 27 years, there’s been a refresh of some decor, but if you were to go into most KFC restaurants in China they still bear a stark resemblance to the golden years pre-2013. China, Chinese consumers, and their tastes on the other hand have changed – dramatically. A simple scan of restaurants on Dianping or a stroll through a city mall or restaurant street and it becomes clear that there has been an evolution in China’s hospitality sector. La Liste’s annual ranking of the world’s restaurants noted the big trend is the rise of restaurants in China who are meticulously preparing and presenting food, and charging real money for it.
Contrast KFC with another mega-chain from America – Starbucks. Over recent years, the coffeehouse chain has constantly adapted to Chinese consumers and their ever-shifting expectations for newer, shinier offerings. They have played well to Chinese consumers’ inherent need for status from what they purchase, opening cafes in highly visible spots in city streets and premium office building foyers where they will be seen sipping on their Green Tea Crème Frappuccinos. The look and feel of cafes have also evolved to keep up with changing tastes, with some of the latest cafes having fit outs that wouldn’t look out of place against some of the fine dining establishments on Shanghai’s Bund.
Starbucks has always played to Chinese love of all things digital and typically been an early adopter and innovative user of technology. In the early days of WeChat, it cleverly used the limited functions by encouraging fans to send emoticons reflecting their mood, receiving a short music clip related to that mood. A little later in the game they accepted WeChat Pay with some alluring features such as the ability to gift friends and family a drink or two.
Last week’s launch of Starbuck’s mega reserve roastery in Shanghai is one of its most exciting initiatives yet. In addition to a beautiful fitout, complete with contemporary Chinese elements, the venue plays true to the ‘New Retail’ movement that is fast making its way into the bricks & mortar landscape. Integrating the Taobao app, augmented reality brings Starbuck’s story to life in a format that China’s millennials love. The app also allows them to skip the queue and buy merchandise, which improves both customer experience and the likelihood of increased sales and advocacy purchases.
Much like KFC was before 2013, Starbucks has become a much-cited case study – with good reason. It illustrates how brands can successfully keep up and stay relevant to the ever-changing needs of Chinese consumers through offline and online initiatives and product offerings. Their lessons don’t just apply in the hospitality trade, but are applicable for any foreign or local brand trading in China. 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.
The latest consumer confidence index shows a Chinese consumer who is more upbeat and optimistic about the future than any other time in the last two decades. Yet with an already enormous base of goods and a maturing market, such a positive outlook is unlikely to bring back the mouth-watering consumer product growth rates of yesteryear.
Nevertheless, certain segments ripe with growth and potential bubble away amongst China’s overall 10-11% retail growth rate. The fitness and health category is one in particular. We only need to look to gym memberships which are expected to almost triple in the next five years, the number of marathons which grew from 22 to more than 400 in six years, or Lululemon’s 350% year-on-year growth. Many of the most impressive achievements fly under the radar such as Les Mills which now has 1,000 Chinese gyms paying for their programmes and thousands of influencers attending their events and passionately filling their WeChat feeds about them.
Many trends in China start with the most affluent demographics. A Hurun survey found wealthy families spend about a quarter of their household budgets on health and well-being – boding well for the future of the industry. Interestingly, the young, single, male millionaires are paying the least attention to their health, while their more mature, married female peers are the most committed.
With so much potential, there has been a significant uptick in brands across the spectrum of fitness, health and nutrition-related categories. Many are becoming more sophisticated in how they appeal to Chinese consumers, following some of the successful strategies from other segments in China and abroad – such as fitness personalization and technology integration.
Like most countries, the fitness movement still has a long way to go before it will woo everyone. In recent weeks in an unnamed city in Hubei province, more than 55% of the 1,233 youngsters who tried out for the army failed. One 20-year veteran of the tests noted a significant decline in fitness levels during his tenure.
The problem has become so widespread that the PLA Daily posted on social media last month saying too many video games, not enough exercise and excessive masturbation were among the 10 reasons so many failed. With the current focus on expanding the Chinese military, this is likely to provide further impetus for Beijing’s push to get the nation exercising reinforcing its inclusion in the 13th Five Year Plan and 22 other related documents to support the cause.
