Nikki Lin
Apr 16, 2020

Reopening business in China – finding our new normal

The Chinese phrase for 'crisis' is a combination of two characters: 'Danger' 危 and 'opportunity'机. Businesses that have survived have become more agile.

Reopening business in China – finding our new normal

We are only a quarter of the way through it, and yet 2020 has already been a year of unprecedented and seismic change, both on a personal and global level. I returned to Shanghai in early March, but my family have remained in Taiwan until travel restrictions are lifted, so home is unusually quiet.

Rather than a staycation, however, my first few weeks of isolation have been filled with online meetings getting to know my new colleagues and clients around the world. People seem focused, meetings are efficient, and there is a lot of compassion for one another. So quickly learning how to run a virtual studio has become my “new normal” for now. 

As restrictions are slowly being lifted here in China, and people are beginning to move around more freely and return to a more 'normal' sense of daily life, what does 'normal' mean now?

Many businesses will return to “normal”, no doubt, but it’s going to be a new version of “normal” that each surviving business – big or small – will have to shape for themselves. What’s become clear is that the businesses that have survived, or even thrived, over the last few months have become more agile, more open to innovation, and they have the confidence and ability to make things happen at greater speed than they did before. We’re certainly seeing this in the briefs we’ve received from brands lately. Things have changed.

China’s largest retailer Suning is a good example of this recent change and innovation at speed. Suning started out as bricks-and-mortar retailer but became one of the largest ecommerce players and transformed itself into an online-to-offline omnichannel empire.

Suning social commerce offers via WeChat mini-program. Source: Azoya

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, I’ve watched with interest at how the business has shifted to become a collection of micro merchants, each selling and promoting products through their personal WeChat posts. I’ve even seen VPs selling underwear online and proudly saying, “Only the weak care about face, the strong only care about business survival”.

The Chinese have long understood the wisdom that crisis is always accompanied by opportunity; the Chinese phrase for “crisis” is a combination of 2 characters, 'danger' 危 (wei) and 'opportunity' 机 (ji). Where previously wisdom might have been replaced by complacency, now it’s a combination of wisdom and precaution that is crucial for the survival of any business.

Another good example I’ve seen recently was from a hot pot chain that launched its take-out service in just 3 weeks, enabling them to continue trading when China went into lockdown. Their original plan had been to launch the service in 2 years’ time. See what a crisis can do to unleash human potential and drive significant change, fast? Now that they have established this new way of working, the next challenge will be how to deliver their brand experience in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Use that wisdom and precaution to keep on innovating.

Businesses in China right now need to balance getting people back to work with ensuring their safety, and this will likely be through a combination of a new-found agility, technology, and establishing new ways of working. Geely, China’s largest privately-owned car manufacturer, announced that it will not be changing long-term plans and sale targets, nor will they be cutting jobs or salaries. Instead, Geely is re-thinking internal structures, project deployments and staffing allocations to become more efficient. Other businesses should take inspiration from this and consider how they can modify current structures, processes and supply chains to optimize how they run.

A reopened Geely plant in China. Source: Geely

I read somewhere that limitation facilitates creativity, and that couldn’t be more relevant to this moment. Creativity is needed now more than ever to shape the new normal for us as individuals, for businesses, and for the world around us.

My colleague Simon Black, chief strategy officer of Design Bridge, shared something with me the other day that really resonated: “Agility and wisdom are the attributes that will be attractive to clients as much as anything else. It’s the end of the era of relative innocence.” We are here to help our clients not only survive the inevitable challenges that the coming months will hold for them, but also to help them come out stronger, more sustainable, and find their new normal.

A lot has happened since the end of last year, and many people are re-thinking how they live their lives in harmony with themselves, with society and the environment. Brands need to think about their purpose and their role in the society. How can they can deliver real value and authentic experiences? Brands with meaningful purpose, and those who genuinely act on it, will almost certainly be the ones that succeed.


Nikki Lin is managing director of Design Bridge Shanghai.

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