Arthur Hagopian
Sep 19, 2014

Who controls the brand conversation?

An anthropologist's view of social-media attitudes in China and the ramifications for brands, with case study examples.

Hagopian: China social environment not
Hagopian: China social environment not "artificial"

Not only is the number of Chinese citizens turning to social media for product and brand information larger than corresponding figures in the west or Japan, but the depth of engagement per individual is much greater. Social media in the country has upended the concept of a brand lecture and turned it into a conversation.

Once corporations had a large measure of control over how consumers viewed products, services, brand names and even employees. But the rise of social media platforms has wrested control out of corporate hands and placed it in the jurisdiction of (often-unwitting) individual content creators.  The effect has reversed the traditional one-way flow of information. Not only are brands no longer able to direct the conversation, they are now just a part of it. 

A mobile country

Completing an e-commerce transaction on a mobile phone currently accounts for only a small proportion of total transactions in China. Mobile phone use in China continues to rise, with smartphones increasing as a proportion of the total. Globally, the number of smartphone users is merely one-third of the total number of mobile phone users. More and more, Chinese citizens choose smartphones as their primary purchase platform often because there simply is no alternative, such as in China’s western regions, where there’s only limited access to traditional laptops and desktops. In the sparsely populated areas of Tibet and Xinjiang a smartphone may be the only portal to the Internet available.

One would guess that the trend in computing devices to grow ever smaller and more portable would correspond with the trend in Internet use in China. A desktop would see less Internet use than a laptop, which, in turn, would see less use than a tablet or a phone. This may be because the computing power of ever-smaller devices is ever more based in the cloud, meaning that an Internet connection is not only a function, but also a necessity. In China, however, laptops buck this trend, with Internet usage more frequent on desktop computers. This discrepancy may be due to the highly mobile lifestyle led by most Chinese, where the mobile phone is a device used in the home and on the road, the desktop computer for office use only, and with no place left for a laptop. This trend may also be due to other, unique characteristics about China’s Internet users in specific or large population in general, such as the single child policy driving an aging phenomenon.

China social media: Platforms for expression

Some critics allege China’s social media platforms can exist only in the “artificial” environment created by government firewalling of the American first-movers such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. However, such a theory does not explain the success of Cyworld in Korea, where Facebook is not blocked, or of Yahoo Japan, which has displaced Google in the archipelago. Such a precursory explanation may have been easy to swallow a few years ago, but the ongoing evolution and proliferation of Chinese platforms has created a substantial difference in user experience from the American platforms popular in western countries.

Take, for example, WhatsApp and WeChat. Unlike WhatsApp, WeChat has a video call function in addition to a voice call function. There is also a friend-finder feature for WeChat, which ensures users stay within the WeChat platform regardless of use: texting, voice messaging, video conferencing, and even searching for “interesting” people in your vicinity are all functions contained within it.

Last year marked the threshold when the majority of China’s online platforms become commercialized in some form. Nevertheless, there remain important differences between advertising and interactivity among the platforms. WeChat, for example, is a “closed” platform in that user-generated content is not published in a public forum online and therefore not searchable by third parties. You can only see a WeChat user’s content if he or she “adds” you to his or her network by inputting your phone number, account info, or – a method increasing in popularity – simply scanning the QR code generated on your screen. Sina Weibo, in contrast, is an “open” platform in that any third party can perform a keyword search in Weibo’s portal. The opinions of key influencers or key opinion leaders (KOLs) are amplified by Weibo and spread quickly by the increasing Internet penetration rate and pursuant social media participation rate.

The magnifying power of Chinese social media can switch control of a major brand from a corporation to an individual in the space of a few days or even hours. Corporations must justify participation by producing attractive content, usually in the form of informative responses to consumers’ inquiries.

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Firms with successful social media strategies respond to customers on a level playing field in a much-expanded version of the classic Q&A concept. On Sina Weibo, for example, firms (or individuals, such as movie stars) can register for a verified account, which adds a “V” icon to the account’s avatar. Firms also have to be comfortable (and at the same time, very careful) posting content on public forums. This point is of especial interest to those of us in the PR field trying to evaluate and map how our marketing budgets produce revenue. The traditional approach to marketing communications in China has been upset by a new reality where media, retail, digital, PR, sponsors, etc influence and cite each other. Consumers now react to “pull” content as opposed to “push” content. Developing a reputation for excellent service, maintaining a fast and easy to navigate webpage, ranking Q&A based on click-through rates (as opposed to your own enlightened opinion about what information is useful) are all aspects that matter to Chinese consumers.

This may all sound like old hat to western audiences, but China keeps things interesting in a number of ways. Unlike the EU and USA, a much larger percentage of Chinese social media users are content creators. This content appears in a variety of categories: celebrity gossip, product reviews, spiritual content, news, etc. Of course the sheer volume of Chinese social media amplifies online trends, but the high participation rates in online platforms may also be inversely related to the low participation rates in traditional media. Chinese have trouble confront firms about defective products in China for fear of arrest or worse. Chinese youth cannot gather in public places without registering with the police. In short, the explosion of opinions, both public and private, both provocative and mundane, in the Chinese social media ecosystem is merely the phenomenon of Chinese opinions bursting through the only portal available.

