Surekha Ragavan
Nov 10, 2021

Why Tmall’s messaging around 11/11 became ‘less about the discounts’

The platform’s annual shopping festival is straying away from shouting about its seasonal prices from the rooftops and is instead centring a vision that upholds sustainability and long-term goals.

Employees at Cainiao Smart Logistics Network, the logistics affiliate of Alibaba, packaging orders ahead of the 11/11 shopping festival. (Getty Images)
Employees at Cainiao Smart Logistics Network, the logistics affiliate of Alibaba, packaging orders ahead of the 11/11 shopping festival. (Getty Images)

The impact of 11/11 sales in the region is so vast, it’s nearly impossible to fathom. Last year, in just over 100 minutes of the sale being launched online, more than 100 brands achieved GMV (gross merchandise value) sales exceeding RMB100 million (about US$15 million), according to Alibaba. That’s a whole lot of resources to manage for ecommerce platforms and manufacturers.

While Alibaba’s stance through the years has been gradually more considerable of the environment and inclusivity, this year it seemed to step on the pedal in those areas. At least publicly, of course.

Alibaba’s Tmall, which in previous years flashed its continuously snowballing GMV on a live scoreboard throughout the sale period, said that it would shift its focus to “sustainable development” and “inclusiveness”. Increasing anti-competitive regulations are also causing major platforms to tone down on marketing collaterals.

This year, Tmall is aiming to promote a “green lifestyle” by featuring a dedicated vertical to showcase energy-efficient and low-impact products, as well as issuing RMB100 million worth of “green vouchers” to incentivise shopping decisions that contribute to an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Brands such as Gerber, Innisfree, Nespresso, Xpeng, Brita, and Haeir have also joined the Tmall Green Alliance this 11/11 to promote green production and consumption. The alliance calls for brands to adopt “green production and logistics”, and to use “green energy and green data centres”. The choice for Tmall to drive the alliance seems to be driven by consumer purchase behaviour as much as it is to reduce carbon footprint.

“In recent years, buying eco-friendly has become a major trend in China,” Zheng Liqing, Tmall’s head of consumer marketing, said in a press release. “Tmall is collaborating with brands in taking a bigger step towards carbon emission reduction, not only because it wants to pursue carbon neutrality, but also because it is being responsive to consumer choices.”  


Aside from that, Alibaba’s logistics arm Cainiao Network will introduce package recycling across 10,000 post stations in 20 cities to reduce the festival’s carbon footprint beginning November 1, the first day of 11/11 sale period.

Simultaneously, the company recently debuted Cainiao Aeropolis in Kuala Lumpur, a trade hub that is connected to various partner airports which will expect additional 600,000 tonnes of cargo. The hub is said to be a core component of Alibaba’s e-fulfillment system and will logistically support the platform during busy periods such as the 11/11 sales. While this hub alone will add 35,000 jobs, one can only imagine the projected environmental impact of a trade hub of this scale.

Deborah Weinswig, CEO and founder of Coresight Research, was quoted in an Alibaba-endorsed press release: “Alibaba’s priority in the earlier years was on driving GMV, but the company is now focusing on the value it can create for society, including by putting sustainability at the core of the shopping festival.”

In the same press release, Anita Lyu, the head of Tmall Global, was quoted: “In the first five months of 2021, China imported RMB6.7 trillion (US$1.05 trillion) worth of goods, which is an almost 25% YOY increase.”

Xiaofeng Wang, principal analyst at Forrester, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that five years ago 11/11 was largely limited to Chinese online retailer. But now that it has expanded to become the largest shopping festival in China and Southeast Asia for both online and offline retailers, categories and industries have been broadened.

Wang added that values-based consumers are on the rise in the region, or consumers who will vote with their wallets on values such as environmental protection and respect of consumer data privacy.

“[Consumers] now expect brands and retailers to be more responsible,” said Wang. “That’s why more retailers have started working on a greener 11/11, promoting eco-friendly products and investing in green logistics.”

A screen displaying Alibaba's GMV during its 2019 11/11 event. (Getty Images)


According to Tom Wan, president of experience at Ogilvy China, a trend that has accelerated within Tmall in the past five years is the reduced focus on heavy discounts and package deals, with brands instead increasingly using 11/11 as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with existing customers and attract new ones through omnichannel experiences.

“The event has evolved from a simple online shopping frenzy into more of a highly entertaining social phenomenon,” Wan told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “However, pricing is not the biggest factor impacting consumer decision. Discounts are not the primary motivator for consumers to purchase, and bulk buying to stock up on a year (or more) worth of products is less common than in the early days of the event.”

Instead, consumers now prefer to anticipate what their favourite brands will come up with during 11/11 such as special offers for loyalty programme members, limited-edition products, or unique experiences.

“More and more, Chinese consumers buy from brands whose values they align with and whose messaging resonates with them the most. This type of relationship is built over time and brands’ performance on 11/11 is a good indicator on the efficacy of retailers’ efforts towards building a solid connection with their customers throughout the year,” said Wan.

To echo Wang’s sentiment, Wan said that because sustainability has become a top priority for brands and platforms, messaging around this is being pushed out year-round as part of their long-term marketing plans rather than just during large shopping events.

“Sustainability is top of mind for Chinese consumers, especially the younger generation, who has a high level of awareness when it comes to misleading communications practices such as greenwashing,” said Wan.

On the platform side, Wan pointed out a few examples that illustrate how sustainability and social responsibility have been inching up the business agenda, with platforms publicly committing to eco-friendly practices and evolving their messaging prior to 2021. For example, in 2019, Alibaba kicked off the 11/11 shopping festival with a focus on “new consumption,” “new business” and a pledge to leverage their technology to minimise environmental impact. And last year, JD.com introduced streamlined logistics practices that  to reduce packaging waste.

Alibaba’s messaging around sustainability and ESG hasn’t been limited to the 11/11 sales. In September this year, group chairman and CEO Daniel Zhang said that sang the tune of “common prosperity” such as launching an initiative to cultivate tech talent in developing areas. Zhang also encouraged Beijing users of Amap, Alibaba’s mapping and navigation app, to track carbon footprint from each time that they walk, cycle and take the bus or subway.

“Our common prosperity goal is not just a number,” said Zhang. “It means that over the next five to 10 years—or longer—we will leverage our digital capabilities to promote meaningful development and help solve important problems facing society.”

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