Eight years ago, cash payment was still king in China. Now you’re more likely to see digital-savvy consumers whipping out their Alipay or WeChat Pay app on their smartphones than digging into their coin purse when paying for a meal or a pair of sneakers. In 2018, smartphone ownership in China reached 96%, six percent higher than the global average ownership.
“This generation of Chinese consumers grew up in the digital age. They have never experienced a world without smartphones. Digital payment and social e-commerce are second nature to them,” says Dave Rumsey, global CEO of ASAP+, a digital agency headquartered in Shanghai and has offices in Sydney and London.
When it comes to digital, Rumsey says that brands need to think beyond pushing a few messages on WeChat or Weibo, to integrating into China’s digital ecosystem.
ASAP+ is perfectly positioned to advise brands who are looking to attract China’s always-on consumers. The agency has a legacy in tech and digital. Founded in 2007 by Alpha Xu, the agency was acquired by UK-based Engine Group, and became Deep Focus. With a focused desire on helping brands connect with the fast evolving digital-savvy Chinese consumer, the business was reacquired by Xu in 2016 and rebranded as ASAP+, a fully independent digital agency. Today the agency has expanded further globally and continues to provide an innovative model of digital marketing focusing on helping international brands connect to their Chinese audience with one-stop digital solutions. The agency counts well known brands such as Aston Martin, Forevermark, Bicester Village Shopping Collection, DFS, Tourism Australia, Delta Airlines amongst its clients.
“We don’t just provide digital marketing, we want to make sure that our clients are immersed in China’s digital ecosystem,” says Rumsey, who was brought into the business as global CEO in 2017 to execute an aggressive globally focused growth strategy. “You have a generation of highly connected consumers. They expect brands to not only be on multiple popular platforms, but also produce content that is relevant to their journey. For these consumers, the online and offline experience with a brand must be seamless”, says Rumsey.
A trend that brands continue to use to connect with China’s youthful population is retail gamification. It’s no secret Chinese millennials have fully integrated gamification into their lives—a trend that’s going to proliferate even further with 5G technologies. In an era of information-overload, gamification provides a high level of interaction—consumers are more likely to buy a watch or a pair shoes after they’ve interacted with engaging content. ASAP+ has used this tactic for a number of clients, successfully helping Starbucks to launch their DoubleShot espresso product with an interactive WeChat H5 gaming experience.
“Chinese consumers are expecting brands to adapt to shifts in consumption behavior. It no longer suffices for international brands to set up a brick and mortar shop and expect people to come through again and again with a traditional mass marketing approach. Brands need to build a connection with the local audience which is personalised, especially among the younger demographic digitally. They need to be more creative, and perhaps take more risks, when it comes to advertising, and when it comes to digital”, says Rumsey.
In 2018, ASAP+ was tapped by luxury jeweller Forevermark to create an omni-channel campaign for its Libert’aime by Forevermark, a new retail concept store targeting young Chinese millennials. Comprising an H5 interaction and a WeChat pop-up amongst others, the omni-channel campaign exceeded sales targets in just one day. This was further expanded with three WeChat mini-programs developed to not only allow their customers to buy Forevermark products online easily, but also a loyalty program where customers can check their membership info and book some privileged in-store services on it. This was additonally amplified by an e-brochure which showcases all Forevermark products online and provides a seamsless customer experience for in-store ‘try-on’. “Going beyond figuring out where China’s youths are consuming content, there also needs to be an understanding of how they’re doing it at a very basic level: when and where do Chinese consumers now shop,” says Rumsey.
The use of WeChat mini-programs has become a significant and important part of the sales and marketing plan for organisations as they seek deeper engagement and conversion of their Chinese target audience. There are now almost 200 million individual consumers using mini-programmes each day to buy products, book tickets for events, or in-store experiences. In fact, mini-programs within WeChat are negating the need for consumers to download individual brand apps. “I think mini programs still have a long way to do. With more data, brands can really start to do very personalised CRM. With more functions, for example, natural language processing chat technologies that’d enable brands to predict any questions that individual consumers might have, the user experience will become smoother,” Rumsey notes.
One of ASAP+’s strengths is its knowledge of both the travel and luxury retail industries.
While the focus on travel stems from Xu’s love of travelling, its other emphasis, luxury retail, stems from an understanding that those who are travelling are also those spending big bucks on luxury brands overseas. “Travel is something that Alpha is passionate about," notes Rumsey. "But we also realise that the people who are taking outbound holidays independently and in small groups are the same people who are buying luxury brand products. For example, a lot of Chinese people who travel to London also visit Bicester Village (an outlet mall for luxury brands). Our focus on these two areas allows us to offer an integrated experience for these consumers.”
Australia, with its abundance of World Heritage sites, sandy beaches and a burgeoning cultural scene, is a popular destination for Chinese travellers. In 2019, ASAP+ partnered with Tourism Queensland and Tourism Victoria to create mini programmes introducing Australia’s cultural, retail and F&B offerings. Rumsey believes there is potential for the app to expand beyond being a mere content site to becoming a concierge service, where users can book tours and restaurants. “There is a real opportunity for destination marketing to change the game for Chinese travellers.” notes Rumsey.
Influencer marketing has taken the global market by storm in the last few years but none more so than China, where influencer, or KOL (‘key opinion leader’), marketing is a US$17.6 billion industry. International brands that want to tap into this space are often presented with the conundrum of wanting to localize while retaining the brand’s own identity. British luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin found a solution in the form of Chinese equestrian rider Alex Hua Tian”, says Rumsey. As China’s first equestrian representative at the Olympics but also as someone educated in the UK, Hua embodies that perfect melding of East and West that gels well with what Aston Martin represents as a brand.
ASAP+’s evolution from a digital marketing, China-focused company to a global, fully-integrated agency is manifested in its latest campaign for GOAT, a US sneaker social marketplace powerhouse that had plans to expand to the Chinese market. As the company’s leading partner, ASAP+ built a well-rounded marketing strategy comprising both online and offline activities. In addition to launching a localised app and a WeChat mini programme, GOAT also held a three-day launch event in Shanghai’s Jing’an District.
ASAP+’s emphasis on holistic digital marketing also coincides with the increasing focus on true ROI for their digital investment. Whilst brand marketers might jump up in joy when a campaign has hit 10K views or 5000 likes, real engagement in 2019 means much more than clicks. “I think it’s a natural evolution. For example, we have a client who wanted to really understand what we’re doing to drive sales, whether we could guarantee a certain number of items sold, whether we know what the product pricing sweet spot was, etc.” notes Rumsey. “It no longer suffices to push out a few messages online, wait for people to like them, and hope that they turn into purchases. You have to do much more to engage your target audience. At ASAP+, this is what we are pushing to achieve for our clients everyday.”