Staff Writer
Mar 15, 2018

Alibaba offers a digital framework for the masses

Alibaba’s Uni Marketing suite promotes freedom of consumerism, brings major agencies on board.

Christina Lu, general manager, Uni Marketing Center at Alibaba Group Marketing
Christina Lu, general manager, Uni Marketing Center at Alibaba Group Marketing

With experience guiding companies like Kraft Foods, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson, Christina Lu, general manager, Uni Marketing Center at Alibaba Group Marketing is no rookie in the brand-building sphere. Lu’s overarching goal from the get-go has been to transform Alibaba from an ecommerce giant to a marketing guru and business partner. The company’s own data-driven marketing suite, Uni Marketing, has proved to be a perfect tool for her craft. 

Launched in November 2016, the framework has already seen several milestones. Notably, the 2017 Investor Day in June featured a speech from Chris Tung, CMO, outlining targeting, relevancy and ROI, and also saw Daniel Zhang, CEO of Alibaba, take the stage. Later that June Alibaba took Uni Marketing global, showcasing its solutions at Cannes. Another high watermark came on November 11, 2017, when a record-breaking US$25 billion in sales was generated for China’s online extravaganza, TMall’s Double 11 Single’s Day. 

During the banner day, a consumer-centric KPI system within Uni Marketing, which Lu refers to as “much more beneficial than GMV”, was at work behind the scenes. This framework, termed Consumer Assets by Alibaba, evaluates three distinct points: the total number of consumers a brand has, the “value potential” of each independent consumer (deduced in large part by an algorithm), and the probability that they will engage and commit to the brand.

“There are so many inconsistent KPI systems within marketing”, Lu laments. “This provides a very different perspective for brands, no matter if it’s an advertising or media campaign, a trademarking activity, anything, as long as it involves consumers and relationship building, the system is applicable.” At its core the system invests marketing dollars in relevant audiences, rather than sinking them into broad categories, and zooming out, Consumer Assets are part of a much larger framework that Alibaba has been working towards for years.

A revolutionary methodology

Uni Marketing encompasses much, but its purpose is clear. “It’s about digitising consumer and brand relationship management,” says Lu. “Now, the consumer journey is much more dynamic, it’s not linear. What Uni Marketing does is use data to make those relationships visible, actionable and measurable.” 

Among Uni Marketing’s many mechanisms, Uni Desk is designed to significantly elevate the effectiveness and efficiency of media planning, and optimise the communication loop. “Uni Desk is all about serving up relevant content at relevant touchpoints in the right moment,” says Lu, “and it’s not about picking out 500 people within 500 million. It’s about digitising the entire communication loop based on very nuanced and purposeful segmentation.” 

Other components include the Brand Hub and the Strategy Center, which echo the brand-building workflow from strategic planning to execution, but do away with the caveats of traditional advertising. The framework is connected through the Brand Databank, an online dashboard that offers a breakdown of consumer data, and maps out where and how to use it. Together, these tools generate data, measure effectiveness, and each contribute to a cycle of personalisation for consumers.

Publicis was one of the first agencies to adopt Uni Marketing, touring Alibaba’s China offices in January 2017 and later collaborating with the company. WPP, OMG, Dentsu, IPG and Havas are also on board. To give an idea of the scale of adoption, eight agency groups, more than 40 media publishers and 140 brands have aligned with the platform since its launch. Within the past 6 months alone nearly 50 brands have seen their campaigns come to fruition, with Alibaba involved from initial planning to optimisation. Lu says of the agency collaborators: “Some are essentially more keen to learn, to experiment, to pioneer and to partner.” 

A skeleton of the Uni Marketing methodology

Empowering the whole

With the acquisition of video hosting service Youku Tudou, the diversification into seemingly every consumer portal, and the recent investment of an additional US$1.3 billion into offline retail strategy, it might appear Alibaba is building a singular ecosystem. But Lu is quick to clarify. “It’s easy to misinterpret our goals as a means to unify all commerce and business. What Alibaba really aspires to do is use data within technology to revamp the retail business and drive the effectiveness and efficiency of business building.”

It’s no secret that offline retail has been stuck in a rut while ecommerce flourishes, owing to a lack of measurable data and sluggish technology in the sector. In response, the company seeks to use universal touchpoints and united channels not to corner the market, but to ultimately “enable the entire offline to online retail space”, says Lu.

Alibaba aims to use several means to take Uni Marketing to new heights. In 2018 the company plans to bring the Alibaba Cloud into the framework’s mix. Partnerships are also on the agenda. “We had a lot of success in 2017 working with prominent brands”, says Lu. “This year we want to scale up. Not on a macro level, but reasonably. We want to involve more brands and more partners in the Uni Marketing world. This not only benefits the companies involved but, more importantly, the consumers.”

Alibaba is around for the long haul. When we talk about what marketing and commerce might look like five or ten years down the line, it’s part of the same conversation with Google, Amazon and the like. These technology giants will invariably have a great impact not just on how we buy and sell things, but on how we work and how we see ourselves.

For brands, Lu envisions the dissolution of long-tail media, leading to a more efficient, user-focused model. “My personal belief is, with data and tech, there will no longer be long-tail media. As long as it’s traffic generated by a real person, it has unique value in each unique moment.”

When it comes to long-term plans for consumers, Lu paints a vibrant picture. “Data and technology is not scary. In five years, as a consumer, I think I’ll feel it’s empowering more than anything. It can enlighten my imagination. It can present me with a list of possibilities and I decide what, when, where and how to explore.”

This sentiment can’t be understated. A more open, inclusive, democratised commerce landscape is what most yearn for, and it will be interesting to see how Alibaba carries the torch moving forward. “It’s like freedom of consumerism,” says Lu. “We’ve said it since day one, the centre of Uni Marketing is data unified around our number one priority—consumers.”

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