Given the Chinese saying 危中有機 (there are opportunities in every crisis), it wouldn't be surprising to see brands move to incorporate the bad air into marketing. In fact, the narrative rings so true that western media wrongly reported it a few weeks ago in the case of some giant video screens in Beijing's Tiananmen Square; the beautiful nature images appeared not as a reaction to the pollution but coincidentally, as part of a planned tourism campaign.
At least a few brands have taken real action. For example, last December in Shanghai Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid brand and its agency partner Saatchi & Saatchi sent reps to the Bund, Jinh An Temple and other places to give away orange balloons and bottles of juice to brighten up a very dark day.
Tiffany Hu (胡颖之), deputy managing director of ZenithOptimedia Beijing, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that the company has noticed some clients, including electronics brands like Sharp, Phillips and Panasonic, whose products may have a direct link to air quality, starting to emphasise product benefits through word-of-mouth campaigns in print and social media.
Hu also noted an increasing trend for healthcare products to tout benefits related to air quality. “Although they might not directly claim that they can defend air pollution, they are emphasising detox function,” she said.
The travel sector is another example where brands are trying to gently monetise the air-pollution crisis. Many travel agents and travel sites have run 'purifying your lungs' campaigns in print and social media, using gimmicks like 'the Top 10 holiday destinations where you can cleanse your lungs', Hu said.
“I personally think it's a good idea, and indeed the pollution issue is addressed more frequently in our conversations with clients,” said Dale Liu, GM of Optimedia Beijing. “Some clients of relevant category even think about how to make use of this issue to create campaigns so that it catches more attention or offers more benefit to consumers. However, none of the idea is put into implementation yet.”
But brands need to tread carefully. “Pollution is a tough and sensitive topic for the Chinese Government," said Sansoni Au Yeung, CEO of Publicis Beijing. "To the extreme of it, other countries are even using this to 'attack' the Chinese Government. On the other hand, this is becoming a key concern for people from outside of China, including expats already in China, expats planning to come to China, travellers and investors. For local Mainlanders, this is another reason for them to consider overseas immigration.”
From an agency’s point of view, Au Yeung does not recommend using the issue unless the client's business is directly linked to pollution-related products and services, such as air purifiers. “We do not suggest being too excited about this topic," he said. Not to mention seeing this as a business opportunity as this might give people a wrong and unwanted 'anti-government' impression about the brand and the corporation.”
Beijing's mayor has pledged to cut coal use by 2.6 million tonnes and set aside US$2.4 billion (RMB15 billion) to improve air quality this year as part of the city's ‘all-out effort’ to tackle air pollution.