For global brands looking for growth, it is hard to ignore China, the world’s biggest consumer economy. Western brands trying to break into the market, however, would have to delve deep into the cultural and social codes to thrive.
For a start, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ has a newfound meaning in consumer marketing. Successful brands in China must begin with consumer insights, to find a role for the brand in the cultural and social mindsets of consumers. This is vital for the long haul to grow customer relationships across the seasons.
This calls for a deep understanding of consumer values, behaviour and even festivities, as adopted by Chinese consumers and especially its netizens. The propositions that brands define their appeal in western markets often get lost in translation, or else get lost in allure, away from home in China. The worth is in the eyes of the beholder.
The first line of market entry is often contested not in the stores or ads or above-the-line, but in China’s fast-evolving, hugely complex and uniquely vibrant digital and marketing ecosystem. China’s social media can be a blessing or it can be a curse to brands. It has made the fortunes of many brands in China, and it has also broken the fortunes of many others.
Here are three things every global brand needs to know before attempting to crack China.
New Socialism: Choose a right partner
With 1.4 billion people and almost 700 cities split across five tiers, China has an intriguing number of social circles with intersecting interests. Influencing Chinese consumers within those circles remains complicated for foreign brands, especially given the pace at which the market evolves. Choosing the right partner can pave the way.
Once the mainstay of most marketing plans, key opinion leader (KOL) marketing has now been usurped by key opinion consumers (KOCs). KOCs are based on private domain traffic on Chinese social media platforms. They are seen as more authentic, more personable and more influential over consumers—simply put, they promote fame with feeling. They represent the new persuasive voice of authenticity and the more effective way of connecting with specific target audiences, especially the digital natives of generation Z, via pre-embedded creative messaging, product information and endorsements prior to the launch of new products.
This is most vividly seen in beauty, fashion, and personal care product brands taking to KOCs to launch new products, creating a strong social media matrix that spreads brand and product appeal fast. This KOC marketing wave is spreading fast to consumer electronics, FMCG and financial products.
Another innovative entry strategy is partnering with a complementary brand to pool strengths and enhance brand fame. A traditional brand might join forces with a trendier one to expand its reach, as was the case when alcopop brand RIO joined forces with well-established Liushen Florida Water to collaborate on a new cocktail. Following its launch, 5,000 bottles sold out in just 17 seconds.
Alternatively, two brands might partner to launch new products by expanding their customer penetration across multiple segments. In 2021, new Chinese nutrition brand Wonderlab joined forces with leading global probiotic supplier UREX to bolster its scientific clout and launch the first female probiotics product in the Mainland. The brand not only gained fame but also penetrated through to a new segment of consumer that values science over fads.
Creativity in media: Choose the right platform
Chinese consumers spend at least 2.3 hours a day on social media, making it the dominant medium of consumer influence. For foreign brands looking to enter China, choosing the right social platforms is key.
The social media platforms that are popular among young people (in Western equivalents) are WeChat (WhatsApp), Weibo (Twitter), Douyin (TikTok), and ecommerce newcomer Red, which has no counterpart in the West.
Marketers are able to strengthen their emotional bond with Chinese consumers on social media, taking to creative ways in the right platforms to spread their fame. The key is to cleverly exploit the capabilities and creativity of each social platform—beyond just a social posting or even a viral video. There is a danger of brands spreading themselves too thinly and superficially across too many platforms without a creative strategy.
In 2021, Mars Wrigley Skittles turned its focus on generation Z to create a younger, more creative image of the brand. The confectionary brand launched a new campaign on video sharing site Bilibili. Like Skittles, the platform is fun, creative, and quirky. It’s also valued as a birthplace for new trends. In a filmlet speaking to China youths in acronyms, the viral TVC struck a chord with generation Z by speaking in their language and raked in over 20 million views and 2,000 real-time comments. The humorous campaign added a new dimension of social cool to the Skittles brand in China.
Fluency across the seasons and year
There is a rising focus on culture and identity amongst Chinese consumers. Brands that mine these insights and develop campaigns that connect with Chinese values and customs will endear themselves to Chinese consumers, especially during festive seasons. The brand too must live and connect across the seasons in China. This calls for creative strategies to attain fame, feeling and fluency throughout the year.
Mid-Autumn Festival is a key festive season of social connections and sharing. It’s also a key sales period for the liquor industry as Chinese people enjoy expressing their emotions with wine and spirits. We uncovered the Chinese pronunciation of the word ‘cognac’ has the same phonetic expression as ‘deep love’ in the Chinese idiom ‘With you, always’. For Hennessy’s 2021 campaign, we connected its western spirit with Chinese culture in a deeply emotional and surprising way. As a result, Hennessy sales soared and the brand became synonymous with cognac.
Similarly, for Chinese New Year this year, Nordic electric car brand Polestar tapped common scenarios around the festive period to illustrate the car’s ability to deliver on both practical and emotional needs. The TVC includes five stories which correspond with five benefits to embed Polestar as an enabler of family time and happy memories while enshrining its global brand identity.
The case for fame, feeling and fluency
While brands do not need to reinvent its wheels or its core products to drive into China, it must re-engineer its DNA to thrive in China. The key is to develop a creative brand strategy that taps into the right partners, platforms and propositions across the seasons. It helps to have superb creative stories and campaign executions throughout the year.
The case for fame, feeling and fluency to produce unexpected works has never been more compelling in the rapidly progressive China consumer market. The creativity to engage the minds and hearts of Chinese consumers in a fast-evolving digital ecosystem across the seasons is a very powerful force in consumer marketing.
L-R: Matthew Cheng is CEO of DDB China Group and David Tang is CEO of DDB Asia.