The beneficiaries of a more fitness-focused China won’t just be the obvious categories. Brands involved in tourism, food and beverage, entertainment, clothing, accessories and others should explore if and how they can tap into the trend. It will only get bigger, particularly among the affluent segments. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist with some exploration. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Next time you indulge in a good hearty serving of ravioli or fettuccine, spare a thought for the Chinese. Tracing the origins of Italian pastas will likely find you in China in the 13th century, following the routes of Marco Polo who brought back tales of dumplings and noodles from his epic adventures in the Far East.
Similarly, the European colonists who amassed incredible wealth from faraway lands discovered by compasses of Chinese design; planned, mapped and recorded on paper of Chinese roots; and conquered with the help of weapons resulting from China’s invention of gunpowder.
After a short hiatus, China is again making its mark on one of the most significant innovations of modern times – the mobile phone. The cradle of the smartphone isn’t China, but the other side of the world in Manhattan, where it was made by a Motorola employee named Martin Cooper. That was 1973 and it took a few decades before China really entered the mix.
Firstly, Motorola is now owned by China’s Lenovo, a move echoed across many industries as Chinese companies acquire patents, technology and brands to expand their global aspirations.
More significantly, Chinese consumers have become the largest consumers of smartphones on the planet – both in volume and individual usage, which sees Chinese consumers leading the world in adoption of mobile services such as mobile commerce and payments, fuelling innovation by Chinese companies and influencing product development from brands globally – just look at large screen iPhones.
Thirdly, many of China’s manufacturers have migrated from cheaply manufacturing devices for foreign brands, to utilising their engineering capabilities to produce their own brands, some with world-first innovations. Much like the Italians did with noodles and dumplings, Chinese are bringing their own form of mobiles to the world. China’s brands now account for almost 1 in every 2 smartphones sold globally, and are on track to be in the hands, pockets and purses of the vast majority of cellphone users around the world within a few years.
Mobile phones are just one example of how China is pushing itself higher up the wealth curve, closer to where it used to be. In the 1820s, China accounted for 32.9% of the world’s economy. Today it is 15% of the global economy but it contributes around 30% of its growth. 200 years ago China’s GDP was 124% of Europe’s GDP whereas it’s less than two thirds today. China’s population was just 58% higher than Europe’s at the time, today it has 86% more people.
Although it will be a long time, if ever, before China accounts for a third of the world’s economy again, it has lofty ambitions and is on track to get much closer. As a result, Chinese are by far the most likely to believe their country is heading in the right direction, and are skipping along with the highest consumer confidence they’ve had in years.
Whilst Chinese consumers are much more likely to buy a Chinese-branded smartphone, or even a Chinese jacket than ever before, many imported wares remain aspirational. Foreign movies – a barometer of how Chinese view the West – still dominate the box office. Although Chinese invented the mechanical clock around 725 A.D., they’d still shell out significantly more for a timepiece that is authentically Swiss. Even the rate of growth for Italian pasta and other food imports continues to be enviable, particularly those that are marketed well. Agencies such as China Skinny can ensure that you are on track with that. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
When a Chinese consumer makes a decision – from picking a bottle of water, to choosing which country will best educate their child – the influence of KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) can be dramatic. A feature of Chinese thought since the days of Chairman Mao, the KOL economy is set to boom; 2016’s value of ¥53 billion ($7.8 billion) is estimated to near double to ¥102 billion ($15.1 billion) next year. To bring some perspective, that is three times the forecasted value of China’s newspaper and magazine advertising in 2018.
Chinese consumers are well aware that influencers are rewarded for endorsing brands (in addition to ‘tips’ from fans). Despite this, their social media broadcasts have become some of the most authoritative and trusted sources for information.
One of the reasons for this can be traced back to 2011 when two of China’s new fast trains crashed, killing 40 people. While state media attempted to cover it up, consumers posted about it as it happened on Weibo, which was the primary social channel at the time. This had two notable consequences: 1. Chinese began to trust what they read from reliable sources on social media much more than traditional state-run media channels like TV, radio and print; and 2. Beijing, having already lost a lot of face from the Weibo reports of the train crash and subsequent citizen exposés and protests, saw the need to wrestle back influence from the people.
