What does success look like?
Before reading this guide to the what, why, who and how of Chinese marketing. First, ask yourself the following question? What does success look like for my brand? If you don’t know where you are heading, it’s impossible to map out how to get there.
For some of you, the goal may be to get more China sales, having had some already. For others, it could mean getting boots on the ground or establishing eCommerce platforms.
Ok, let’s get started.
Whatever has bought you here, knowledge as they say is king. Treat this a bit like a checklist. If you have thought about each of the elements and have a solution for each, you are in great shape.
At best, you will beat your competition at worst you will avoid expensive mistakes.
The complete reason for marketing to China will be unique to your company. More often than not you need look no further than the global macro-environment to find compelling reasons for market entry.
Some brands are ‘pulled’ into China, where others are ‘pushed’ but this first step is rarely given the time that’s needed by most brands I come across. Yet you'll find your biggest OPPORTUNITIES here.
Let’s take a few sectors by way of example.
The UK is now the number one study destination for Chinese students. This is thanks to a variety of factors such as the political situation in the USA, the UK's favourable changes to Post-grad work visas, the falling pound and the sensitivity with which UK universities have dealt with the global pandemic.
This poses massive opportunities, with universities seeing more Chinese applications than ever. Yet, those in the education sector now face the threat of extraordinary competition. This means having to do things smarter than before. The opportunities are there, but universities must change what they have done in the past to have any hope of hitting their KPIs.
COVID-19 has closed borders and brought the international tourism industry to a grinding halt. Where traditional brick and mortar has suffered repeated blows this year there is a massive opportunity to generate sales. This is true for cross-border eCommerce and in market Chinese eCommerce. There is plenty to consider when selling into/ in China, and each option comes with its own unique pricing, timelines, restrictions, and risks. It is vital to ensure you protect your brand from day one of your eCommerce journey.
There is a story like this for every industry. If you aren’t sure about your WHY, my team can provide great market insights into the real opportunities available.
Once you’ve decided to commit to China, it is important to move quickly, but with purpose. There are several key pieces of information you need to 100% certain of before you take the plunge.
Your Chinese customers
The single biggest difference I see between brands is the way they understand their target audience. The brands that know their Chinese customers, and I mean really know them, win every time.
So, follow these steps
1. Ensure what you are selling is what Chinese customers want. Gone are the days where being a Western, quality product is enough to guarantee sales. Chinese customers are spoilt for choice and do their research. If similar products are offered cheaper, or quicker, elsewhere, that is where they will go. Also, be sure that your product is actually something Chinese consumers want. Although globalised Chinese consumers still differ in their consumption habits. For example, many beliefs around Chinese medicine and in particular food are still practiced today.
2. Identify your Chinese customer segments. It may sound rudimentary but you’d be surprised how many businesses have spent years finely tuning their European/ American customer profiles, yet enter China with vague or inaccurate perceptions of who their customers are. Be certain that you know all your customer personas, triggers, pain points, and key behaviours. You can use traditional qual and quant techniques, but why not ask your existing Chinese customers to find out why they chose you. Speak to your staff, also speak to clients that didn’t choose you to find out why.
3. Benchmark your brand. Now more than ever brands are competing not just against regional competitors (other American/ European brands etc), but also global competitors. In the age of ‘Made in China 2.0’ local players are using their insider knowledge to gain ground rapidly. To get ahead you must interrogate your competition. What do they do better? Are they cheaper, quicker, etc than your brand?
Analyzing your competitors can help you find your USPs, but be brutally honest with yourself. If a local brand offers a similar product, at a more affordable price you will struggle to succeed with tactics alone. Premium brands need to build a substantial amount of brand equity to bridge the gap.
4. Look at your supply chain. If you are embarking on eCommerce, you will need to join an established platform or find a logistics and payment solution to get your products from A to B. If you are selling in China you will need to source distributors or sales agents and staff. Your supply chain is part of your customer base and you must remember this when you put together your marketing plan.
