Staff Writer
Dec 23, 2019

How brand purpose is driving loyalty in China

The ever-pragmatic Chinese consumer is increasingly looking beyond functionality to brands whose values align with their own

From L-R: Chloe Qian, Assistant Director of PR & Communications, Four Seasons,  Irene Houlin Qian, General Manager, Business Operations, Forbes China, Annie Wu, Digital Marketing Director, Gridsum, Hong Li, VP, Marketing, Kohler, Amy Zhang, Head of Marketing, Hasbro, Nicky Wang, Managing Director, Head of Strategy, WE Red Bridge, Jeremy Jiang, Benefit Cosmetics
Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO and Founder, WE, Stephanie Hsiao, Marketing Director, NFL
Surekha Ragavan, Editor, Experiential Marketing & PR Campaign Asia, Maho Saito, Head of Corporate and Healthcare, WE Red Bridge, Penny Burgess, CEO WE Red Bridge
From L-R: Chloe Qian, Assistant Director of PR & Communications, Four Seasons, Irene Houlin Qian, General Manager, Business Operations, Forbes China, Annie Wu, Digital Marketing Director, Gridsum, Hong Li, VP, Marketing, Kohler, Amy Zhang, Head of Marketing, Hasbro, Nicky Wang, Managing Director, Head of Strategy, WE Red Bridge, Jeremy Jiang, Benefit Cosmetics Melissa Waggener Zorkin, Global CEO and Founder, WE, Stephanie Hsiao, Marketing Director, NFL Surekha Ragavan, Editor, Experiential Marketing & PR Campaign Asia, Maho Saito, Head of Corporate and Healthcare, WE Red Bridge, Penny Burgess, CEO WE Red Bridge
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The cat is out of the bag: a purpose-led brand is the next frontier for doing business in China. According to WE Red Bridge’s recent Purpose in China study, all of the nearly 200 Chinese business professionals surveyed said it is important for a company to own its purpose. Yet just 16% felt equipped to do that.

Hosted by Campaign Asia and PRWeek Asia in collaboration with WE Red Bridge, the ‘How purpose drives loyalty in China’ roundtable welcomed marketers from the likes of Hasbro, Benefit Cosmetics, Rimowa, Kohler and the National Football League (NFL) to share their experiences in defining their brand purpose in China, localising the message and navigating social trends.

Marketers in China are urgently trying to understand what purpose means for their brands, as well as the business rationale for doing so. For new brands, purpose is often at their core, but it can be harder for heritage brands, or for companies with multiple brands who are not sure how to unite them.

“Brand purpose is what you stand for, why you do what you do,” says Stephanie Hsiao, marketing director, NFL. “Why does your brand exist? What are you contributing to the world? [Purpose] has to be at the core of a long-term plan. You can’t think of it as just a campaign. So often it’s just a one-off, that’s very inauthentic. It can’t just be about boosting short-term sales.”

Penny Burgess, CEO of WE Red Bridge, adds: “It has to be part of the business strategy. When we start to try and instigate these conversations with our business leaders, we need to put some substance behind that. Starting those conversations is what people are finding difficult – where to start, how to define their brand purpose, how to evolve it specifically for China.”

Localising your purpose

The key with any great marketing campaign is simplicity, and it’s the same for purpose, says Burgess. “If you set [a simple brand purpose] at a global level, you then just need to provide flexibility to shape it to connect with consumers here in China. There are cultural nuances that come into play in how you execute it.”

Amy Zhang, head of marketing at Hasbro, says they regularly have discussions around this with their US headquarters. “Our mission is to deliver the best play and entertainment experiences for your family. But the experience might be something different market to market. In the US, the number one driver is play. For Chinese families, when parents and kids are playing together it must be educational, whether you can learn from the game is very critical. But our purpose is never going to change, we still want to provide the best family time.”

As ever, localisation is not without its challenges.

Jeremy Jiang, brand general manger, Benefit Cosmetics, says he finds adapting Benefit’s ‘Laughter is the best cosmetic’ statement at the local level challenging at times.

“It means we need to make the process full of fun. But talking about humour is a challenge in terms of different cultural contexts,” he says. “Another challenge is for a brand like us that has been established for 40 years, is that the things we’re talking about are changing. ‘Female empowerment’ means totally different things to each generation so we are finding a way to evolve without saying no to what has been done in the past.”

Building loyalty

So why is brand purpose so important?

“You still have to have a great product, but if it’s a great product that comes from a brand that shares the consumer’s values – then that will be the differentiator. That’s the value-add that purpose brings,” says Burgess. “It’s about consumers identifying with brands that represent values that mirror their own. That’s really where customer loyalty comes from now.”

Jiang agrees. “With the the market evolving, the differences you can bring in the products is getting smaller and smaller. What is going to drive the desirability is the emotional territory the brand can own. Creating recognition with its core audience around point of view.”

Melissa Waggener Zorkin, global CEO and founder, WE Communications, says: “The new brand loyalty is when I [as a brand] am sitting right here, right now, experiencing you. I see that you’re driving from a purpose in your community, I believe in you. That’s the bottom-up approach where new brand loyalties will be built. The old brand loyalty that you could build just by having a great global statement – people don’t believe that any more.”

Navigating social trends

One of the major findings of WE’s recent Brands in Motion study is that 83% of China’s consumers expect brands to take a stand on important issues – nine points higher than the global average. So what are the issues that are resonating in China?

The broad brushstrokes issues and concerns are broadly aligned at a global level according to Burgess. “Parents are worried about the increased pressure children are under, the impact of technology from a social perspective and the impact on mental health. You might have to tweak how you execute a purpose-led campaign around education in China, but ultimately it comes down to children being under more pressure than ever before, wherever you are in the world.”

Adds Maho Saito, Head of Corporate and Healthcare, WE Red Bridge: “It’s all about understanding what your stakeholders need and finding the best way to connect with them. It’s absolutely an opportunity for brands to find a topic they can relate to, but it needs to be genuine and connect to the origins of the brand and what they do.”

And the data suggests that the time to do so is now.

“Brands who have the most staying power will be those who are inventive about how they redesign their companies to always keep their brand purpose front and centre,” says Waggener Zorkin. “Those will be the ones who will have the new brand loyalty and rise to the top.

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