In 2013 legislation was passed threatening jail to those who created viral social posts that weren’t aligned with the Government mandate. This fundamentally altered the way influential Chinese posted on social media. With several celebrity social media accounts shut down in recent weeks, Beijing continues to tighten control on what KOLs actually say. In short, any KOL who doesn’t toe the party line will be shut down and in most cases, lose their livelihood.
The reality of operating in China on any scale, whether you are a celebrity, brand, or any type of business, you need to play by Beijing’s rules. Notwithstanding, although some would say KOLs are increasingly becoming state cheerleaders, their attraction certainly isn’t waning.
40% of food & beverage advertising in China is fronted by a KOL, versus around 10% in the US and UK. Luxury brands are among the most prevalent users of KOLs with watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre paying Papi Jiang over ¥5 million ($740K) for a campaign which saw their awareness more than double. Michael Kors threw a birthday party for actress Yang Mi. Brands are also using lesser known individuals, but who are well respected in their fields to appeal to an increasingly discerning Chinese consumer who are looking deeper into KOL endorsements. An example of this is Giorgio Armani supporting Chinese designer Xuzhi Chen.
KOLs can help break through the extraordinary clutter in China and amplify messages at a time when just 28% of 12-14 million official WeChat accounts saw an increase in content readership last year. But much like WeChat, a relevant and smart KOL strategy is imperative to ensure brands aren’t throwing good money after bad. Agencies such as China Skinny can help devising such a strategy.
On the subject of marketing strategies for China, our US-based readers in the Bay Area should consider attending the Export 101 Series on Thursday July 20 in San Jose. China Skinny’s Ann Bierbower will be sharing wisdom, joining the US Department of Commerce, DHL Express and the CalAsian Chamber at the event. Register here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
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.
Years ago, China’s sprawling network of street-noodle vendors began utilising the curious new commerce features of an app called WeChat. A willingness to embrace change signifies the innovative spirit that pulses through modern China. From those polystyrene bowls of late-night fry up all the way to billion-dollar-plus bike loan schemes a now near necessity in the lives of many Chinese, there is no shortage of inspiring innovation coming from the Middle Kingdom.
China’s rich history spans 5,000 years. Yet few periods have seen the velocity at which China has evolved as these 4 decades past. In a little over a generation Chinese consumers have seen mass urban migration, internationalisation, globalisation, a fast-track to modernity, the effects of a one child policy and steady episodes of cultural upheaval and redirection. Moulded by constant flux, the resultant consumer class is not only unfazed by change but expects and embraces it.
WeChat payment is one example. The seamless purchase of goods, services and content that can be integrated almost anywhere online and offline has opened the door for infinite new ways to buy and consume things. Similarly, live streaming, virtual reality and augmented reality from innovators like Alibaba has merged with ecommerce.
Yet innovation in China spans far beyond the well-known smartphone apps and ecommerce platforms. China Skinny is seeing it across every piece of the marketing mix. From packaging to pricing models, brands are localising best practice from overseas, and some even innovating in a way that is native to China.
One of the more interesting pricing models is subscription-based. Whilst we are yet to see any game changers like the Dollar Shave Club, burgeoning niches are constantly developing. Each initiative helps lock in consumers who are well known for their promiscuity.
Chinese consumers find subscription models attractive for a number of reasons. Van Diemen’s Land’s subscription to fly in fresh milk from Tasmania ensures a stable supply of healthy, tasty, fresh milk for those families aware of the benefits of drinking it. Another interesting initiative is the Drinking Buddies scheme which sends members a box of six different craft beers every month and offers access to tastings and workshops. It appeals to craft beer drinkers as they can try niche beers that they may not have been able to get elsewhere – something that China’s craft beer enthusiasts crave. It’s a great low-cost way for the brand to get in front of grassroots influencers who will gain social credit from sharing new undiscovered beers among their beer drinking friends.