Now that you have identified who your customers are, what they want, and why they will buy from you, you can now map out what content/ triggers will make them engage and on what channels.
I am a big fan of analytical channel audits. Looking at where you are now, what existing sentiment and awareness there is on Chinese social media. Benchmark yourself against your competitors, look at your current assets, what are the gaps? Use this knowledge to build your communications plan. Target each customer persona, including key stakeholders such as channel partners.
The next step is a content strategy complete with content pillars for each customer segment. Don't get caught up thinking about channels until you've pinned down your messaging. Then you need to set a budget for each audience segment by channel, with clear, rational growth targets.
Phase 3.2 – Pre-marketing set up.
As I mentioned won’t go through operational planning in detail here. But anyone planning to market to/in China needs to address these things ASAP.
Branding and Chinese naming
Localising your branding and brand/ product names to fit the market will not only improve your opportunity but solve a lot of headaches further down the road. Chinese consumers are as dedicated to convenience as they are creativity. Brands or products with complicated or foreign names get given nicknames instead, once a nickname is created it can be impossible to switch out for a brand approved name. Nicknames affect the positioning of a brand but also make social listening and advertising more difficult, as the nicknames themselves become more widely known than the official terms. Especially when it comes to product names.
China is a file first country, meaning that whoever files the trademark or intellectual property, owns it (with a few exceptions). You also have to file for every individual category separately. It is important to take steps to protect IP as soon as you decide to engage with China, or see traction among Chinese customers.
To launch your marketing with maximum impact, you’ll need a toolkit full of China-ready assets. Assets are important even if your business or sales model relies on distributors/agents, etc. We see the consequences of poor preparation all the time. When sales agents create their own marketing materials, the result is usually a far cry from the way you would choose to present your brand. By creating a central hub of evergreen assets, you not only ensure consistency but also enable extended team members to share the true values of the brand.
For video, you’ll want to have Chinese subtitles at the least, and you’ll need to provide for a wide range of channels and audiences. You need a great selection of long, medium, and short video formats. Due to China’s complicated social media landscape, you may also need to upload the same video to multiple sites to use it across all your social media platforms.
Translation vs. copywriting
Translation is a must for things such as contracts, instruction manuals, brand stories, etc. Companies often make the mistake of treating translation as equal to copywriting. A strong marketing strategy never relies on translation of Western content. Direct translations fail to resonate with customers and have even been the cause of PR crises ( just ask Boris Johnson).
Having a localised marketing strategy is a must-have when competing in today’s market. Faced with this daunting task as a non-Chinese brand owner, it is unsurprising that many CEOs entrust their entire strategy to a local team without putting adequate safeguards in place. Common practices like overzealous discounting, or non-marketing professionals leading marketing strategy often lead to loss of brand equity.
A glocalised approach balances local context and methodologies with global brand positioning and strategy. In other words, a glocalised approach adapts to the market without endangering long-term growth.
If you are not sure that this balance is being met, we recommend conducting a 3rd-party audit. Only by digging deeper can you get a better understanding of any gaps in communication or conflicting objectives. Having helped many businesses uncover and remove these barriers, I find that if the CEO or Marketing Director suspects there may be a problem, there usually is.
These are important details that Western brands tend to put to one side. Diving into activations before having made the necessary decisions leaves your brand vulnerable.
Offline ads in China (including print PR) require significant financial investment and if not done well can lead to a lot of money with little results. The trick is not to apply Western PR and offline thinking to the China market. The rules and expectations here are truly unique (for example even with offline marketing, almost all roads lead to WeChat).
PPC & display are also used to reach out to customers, using fine-tuned personas to identify where your customer hangout you can then decide which portals/ networks to focus on. Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese tracking often interacts poorly with Western systems (i.e., don’t expect to use Google Analytics for tracking). It is best to localise whenever possible.
