Shenzhen startup Makeblock has come a long way in a short time. Set up in Shenzhen in 2013, the firm makes DIY construction robots used by hobbyists, but also by schools and clubs around the world to teach coding. Starting with the mBot (above) and advancing to more complex models and products, students can customise their creations with hundreds of parts. Then, they can program them to move, blink or do any number of functions using coding lessons provided or improvised. Campaign spoke with Johnson Zhang, Makeblock's head of marketing.
Campaign: You’ve taken a startup product global in a matter of years. What has been your marketing strategy?
Zhang: We’ve always adopted a product-focused strategy. That’s the reason nearly half our employees are R&D staff. A lot of the time the product sells itself. Most of the time we’re trying to secure brand image through word of mouth. We’re trying to collect feedback to build better products. We spend quite some effort to maintain our fan community—teachers, students or tech lovers. We ask their advice on social media to develop a better user experience. It’s also good PR.
Last but not least, we work closely with distributors. Even if we’ve been in a market three years it can still be hard for us to get into it deeply. A good relationship with distributors sells the brand more efficiently.
Campaign: Do you sell more online or offline? How does that affect how you market?
Zhang: We sell mostly offline. We rely heavily on our distributors and retailers globally. We spend lots of time figuring out with retailers how to do marketing. There’s no standard way when you start. It means a lot of communication and detailed work. We start small. If we get it right, then we roll it into a bigger scale.
We also keep very careful track of online sales and retail trends, Black Friday or special festivals. On those occasions online sales surpass offline. So we do campaigns and focus monthly on these.
Campaign: Who are your target buyers and how do you reach out to them?
Zhang: Mainly schools or training organizations and families. But the end user, buyer, and decision maker can be different people. Kids use our products but another makes the decision or does the buying.
For the schools and training organisations we reach out to them via our distributors. For families we sell to them through our retailers or online stores.
Campaign: What are the challenges of marketing to schools and educational groups?
Zhang: The reason why we work through distributors to sell to schools is because they can be very different district to district. The rules can be very complicated for a company our size to handle.
For example, a lot of Chinese schools may understand why government policy is bringing robotics and coding to school. But a teacher may have his own philosophy, he may want to customise the product. Elsewhere, they may want a straight textbook for use immediately. If you want to meet their needs you have to customise your solution.
Campaign: Once children enjoy your products, how do you keep them interacting with your brand?
Zhang: First, we use the community and have parents interact with the product as much as possible. Secondly, we’re designing more campaigns with online games or challenges for the users to participate in using our products. Also, we have new products coming every half-year with community sharing and interactions about trying them.
But I think the most important thing is the product design itself. Makeblock is not just selling hardware, but hardware and software together. You can update it, upgrade it, expand it with our other parts or play together with Lego parts. With parts and software there are no limits. All they need is imagination if we can teach them, encourage them, guide them.
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Campaign: What’s your advice for Chinese innovators looking to export their brands abroad?
Zhang: First, take really good care of your brand with your products.
Second, study the markets and tailor your strategies.
Third, start small and focus. There are many markets and levels and you can’t to it all at one time.
Fourth, be professional but interesting. To create a brand image you need to be professional to convince people you’re trustworthy. But at the same time you have to be interesting so customers feel you are a brand with a human touch.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity