Op-Ed: Why Not to Try Anything New in China, from Not a China Expert

by Nick Withycombe

What’s new? What’s coming next? These are the go-to questions on ‘China marketing’, whether you’re a journalist looking for a headline or in the industry and looking for the most cutting-edge, client-wowing solution.

If you are seeking further understanding on China, then media content and events are available routes where answers and help may be expected. However, much of this just spreads the same basic messages – and my question is whether an adult really needs to be told that in China you need to ‘research your target audience’ or ‘be customer focused’. Oh, we were about to not be customer focused – thanks! I have the same confusion when I read a sentence such as ‘in China, you need to be digital and mobile’.

Please don’t mistake my confusion for any arrogance over those with initial understanding of China (I am not labelling myself with the very silly term ‘China expert’, but after 15 years living here and having ‘married into the Chinese family’ for a decade, I don’t understand much else). After all, it’s vast, each region is unique and changes in business and society are perhaps the most rapid on Earth.

However, the basic elements of understanding can be sought with just 10 minutes of online reading. Numbers are massive. Luxury is huge. It’s digital. It’s mobile. Maybe less than 10 minutes – and without the need to physically attend a panel discussion of ‘China experts’ each reminding you to be customer focused.

The next possible route to being mis-led is from certain media – media that have an understandable need to focus on the new: click-bait titles (and what kind of person would write a click-bait title?!) on ‘Big Numbers from China! New Apps You Can’t Miss!’.

The desire and need to understand the Chinese market is the understandable point: the intriguing situation is that changes in a country of a billion people can happen more quickly than in a corporate business. However, if you are indeed new in your learning about this region, then obsession with the ‘new’ can become infectious. If certain media also have a narrative of ‘the new’ then brands and agencies may be tempted, seduced, by whatever tactic or app is receiving the most business buzz.

With the fascination of the new, and the modern-day drive for any successful business to be ‘agile’, ‘culturally-adept’, ‘locally-adaptive digital gurus’ may be counter-productive – and therein lies my point.

It’s easy to get whipped into a froth and be caught up in the mania of ‘the new’. While there are certain tools which allow incredible strategies for digital marketing, it doesn’t mean that an app or strategy should be employed simply because it is new, and used by “Millions!”.

Hundreds of Millions – But Who?

For luxury brands, Douyin (with the alleged English name that no one uses, ‘TikTok’) is an ideal example of this. Any relevant media looking for a quick article was keen to state the userbase of Douyin. It’s an easy way to let the numbers fool you – yes there will be millions of users because there are hundreds of millions of people in China. Michael Kors was the first luxury brand to try the platform, and they ended up with several hundred followers only.

While numbers can be seductive, speak to your affluent, luxury Chinese consumer and you may just find that almost none of them choose to spend their time hunched over, watching a relentless stream of micro-vids.

While not on Douyin, Dior may have thought that ‘short video + KOL’ was a safe bet, but they were ridiculed on social media for the quality of this video. They issued a defence which, rather than admit anyone didn’t like it, stated that it wasn’t their own video but that of a ‘KOL’ that they had a good working relationship with. Yet should they have more control over who makes videos (including in-store scenes) of their product? Should they ensure that the Opinions being Led are positive?

The Right KOL Yes, Any KOL No

South Australia went for a celebrity KOL. While some doubted the potential of this partnership, the Tourism Board appeared happy with an extra “visitation” of 61,000 Chinese visitors. While numbers of Chinese visitors increase in most destinations worldwide, and with this 61,000 being accrued from unknown sources or reasons, this auto-back-patting may serve as a lesson to others. The point here is that if done well, KOL marketing can be incredibly successful – but it’s seen as a bandwagon on which to jump then it won’t be a silver bullet, to expertly mix metaphors.

Little Red Book is a Long Read

Xiaohongshu is receiving plenty of media attention currently – and it is certainly deserved, having bloomed into a truly popular platform for the right target audience for many high-end brands. There isn’t a specific ‘warning’ to be taken from Xiaohongshu – it is actually an ideal platform for selling to young Chinese women. The point is that for a brand, it seems more ‘one to watch’ at the time-being rather than one to desperately target for campaigns. The platform itself is currently (and continually) changing the rules of how brands and KOLs can act with content – the point being that it’s a good example of where playing safe and steady seems more beneficial than jumping straight in just because it’s the new topic of buzz.

Indeed, instead of attempting to sculpt a campaign on Xiaohongshu, it may be more apt to use as an organic testing ground – if people aren’t talking about you there, then it means that you still need to focus on brand awareness.

WeChat Remains the Digital Keystone

So, what is now a more trustworthy, robust tool to move forwards with? Sometimes, there’s no need to look further than WeChat. Yes, China moves so fast that the 8-year-old, ‘good old WeChat’ has proven that mini-programs are no fad, and that recent upgrades in the system allow a brand to promote content, create engaging functions and solidify authenticity. Of course, this makes it sound a little easy, I admit – but the big question of ‘how to best use WeChat’ should perhaps be a better one than a tail-chasing ‘what else will work better?’.

(Before concluding, I’ll also just sandwich in a line to say that yes, Weibo is still optimal for pure reach.)

While it’s impossible to conclude with the perfect 5-point-plan for any brand of any category, the message is this: With the right local expertise from staff and partner agencies in China, you won’t need to just try something new for the sake of trying something new. In a world of China experts and media looking for the new headline, there’s temptation to be the brand that was first in succeeding with any particular totem of China’s unique digital land. Yet, chasing a ‘quick win’ in China is an empty victory: any China strategy only works if the words ‘long-term’ are prominently in there. And that you don’t forget to be customer-focused.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.