When it comes to PPC in China Baidu is where brands usually start. After all, Baidu has a 70% share of the search engine market. There are many similarities between Baidu Ads and Google Ads, but also some key differences. Baidu is arguably more advanced than Google, which could account for Baidu’s average 1% click-through-rate compared to Google Ad’s average CTR of 0.2%. Baidu is especially unrivaled when it comes to the variety of marketing tools available. One example is the Baidu ‘Product Zone’, which provides an average CTR of 50% and incorporates multimedia banners, videos, brand logos, company introductions, and other tailored-to-fit content. Allowing a brand to take over a significant portion of the search page.
Set-up, keyword research, and ad management can be a steep learning curve. That's not including the language barriers. But with the right strategy and resources in place, Baidu PPC and multi-channel PPC can yield great results.
Thanks to China’s huge consumer numbers you can generate staggering traffic in both B2B and B2C sectors, but the funneling and qualification process is just as important as lead gen. Coming from a web background I have helped many companies optimise their web presence and campaign landing pages for China. The strategy team and I also help create seamless customer journeys, providing companies with growing China sales.
The majority of Chinese media buyers merely offer you a platform to use. . To get the most out of media buy in China, planning has to be well considered yet flexible. You should find your most valuable niches and time-frames. For more information about working directly with Chinese media buyers as well as insight into the vendor relationship in China, listen to Melody our Ops Director discuss her experiences and top tips.
In China there are many ways to media buy, paid social advertising such as WeChat & Weibo ads are used much more frequently than in Western countries. Social channels in China are a must-have not an add-on (especially WeChat).
Apps in China boast detailed targeting and analytical capabilities, allowing you to expertly target potential customers. Companies can choose from banner ads, video ads, HTML5 landing pages, opening page ads, and even overseas campaigns as well.
The cost of social ads will vary massively depending on the location and the size of your target audience, as well as the time of year and the platform. For certain sectors such as overseas property, investment, etc. there are also added regulations in place.
Platforms such as WeChat also improve the level of consumer engagement by limiting the number of social ads users receive. Great news for brands, but it does mean booking ad space needs much more planning in advance.
Paid social ads, whether it is boosting content on LittleRedBook or Weibo, or banner and moments (discovery page) ads on apps such as WeChat, will immensely benefit any planned social campaigns. They are a great addition to UGC campaigns, influencer collaborations, or sales-driving activations.
Another hugely popular form of social advertising is through Key-Opinion-Leaders (or KOLs). Key-Opinion-Consumers or micro-influencers can also work wonders, over the last 2 years my team has had more and more success using KOCs .
I have seen first-hand how one KOL campaign can launch a brand’s success, or throw it into crisis. There are so many elements at play for a successful KOL campaign, yet many brands treat these collaborations as simple media-buy activations. Some otherwise well-honed brands have also fallen into the trap of working with KOLs without doing their due diligence. Leading to underwhelming or detrimental KOL campaign results.
When I speak to country managers or marketing directors, their most common marketing headache is getting budget holders in Europe or the US to understand that KOL marketing is not influencer marketing. The expectations around working styles and especially budgets need to be completely reshaped.
Most premium KOLs function less like professional content creators and more like independent media houses. This means they have booking managers, content creators, designers, editors, community managers, and interns, all on the payroll. In China platforms themselves demand payment from KOLs who publish advertising content, further driving up the price.
KOL collaborations can suit all kinds of brand objectives. We have used them to do everything from sell million-pound London apartments to conduct market research. My team and I have worked with a variety of clients to achieve their goals and going into 2021 KOLs have never been more essential to the marketing mix.
Organic Social Media.
China’s social media landscape is vast and constantly changing, which isn’t surprising as Chinese consumers each have over 9 social media accounts on average. For businesses looking to engage with Chinese audiences, there are certain platforms that remain a staple for a broad range of social media users. Here is a rundown of some of the more popular ones:WeChat: The must-have survival app in China for anyone aged 9 to 90. Encompassing functionalities for all aspects of consumers’ lives from communications to entertainment, O2O services, and eCommerce shopping using WeChat mini-programs. It operates as a semi-closed system and is a crucial content hub / CRM tool for brands.
