Minnie Wang
Jan 19, 2021

China ecommerce boom to continue, but marketers have to work harder to win

2021 PREDICTIONS: Six mainland marketing experts discuss the biggest ecommerce and online marketing trends for 2021 in China.

L-R, top: Karl Wu, Melody Zhao, Bo Liu. L-R, bottom: Alex Duncan, Julia Clyne, Benjamin Condit
L-R, top: Karl Wu, Melody Zhao, Bo Liu. L-R, bottom: Alex Duncan, Julia Clyne, Benjamin Condit

In 2020, the world economy encountered the most challenging moments since the Great Depression. China became the first and only major economy that led the growth. Apart from its success controlling the pandemic, one of the most important drivers behind the economy's recovery is the burgeoning digital economy.

As 2021 gets going, Campaign invited top executives from global media, marketing, advertising, ecommerce, and social-media companies to analyse the trending topics for 2021.

Transformation is paramount

Bo Liu, vice president, Alibaba Group:

The pandemic has fundamentally changed consumer shopping behavior and accelerated the digital transformation of many businesses. Brands are rushing to accelerate their digital transformations. A key advantage to digitalization is that brands can now profile consumers digitally at any stage of the buying cycle. Therefore, it has become much easier for platforms and brands to reach these potential consumers through touching points in their shopping journeys. And having that kind of insight will also allow brands to always prioritize optimizing customer's experiences. The key is to have brands integrate online and offline operations and marketing plans, produce customized and diversified content for different platforms for better targeting and higher engagement.

Melody Zhao, strategic communications lead, Huagui Food & Beverage Group:

Our group Huagui, as a national leading industrialised agricultural enterprise for aquatic vegetables in China, has been accelerated through crisis management and digital transformation in the global Covid-19 environment. We have been deeply engaged in crisis management adopting a policy of ‘people-orientation, proactive communication, and strategic integration’. We increased protected base prices for materials in order to protect farmers’ interest. The know-how for the sale of agricultural and pre-packaged consumer products should be shared with the world. With proactive communication we successfully collaborated with JD, Alibaba, Pinduoduo, and Tiktok for online channels for series of lotus root products.

Social and ecommerce integration will continue

Karl Wu, co-chairman and CEO, Havas Group Greater China:

Normalization of e-commerce: Covid-19 triggerred the high growth of ecommerce, O2O, community group buying and other new formats. Ecommerce and new retail consumers have increased greatly, and the growth of users in low-tier cities accounts for 70% of the overall growth. In the next five years, 51% of personal consumption will come from e-commerce and new retail. Social platforms and e-commerce platforms will become more interrelated. Social content is to trigger sales, and a sale will then generate another social content spontaneously.

Julia Clyne, Head of Media Sales & The Trust, APAC for Dow Jones:

According to eMarketer, ecommerce sales in China are expected to grow by 21% in 2021 versus 4.0% in total retail sales. This shift will result in a continued focus on innovations in marketing strategies related to shopping particularly around livestreaming ecommerce.

Huagui's Zhao:

Digitalisation and e-commerce supervision systems for consumer goods will be strengthened. Marketers should set up higher standards for safety in online goods’ e-commerce platforms to proactively embrace future regulations and governance. Meanwhile, Early adoption will also improve public perception compared to competitors.

But gains may be more difficult to come by:

Alex Duncan, co-founder and product lead, Kawo:

For over a decade teams in China have been chasing the latest new thing, but we’ve reached a period of stability. The major platforms are so dominant and the competition so fierce. There are no tricks or quick wins, it’s time for brand marketing teams to work smarter, not harder.

Benjamin Condit, chief strategy officer, Mindshare China:

In fact, it’s easy to foresee that the most successful brands in some categories will be managing eight or nine digital commerce touchpoints by the end of 2021. While this will add tremendous complexity for sales and marketing teams, fundamentally this fragmentation will have a positive impact, offering greater leverage for commercial deals and transparency.

More technology trends to watch

Huagai's Zhao: 

China’s unique online video environment, which enables multiple digital marketing channels will generate huge potential for European goods’ revenue growth, especially in pre-packaged consumer products. More transparency and localised creativity will be immersed in short video content creation. Agricultural food and beverages with place of origin verification will be further welcomed in China. E.g, Honghu Lotus Root, Guizhou Moutai, etc.

Kawo's Duncan:

[WeChat's] Allen Zhang and his team have a track record of continually iterating on ideas. As we saw with mini programs they have continually integrated them throughout WeChat. Unlike their previous short video failure with Timecapsules, Channels have already been quite successful, and we expect them to keep improving in the coming year. Unlike official accounts which find it notoriously hard to gain followers, Channels offer a rare opportunity inside WeChat for brands to reach a wider audience. Ensure your team understand the potential of this feature and how it fits into your existing marketing mix.

Alibaba's Liu:

We also see a new trend among luxury brands of using short videos mixing with live streaming sessions to further elevate the quality of visual content, while connecting with their consumers. We are confident about the future of livestreaming, as more and more brands are willing to use it to enhance customers purchasing experience.

Dow Jones' Clyne:

The successful roll-out of 5G across key parts of China, including Beijing and Shenzhen, will reshape the already competitive online video space but also make next gen technologies like virtual reality and even virtual avatars more accessible. eMarketer also predicts that social media will continue to grow in usage in 2021 with an estimated 31 million new users coming to social media platforms.

Mindshare's Condit: 

As a final thought, livestreaming will come of age in 2021. As the combination of livestreaming and eCommerce exploded in 2020, marketers navigated a landscape rife with extreme performance variance, as is to be expected with any new sales and marketing trend. We can expect brands to continue on with livestreams as a key pillar of their sales and communication efforts, but with a significantly more savvy and sophisticated approach when it comes to ensuring balanced and transparent partnerships with influencers.

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