As the playing field becomes more and more level, some well-known firms in China are learning the hard way that the online voice of netizens cannot be ignored. While China’s sociopolitical environment has put the brakes on many forms of creative expression, the ready-made broadcasting platform of blogs and micro-blogs has enabled consumers to broadcast facts, images, or even just opinions out into the churning ocean that is the Chinese social media network. Below are a few examples of how not to handle a digital crisis in China.


On March 31 of this year over a dozen China Eastern Airlines planes suddenly reversed course mid-flight, stranding over a thousand passengers in various airports nationwide. Known in Chinese as the “aero-gate” incident (返航门), the mid-flight course reversals made the news in China, where a labor action of such scale and disruption is unprecedented.  Despite evidence posted online of internal disputes between staff and management as the cause of the course reversals, China Eastern declared the pilots’ actions merely a response to “weather factors.” After the National Aviation Control Office and China Eastern itself assigned research teams to investigate the reversals, it became clear the true reason was in fact labor disputes between flight stewards and management – not something as simple as the weather. China Eastern’s underestimation of the power of online reports to influence public opinion resulted not only in a fine of 1.5 million Yuan, but more critically the National Aviation Control Office suspended China Eastern’s operation license in Yunnan Province.

RULE: Assess and accept

In this case China Eastern made the critical mistake of being uninformed or unconcerned regarding the dispute information clearly circulating in numerous online portals, including their own.  While quick deflections and official denunciations are, unfortunately, a common response in this region when accusations are made, such accusations directly contradict the reason d’être of blog and micro-blog platforms in China—which is, fundamentally, to share accurate and legitimate information on public communication portals.  China Eastern’s reluctance to embrace and accept this reality resulted in a massive loss of face and a hefty fine.    

Trying to turn the tsunami of online opinion

Inviting advertisers to bid for locations on a website is an accepted form of income for search engines. However, the way in which the biding process carries out can often become the focus of public scrutiny, as Baidu discovered recently when netizens exposed insider biding and unscrupulous favor trading at the search giant. Like most giant Chinese companies, Baidu’s initial response to unfavorable online opinion was to throw money at the problem; in this case paying for the deletion of hundreds of blog posts about the corruption that occurred during the bidding process. Baidu’s arrogance backfired a hundred-fold. When netizens discovered the blogs were being deleted they quickly re-posted them. What was originally a small stream of bad news quickly became a flood of negative opinion as Baidu (and the third-party censors Baidu had employed) were quickly overwhelmed. In the end Baidu acknowledged the corrupt bidding practices as well as admitted to attempting to stifle online opinion. Many observers noted that this latter sin – stifling public opinion – was in fact more severe than the initial scandal.

RULE: The public can generate more messages in a second than any individual could in a day

In this case, Baidu attempted to stop the flow of unfavorable opinion by “erasing” negative comments and contributions. The lesson learned here is that Chinese netizens are considerably more likely to become enraged and mobilize against an aggressor when subjected to perceived censorship. This rage will undoubtedly manifest as unrelenting targeted attacks on the identified culprit(s), usually the censor or censoring organization. While Baidu finally confessed to their gaffe and subsequent cover-up attempts, netizen sentiment remains at the boiling point.   

The blame game backfires

General Motors Shanghai (GMS) received complaints about “bulging tires” on the Excelle car model shortly after introduction to the China market. Its first reaction was to blame the tire manufacturer. The tire manufacturer, in turn, blamed drivers. Infuriated drivers soon began venting their frustration online, in the form of comments such as: “Only tires from this certain factory bulge out, how could the problem be with the drivers.” Needless to say, the bulge represented a weakness in the tire wall, a weakness that might become fatal is the tire exploded at high speed. Complaints from drivers about the tires eventually reached crisis levels, but GMS still did not acknowledge the problem, explaining away the complaints as groundless online rumors. Understanding the impending crisis, the tire company started offering free tire changes for drivers with problem tires, thus winning back some popular support, especially when contrasted to GMS’ intransigence. The end result was that even though the source of the issue was faulty tires, refusing to respond to online opinions brought blame down upon GMS.

RULE: Accept, act, and apologize

While we have established that shirking responsibility when confronted with accusations is commonplace in China, explicitly blaming a supplier and then engaging said supplier in a hostile online skirmish is ill advised under any circumstances. An online war of words can only ever lead to accusations from your entire client-base. Regardless of who is conclusively responsible for the product defect(s) or misunderstanding, GMS’ approach should have included explicitly accepting that there was a problem, consistently communicating that they were working with their suppliers to identify the problems, and, where necessary, apologizing for any inconvenience or annoyance the issue may have caused.

The above examples demonstrate not just the broadcasting power of Chinese social media, but also an increased willingness on the part of netizens to give voice to opinions that traditional-media restrictions had previously smothered. The days when a consumer felt small in front of a large corporation are over. Social media has empowered the individual and corporations are now participants in their brand conversations, not the orchestrators. Its time to transition from dictating brand image to managing communities, which is where brand image forms and flourishes.

Arthur Hagopian, a trained anthropologist and new-media expert, is the director of global brand solutions and digital at SPRG Beijing, part of the PROI network.


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