Weibo: The original ‘Social media’ site in China, once almost wiped out by WeChat. Made a strong resurgence and offers all of the popular ‘viral’ functionalities a social app could need. Often likened by Western marketers to an Instagram-Facebook hybrid, it is a unique app that is particularly apt for generating mass awareness. Most viral videos and brand crises begin here. It also has great search marketing functions and is a go-to channel for monitoring consumer sentiment. In a long-term partnership with Alibaba, Weibo is continuously moving towards social-commerce.
LittleRedBook AKA RED: Originally a platform for grey-market buyers and sellers, RED is now arguably the most popular platform for ‘social-shopping’, where Chinese users can research, review, ﬂaunt and buy products at home and abroad. Red has most recently released small business accounts to compete with WeChat and Douyin, offering cross-border sales options at a fraction of the cost of platforms such as JD and Tmall. Although beauty, skincare, and fashion are still the key topics, RED has become a primary platform for brands in the travel, wellness, education, property, and even investment industries, due to its high percentage of affluent users.
Billibilli: This video and gaming site started as a place for anime fans to share and enjoy video and vlog content and has grown to include a community of 1 million content creators as well as professional content from a range of genres. Famous for their ‘bullet style’ comment screens they are a favourite among Gen-Z, as well as overseas student influencers. This year Bilibili has seen explosive growth and has focused both on in-house creation of series as well as strategic partnerships with BBC studios. The platform provides a wealth of ways for brands to advertise or host campaigns.
Zhihu: is an AMA (Ask Me Anything) platform initially created on an invite-only basis. As such, it is regarded as having a ‘higher quality’ of social media users, featuring industry and academic experts, as well as a higher proportion of overseas users. Content available includes articles, white papers, eBooks, videos, and online podcast/ seminars, much of which is on a pay to play basis.
The unique environment makes Zhihu a great place for consumer research, testimonial sourcing, thought leadership promotion, and the selling or promotion of training/ thought leadership content.
Kuaishou: One of the key competitors to Douyin, Kuaishou short video, and live-streaming has grown massively throughout 2020 and is close on the heels of Douyin in terms of consumer base and marketing opportunities. Consumers here do tend to be from lower-tier cities, but recent studies suggest GenY and GenZ audiences in these cities have more disposable income than their core or 1st tier city counterparts.
Prior to 2017, PPC was the main focus of Baidu and as such not only were PPC ads harder to distinguish from organic search results but investing in organic SEO rankings was also less helpful for companies.
That all changed after a series of scandals which resulted in Baidu shifting its focus. Now paid ads are easier to spot and Baidu has rejuvenated its SEO model.
To gain decent SEO rankings there are a few things companies need to do:
1. Make sure your company is hosted in Mainland China (if you have a physical address in China and can get an ICP license) or in Hong Kong/ Macau.
2. Use only one domain for all pages.
3. Make sure you write your website in Simplified Chinese. Traditional Chinese has lower-ranking results and English is even more poorly ranked.
4. Use meta description tags on your site, unlike Google, Baidu uses these to decide on rankings.
5. Make sure your title tag includes the company name.
6. Establish a library of quality backlinks on quality Chinese sites.
7. Encourage positive 3rd party content on Baidu owned sites such as Zhihu, Baidu Tieba, etc.
8. Conduct weekly/ monthly keyword search audits and update your website accordingly. You want to make sure you are getting the most out of hot topics/ consumer trends.
Although SEO doesn’t provide the near-instant results a PPC campaign will, it goes a long way to establishing trust with Chinese consumers and can be great for long-term brand positioning. If you're considering organic SEO you’ll need to invest at least 9-12 months of consistent effort to gain a strong, stable ranking.
I’ve talked a lot about the importance of strategy and content. The reason for this is because if I have learned anything in the 8+ years I have been engaging with the China market, it is that real, well-researched, and accurate strategy is something a lot of companies fail to invest in. It is often this oversight that ends up costing them.
