With most Chinese in some way digitally connected now, a digital presence is seen as an elixir to branding and retail woes.
Incredible faith is placed in the instant ability of a WeChat account to turn around a brand's fortune in China. A 'build it, and they will come' bravado seemingly overpowers the reality that a brand is almost impossible to find on WeChat unless a consumer already knows the brand.
Brands are equally gung-ho when it comes to e-commerce in China. Recently Maserati, Biotherm and Vans handed over the reins of their brands in a special Tmall 'buying day'. In the process, each brand was reimagined through the e-shop giant's penchant for animated graphics, leading to some odd outcomes.
Maserati cars had balloons streaming out of their boots; Biotherm's face cream became multi-coloured party face paint; and Vans had its usual coolness completely sucked out of the brand (see below).
Gamification is another area where brands seem to 'forget their stripes' in China, just because Chinese like games (right?). The reality is brands are building wondrous theme parks, where the themes have little or nothing to do with their brands.
When it comes to using celebrities and KOLs, brands seem even blinder. Yes, a 'hot' celebrity can provide a power boost to your number of followers. But the increasingly random use of internet celebrities based on pure popularity is arguably confusing for local consumers, and ultimately damaging to long-term brand-building.
The US$3.4 million (RMB 22 million) auction price for mega-vlogger Papi Jiang's brand endorsement last week suggests the advent of a new 'cyber celebrity economy’ where KOLs can really leverage their value to brands.
However, I wonder if the successful bidder—Lili & Beauty, which represents cosmetic brands Shu Uemura, Max Factor and Maybelline—had thought beyond the sudden popularity of Papi Jiang.
A closer look at her vlog would have revealed a deeply sarcastic attitude towards women and beauty stereotypes, which she rips apart regularly with abandon.
The reality of digital in China is that it has become a primary context for local consumers to engage with brands. In many cases this occurs before, or in the absence of, retail presence. That is, the goodwill brands have built up over generations in mature markets is absent here in China. So, brands have gone online and mobile, largely clueless in terms of the brand truths that mature markets take for granted.
Ultimately, digital platforms are where brands have less control than other media. Perceptions are magnified and go viral in an organic and unstoppable way here in China. Digital has to be an integral chapter of your China brand book, not a flashy DVD that is tucked in the back cover.
But in case I am sounding like a hater, there are two brands that have recently shown consistency.
Starbucks' creation of its 'fourth space' on Tmall has been a case study in consistency despite not actually selling coffee on the platform. In addition to converting brand loyalists to its Tmall store, Starbucks also created a new digital ecosystem that allowed coffee lovers to strengthen their connection to the brand and share their passion with others.
An even more brave case study is KFC's digital co-branding with Tencent's QQ community, with a focus on the next generation of fast-food consumers. It has been so solid that KFC launched its first physical QQ restaurant in Shenzhen—literally O2O.
Remember, consistent messaging on digital platforms in China that is in line with brand positioning is paramount.
Jerry Clode is head of digital and social insight at Resonance China.