Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Jun 29, 2014

Okamoto turns restrictions to social advantage in China

SHANGHAI - Strict regulations around 'intimate' products in China have spurred Japanese condom manufacturer Okamoto to move to the forefront of social marketing, where it entertains netizens with copy filled with sexual puns.

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Now celebrating its 80th anniversary, the brand did not altogether set out to put social media at the centre of its marketing. But with competition as intense as it is, "in order to catch up we have to be really active on social media and listen to what consumers are saying and caring about," says Magic Huang (黄伟强), brand manager of Okamoto China. "Otherwise, you won’t even feel it when you’ve been overtaken."

A straightforward advertising approach is ineffective. Since the category is not able to advertise on mainstream media like TV, print magazines and outdoor, social media is effectively the only channel it can use. Here, brands also have greater freedom to use humour and convey a somewhat cheeky personality than they would on more conservative channels.

But where is the line to be drawn? On Valentine’s Day, Durex posted a Weibo image of two glutinous dumpling balls (汤圆) side by side, one with black sesame oozing out and one with a suggestive whitish filling. Some, even males, did not find it palatable, even though there was certainly a lot of attention on the post.

Sex and the Chinese city
Open, public discussion around sex is rare in China, but in the privacy of the online environment, and especially in front of a mobile screen, people have fewer inhibitions. The chances of viewing and engaging with potentially-NSFW content on a PC is lower than on a mobile device, where there are few obstacles to stop people from having a surreptitious chuckle. "We found these behaviourial insights very interesting and have applied [them] to our marketing," Huang says. "Any serious topic, once clothed with the connotation of sexuality, becomes funny and enticing. And they ‘get’ it."

Taboo topics that absolutely cannot be played with, though, are politics, natural disasters and gossip (especially sex scandals involving famous individuals). During the crackdown on Dongguan's prostitution trade in February 2014, the boundaries were less obvious as it can be construed as a simple anti-vice operation, but that proved an interesting case because the sentiment from netizens was totally opposite from that of mainstream media. When location-based data from Baidu showed that traffic were "escaping" towards the west of China, Okamoto's reaction was subtle; it simply ‘checked in’ to Dongguan on its official Weibo profile.

It is quite like playing with fire. Personage (名流安全套) is one local condom brand that bordered on being tacky and tasteless. When Li Tian Yi (李天一), the princeling son of two Chinese military entertainers, was implicated in a gang rape case, Personage responded with ‘do not leave any evidence of gang rape; use our condoms’ on its weibo account. That indeed seems to be going too far.

Knowing exactly what to post on social media to draw the desired reaction is a trade that has ensured the survival of many a social-media agency in China, including the one servicing Okamoto, Arkr Digital. "We must be clear of the brand’s tonality (品牌调性)," says Huang, noting that Durex and Okamoto take quite different approaches. "As market leader, Durex will not be provocative towards competitors, but as the underdog, we can take the liberty to slightly ridicule the market leader," Huang explains.

Turning Dudu on its head
Durex's ’Little Dudu‘ (小杜杜, a nickname derived from Durex's Chinese brand name 杜蕾斯) is a playful condom-shaped character who shares under-the-sheets tips, sex education and health information on Durex’s website and social-media properties. This attempt to personify the brand has been cleverly ambushed by Okamoto, which made a word-play on the homonym 杜 in an award-winning campaign titled '杜绝老套', which can be translated in two ways: "put an end to old-fashioned ways" or "eradicate the use of old condoms".

In the typical edgy style of Arkr Digital, the agency describes its daily social media operations as "quick and skillfully-drafted reactions to public G-spots". In China’s social media environment, the brand has to react fast to current affairs and socially-conversant topics, says Huang. That includes the incident when the ubiquitous Hanhan, in the midst of filming his directorial debut 《后会无期》in the rain, posted a Weibo message containing "sensitive words":  风雨中拍摄,有一种超薄激情系列的感觉。Those words were 超薄=ultra-thin. Both Durex and Okamoto, with a fan ratio of 11:1, forwarded the post simultaneously. However, because 'ultra-thin' is Okamoto's main selling point, Durex's act of forwarding was deemed as direct recognition of Okamoto's branding.

Social media marketing rules in China dictate that any topic takes less than 24 hours to ferment into a conversational hotspot that goes viral. "Once that happens, we get a peripheral exposure effect (外围发酵传播效应) that goes further than just the followers on our corporate account, as our content gets picked up by media outlets or KOLs," explains Huang. "Even a delay by just half an hour will mean less pickups. So the game is no longer about you in your own world putting out content, but taking advantage of the timelines of the media to ride on the wave. The key is to be timely. The best times to post new content when everyone makes their way to work around 10am or lunchtime around 12 noon."

Make some noise, not just in bed
Durex has been louder on social media than Okamoto, which only started to make some noise since the second half of 2013. Being a traditional Japanese enterprise, it is evident that Okamoto has made steps from being conservative to more risky. Market feedback of its brand behaviour echoes its strategy. The condom category is a relatively special industry in China divided into two parts: the first part being government procurement for free distribution in family planning and prevention against venereal diseases; the second part belongs to the commercial condom market with competitors galore like Durex, Okamoto, Jissbon, Aoni, Sagami, Elephant, to name a few.

In particular, Aoni, a product by Guangzhou Daming United Rubber Products, has also encroached into Okamoto’s USP territory with claims of being the world’s thinnest latex condom at 0.0014 inches (0.036 millimetres). Okamoto's Huang said he has already anticipated this. "What if one day someone has more awesome technology than us overtakes us as the thinnest condom record-holder? That’s why we have adjusted our slogans from touting the thinnest to something more emotional and sentimental."