There are obviously plenty more innovative and cost effective ways to reach and appeal to Chinese consumers beyond the traditional distributor model. Agencies like China Skinny can assist in developing such plans.
On the subject of milk, beer and food & beverage in general, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be joining a host of excellent speakers from the industry to speak about food and beverage trends in China at AmCham’s Future of Food Conference on Wednesday 24 May. More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Any classic “Business in China 101” course will be quick to mention the traditional two-handed business card delivery. Yet like much else in modern China, these lessons are quickly losing relevancy. While formal business events will see the obligatory business card exchange, many Chinese won’t even carry a business card to everyday meetings, instead opting for a simple scan of a WeChat QR code.
This changing habit was quantified in last week’s release of the 2017 WeChat User & Business Ecosystem Report by Tencent’s Penguin Research. The study found of WeChat’s 889 million monthly active users, 83% use it for work. One of the most notable changes from the 2016 report is the number of contacts users have. In the space of 12 months, the average increased from 128 to 194. 57% of new contacts are work-related and 44% of users have more than 200 contacts.
While the 26-35 age bracket remains the most dominant, it isn’t solely the youngins in the office who are using it. Age distribution has shifted from previous years, with a greater share of all users now in the 26-60 age group.
The relevancy of this news is clear not only for B2B companies, but also B2C brands. The importance of B2B communications is often underestimated by consumer brands. There are very few in China who don’t need education channels and the means to keep their products and services top of mind with agents, distributors, front-line staff and other partners.
Whilst WeChat may be the channel of choice for many business people, it isn’t just a case of saturating personal Moments feeds with information. The preference for seeing work-related content on Moments dropped from 33% to 23.6% over the past 12 months. The beauty of WeChat is that it allows a plethora of functions to be built in, enabling everything from stock ordering and management to tutorials and quizzes, and much, much more. These functions can help in making any work-related content not only palatable but interesting, engaging and scalable. Any marketing strategy should consider the all-important B2B channels, something that agencies like China Skinny can assist with. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
The average day in China sees no less than 500 new products launched. With this in mind it’s easy to understand why its consumers are among the most promiscuous on the planet. Furthering this trait, modern concepts of a ‘brand’ have only recently taken hold in China; China’s consumers have traditionally lacked the inherent connection to brands that characterize those of the West.
Yet some brands are fighting against the tide of consumer disloyalty. Those leading the way often employ a well-considered loyalty programme at the heart of their strategy. Successful programmes are built upon many values, but those that carry the most sway with consumers ensure to be personally gratifying and bring their members a source of social currency through rewards and association. Even with organic growth slowing in China – particularly in higher tier cities – most brands are still focusing on acquiring new customers as opposed to retaining existing ones.
Building loyalty should not be undervalued as 77% of Chinese consumers claim to spend more on brands they love. That being said China’s increasingly discerning consumer base is fuelling growing expectations around loyalty programmes. 24% of consumers say their expectations around loyalty have changed in the past three years, with 75% quicker to retract loyalty. A third of consumers say they have a negative or non-existent reaction to companies trying to earn their loyalty, according to a study from Accenture.
Like any discipline in marketing, understanding what resonates with consumers is the key to developing successful loyalty initiatives. The study found that small tokens of affection hold a lot of appeal in addition to understanding them and providing personalised products, services and communications. Part of this is supporting causes such as charities and campaigns that are important to them. Partnering with relevant brands also endears consumers, such as the all-important celebrity and influencer endorsements.
WeChat’s all-encompassing ecosystem and innovative features provides one of the most powerful platforms for loyalty. By nature, it also encourages seamless advocacy, appealing to the 63% of Chinese who are loyal to brands which friends and family buy.
Developing a loyalty programme also comes with the responsibility of protecting members’ personal information. Four out of five of consumers are loyal to brands that safeguard and protect privacy and this will only grow as data becomes more comprehensive and privacy breaches increase.
Whilst it isn’t easy to develop a loyalty programme that touches Chinese consumers at an emotional level, those who do stand to be rewarded in China’s ever-more competitive market. Agencies such as China Skinny can help develop them. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.