This time of year in China the anticipation is building for the lunar new year celebration, which falls on Friday February 16 this year. The year of the dog is incoming, which might seem like a gift to most social media marketers given everyone’s love for all things cute and cuddly. Already there are lessons to learn for businesses in 2018 as Marriott faces anger for labeling Taiwan a country, and this year is also likely to see the rise of micro-influencer marketing in China.
Social Media in China
Influencer marketing is a dizzying prospect at the best times, but can be even more so in China where the range of popular platforms across social, shopping, video and livestreaming is crazy. Up until now, a few top influencers like Gogoboi have taken most of the brand dollars. But brands are waking up and realizing that these influencers are happy to take money from anyone and everyone, in the process diluting the potential for a genuine connection. 2018 is likely to be a big year for smaller and micro influencers in China.
Here’s a great example of how people are making crazy amounts of money in the weirdest ways. Li Jiaqi is a male beauty blogger and millionaire. Every day Li broadcasts himself trying over 300 lipsticks to his numerous fans on the Taobao shopping app. His dedication has earned him the nickname “iron-lipped brother.”
The Chinese language offers an abundance of opportunities for wordplay and fun, and boy do people online really run with it. Sixth Tone takes a small snapshot of some of last years popular sayings, including the ubiquitous “Do you freestyle?” from the online series Rap of China. With the right social media savvy slang can be a part of a brand’s online conversation, but also has the potential to make a brand look like it’s trying too hard. Authenticity and alignment are key.
Smartphones in China
Just days before CES, AT&T pulled out of a deal that would have seen Huawei phones go on sale in the US, allegedly because of political pressure and worries about Chinese espionage. Consumer products CEO Richard Yu’s speech was supposed to be Huawei’s big moment so you think they’d be, well, just a little annoyed. And judging by the end of Yu’s speech where he goes off-script and speaks from the heart, you’d be right.
Xiaomi may have been the first Chinese phone maker to successfully scale selling flagship-level tech at mid-range level price points, but OnePlus were the first to truly nail the branding too. With a strategy that ships different phones inside and outside of China, OnePlus has developed a dedicated following worldwide. Which is why when they release a phone as beautiful as the Sandstone White 5T it is gone in a flash.
Many of China’s big tech companies made their start online only, but Xiaomi has realized the value of using unique retail experiences to carve out a unique identity. It is also still very difficult to reach a truly mass market in China without retail stores. Xiaomi has diversified to producing nearly every kind of gadget imaginable, including routers, air purifiers and even drones, and now boasts over 300 stores.
Retail in China
Retail sales in China this year are expected to match or surpass the US, but the thing which probably surprises most people in China is learning that this hasn’t already happened. The explosion of e-commerce in the past few years has been breathtaking, and there is still growth to come. Economists are over the moon. Conservationists? Not so much.
Haidilao has being doing impeccable customer service since way before everyone started talking about the switch to a service economy.Wait times at the restaurants can run up to two hours, a wait which is complemented with free drinks, snacks, games and manicures. The food itself is far from the best hotpot in China, but the real secret to Haidilao’s success is a focus on creating one of the most unique service experiences around.
Marks & Spencer’s clothing offering has been horribly bland for a very long time. In its home nation of the UK, the brand has managed to set itself apart with a supermarket range that is on the premium side, and also probably the best in the country. But in China, food was a tiny part of M&S’s business as demand for the kinds of foods M&S sells is very low here. The clothing side of the business offered little to make it significantly stand out from the abundant competition Chinese consumers have to choose from, and these facts, combined with the complexity of doing business here, probably helped spell the end for the chain.
Business in China
Marriott found itself in hot water after netizens discovered an online questionnaire treated Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan and Macau as separate countries, and after one of the company’s social media accounts was found to have liked a Twitter post by a group that supports Tibetan independence. Marriott’s website was blocked in China, and there is speculation that a freeze on the company’s social media posts globally was put in place at the behest of the Chinese government. Marriott later apologised in a rather sycophantic manner. This in itself offended many of its non-Chinese customers who viewed the apology as capitulation. Marriott: Here’s your rock, there’s your hard place. Now play nicely.
After the scandal, a China-based economist pointed out on Twitter that state-owned airline Air China also labels Taiwan a country on its website. The important thing to remember is that it’s always more offensive when a foreign company does it, so be vigilant because the fenqing (youth with extreme nationalist tendencies) are waiting for you to make a mistake.
China’s economy may have exploded in the last 15 years, but social welfare hasn’t kept up. Social provisions are still inadequate which can make life feel fragile, even for the relatively wealthy. Financial Times research found that this year healthcare and education costs rank high among the concerns of well-off Chinese people, while interestingly food safety is still a key concern across all income groups. There is still an opportunity for companies operating in that space to emphasize safety, though as the market has matured on this in the last 5 years finding a distinct way to do it is key.
Society and Culture in China
File under: Increasing trend for Chinese students to return home to find jobs. Although this article focuses on tech workers, there has been a strong trend for Chinese students to return home after study in the last few years. These returnees bring with them different tastes and habits which can make them a tastemaking consumer, as returnees can drive changes in consumption patterns. In Shanghai, coffee culture has exploded in the last 3 years, some of this was driven by young people returning from overseas and bringing new habits with them.
OK, it’s time to bury the prevalent misconception that Chinese people don’t care about privacy once and for all. It’s true that when it comes to government monitoring, there is little Chinese citizens can do to affect change, so it is accepted as a part of life. But as consumers there is more freedom. Recently the chairman of car maker Geely called out Pony Ma Huateng of Tencent for “looking at our WeChats every day.” It’s actually a moot point, as Tencent by law has to store all chats in case the government wants to look at them, but the exchange has resulted in more discussion of privacy. Ant Financial also got in trouble with consumers for automatically enrolling them in a social credit scheme without asking permission. Finally on this topic, a study by China Consumers’ Association found that the number one concern of consumers is having their personal information leaked, that’s from March 2017.
The takeaway is clear: consumer awareness of data privacy is rapidly building in China and businesses ignore it at their peril.