For '520 Day' (an unofficial Valentine’s Day on 20 May each year as the numbers sound like “I love you” in Chinese), Okamoto produced a special 10-pack condom set with a complimentary SHIKIICHI-designed leather pouch in conjunction with a local arts-based grassroots publisher called 文艺连萌. In line with the theatrical language of the group, the product fulfills how "sex is the intersection of the spiritual and material; and is the most remarkable thing that is supported by love and attraction and is appealing due to physical pleasure. These are wonderful and moving."

This association with an arts and literature group fits the halo effect of Okamoto being a Japanese brand, which has the term "artisan spirit" attached to the brand's pursuit for quality and customer experience. Durex has been proclaimed three key points in its advertising: long-lasting, safe, reliable. So Okamoto has been emphasising its 80-year Japanese heritage and being a technology leader in rubber products. On its packaging, Okamoto condoms are stated to be made of sheelron, supposedly to have a silkier and more natural feel much like skin itself, and individually tested with precise electrostatic technology to maximise dependability.

Despite's Aoni's Guinness World Record holder, that is in the latex category and the scales may again be tipped when the Okamoto Zero One is officially launched into the market sometime next year, a condom with a uniform thickness of 0.01 millimetres made possible by an engineering shift from natural rubber to polyurethane.

Unlike Durex’s sub-brand of ‘intimacy care items’ called Play, Okamoto has decided to focus its energies on just condoms. Why? The Japanese have such high standards for artisan-quality products that manufacturing sex toys involving the use of silicone, polycarbonate, thermoplastic materials and electronics is a whole new industry altogether involving new hygiene standards and quality testing, says Huang. "The end-users, or should we say, beneficiaries of such products, are usually females, who are understandably particular about hygiene and safety. Currently, product quality levels in the market are really uneven with many of them made by OEM manufacturers. And simply because we believe concentration on one thing creates the best quality."

The artisan's condom
Huang emphasises that Okamoto products are made to suit the "female user experience" instead of pleasuring just male consumers with promises of "barely there" – typical marketing language in the past. Actually, few people realise that too much lubricant in a condom product is not really ideal as a selling point. Too much lubricant will interfere with the acidity levels of natural secretion during intercourse, Huang said, and Okamoto products are made to "observe the rule of natural secretion".

"Furthermore, our lubricant is of medical grade, which causes the human body no harm if it enters the bloodstream. Other brands may use food-grade materials of a lower quality, or silicone which is easily retained inside the female body and may cause gynecological inflammation. This is no laughing matter," said Huang. All these product minutiae influence the marketing minutiae, apparently.

In China, the entire condom industry is worth between 15 to 20 billion RMB and right now all the brands in the market rack up only 5 billion RMB, so there is huge potential for growth as consumption is trending towards premiumisation as purchasing power increases. For example, not just a condom, but one lubricated with hyaluronic acid widely used in cosmetic products for moisturising.

Durex entered the Chinese market much earlier and is now undoubtedly the market leader. But as with all cases when a David becomes a Goliath, its products have to start to suit the masses in order to maintain scale in the market. This, at the same time, is also its stumbling block, said Huang. Consumers will ditch the mass-market, one-size-fits-all approach, even if this happens gradually. Currently, Durex holds more than 30 per cent market share, Okamoto 10 to 13 per cent, Jissbon six to eight per cent, and Sixsex three to five per cent.

Huang is adamant that his company's product is "way better than Durex", but the reason why Okamoto is still number two is because Durex has secured and set up extensive distribution channels since its entry into China—that’s fuel for its sales. Durex's marketing budget is well in the realm of 20 million RMB last year, according to industry sources.

To tackle the problem of guys preferring to be condomless during the act, Durex has used the tactic of wishing them a 'happy father’s day' when they misuse or don’t use condoms. That’s precisely why in China, consumers respond well to ultra-thin condoms. In the West, safety is more valued than the pleasurable feeling of thinness. In the US, you see more products marketed to enhance the pleasurable act because Western consumers already know the importance of wearing a condom and don’t need to be persuaded. In China, due to sex education being still in its infancy, being (one of the) thinnest is such a good selling point and good fodder for funny posts, says Huang.

So much so for funny posts, but after appreciating the joke, will consumers buy? One observation Huang makes is after strong social media content, search volume on Taobao will increase in correlation, but this is sporadic. Social media is only one communication channel, but nary the last mile for sales conversion. "If we put out a sales offer, say a 10 per cent discount just for today, people will certainly buy, but you know what, they won’t share. Why on earth will you tell people you just bought some condoms? Such messages of such a private nature have zero sharability. We want consumers to take the initiative to share our content instead," says Huang.

Rubber to your doorstep

These are the intricacies of social media marketing. But even as another night of intra-sheet activities goes by, things are a-changing. Okamoto has tapped into e-commerce by opening online Wechat and Tmall stores accessible on smartphones, tablets or PCs. According to Arkr Digital that administered the internet sales model, the client is no longer satisfied with a mere physical store presence but wants to build a O2O linkage.

"If you just look at the product packaging you cannot know its value, but these online platforms enable consumers to obtain comprehensive product information and more importantly, protect their privacy since delivery parcels do not indicate any telltale signs except for "gift". Previously, Okamoto products were sold on online pharmacies, but it has been difficult to eliminate fakes.

What Okamoto is doing seems to be in reverse from other brands: daily executional duties are done in-house, whereas strategic creative plotting are left to the devices of their social media agency. This allows for better efficiency and lower communication costs, Huang says. By virtue of e-commerce being a closed loop environment, it is actually a straight line from social marketing to sales conversion, a rate that can go to as high as 30 per cent during peak periods. What more can a marketer ask for?

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