When it comes to strategy and content there are two things to keep in mind, firstly it is that nowhere changes as fast as China does. Consumer behaviour, channel usage, and content trends shift sharply, so much so that in China marketers look at ‘generations’ not using GenY, GenZ as Western businesses do, but split consumers up into 10-year, and increasingly 5-year intervals, e.g. Post-90s, Post-95s, Post-00s. So it is not enough to have a well-founded strategy going into the market, you have to keep reviewing and reworking your strategy, independent yet aligned to what your brand is doing globally.
2. Activating the right channels at the right time for the right audience
is the simple secret to success in Chinese marketing, but it is much easier said than done. To achieve this you need an intimate understanding of the habits and triggers of your Chinese audience as well as the entire Chinese marketing landscape.
Don’t be swayed by what everyone is talking about, or feel tempted to play safe and adopt a strategy just because it appears to be working OK for your competitors. Your magic mix will look quite different, besides Chinese consumers often reward those brave enough to do something first, even if it is not done perfectly.
3. Team management
Your teams, distributors, customer service providers, and sales agents are all key touch-points that many of your customers will come across at some stage of their journey.
Cross-cultural team management is no mean feat, separated by space, time, language, and culture it can be difficult to establish effective communication, and especially when it comes to agents and distributors brands are often kept in the dark about activations/ content produced in-market.
Gaining a professional as well as cultural understanding of the Chinese market will go a long way to improving team management, but it takes time to accumulate all the required nuances.
This is probably why over the years one of the key tasks my team and I have been given was to provide senior management with transparency, insight, and unbiased feedback into in-market or global Chinese marketing activities/ sales activations/ ops processes, etc. with the aim of creating a bridge of communication, as well as professional support for Chinese teams/ distributors and stakeholders.
Teams in China have vital insights and knowledge they can provide, the skill is in being able to train these insights and efforts so that they fit seamlessly into the core brand positioning and values. As I mentioned previously when talking about ‘glocalisation’, poor team management often leads to the feeling that the brand is ‘running away with itself’, owners can find themselves struggling to avoid complete localisation of the brand, which can improve sales in the short-term but usually leads to diminished brand equity in the long-term, making it harder to continue competing in-market.
4. Social Listening
Social listening is another hidden gem that most companies ignore or undervalue. Social listening can not only give you amazing, up-to-date feedback on the best topics, content styles, and campaign hooks to achieve your objectives.
Not only that, but social listening allows you to spot the icebergs before they hit, address potential issues before they escalate, reward engaged audiences turning them into brand advocates, and convert missed opportunities. Many PR crises that have occurred in China could have been solved before they started had social listening been in place.
5. Community management
There is no ‘social media’ without your social community. Brands and influencers have taught us the effectiveness and importance of creating an engaging dialogue on digital channels. Treating audiences as customers and engaging them in a humanistic, brand-relevant way can really boost your performance.
To learn more about community management, check out this video of me interviewing the wonderfully talented community builder. Sherry from our client services team, below.
6. Measurement and benchmarking
Measurement and benchmarking aren’t just about setting targets, it is about creating MEANINGFUL, REALISTIC, and EFFECTIVE targets. What these are will vary widely depending on your industry, market maturity, and ultimate objectives. Remember that the ‘value’ of certain KPI changes massively depending on the channel (for example most Chinese marketers will tell you that one WeChat follower is 10-20x more valuable than a Weibo follower). So don’t set similar targets for each channel.
You should also benchmark against your competition and your stakeholders to make sure you are steadily increasing your market share and to encourage your teams to look out for inspiration, new trends, and ideas within your industry.
In this guide, I have tried to cover a topic that, after almost a decade. I am still learning more about every day. I am sure there are many things I could cover in more detail, but I hope I have provided you with all the information you need to hit the ground running. Or, at least a checklist for you to reference as you move forward on your China journey.
If you do want to learn more about certain things covered in this guide, look out for our webinars, training materials, and events, or better yet subscribe to our mailing list to know exactly what trends and channels are on our minds right now.
Domenica Di Lieto