Brands in China Offer Invaluable Lessons for Your Brand Visibility, Traction and Revenue Growth
Brands in China have spent decades learning from western brand leaders but now the learning is going in both directions. China is increasingly seen as a leader when it comes to particular types of brand strategy and marketing activity.
A lot of Chinese brands have achieved enormous success without necessarily becoming household brand names in western markets like Haier or Lenovo. Consequently, they offer valuable lessons for western brands.
For those of you who still remain sceptical then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your brand strategy because the market has changed faster than you realise. If the Harvard Business Review has acknowledged that western marketers can learn from China then perhaps you can too. 
Although every market is different, there are some lessons from leading brands in China that are directly relevant for brands everywhere, B2B or B2C, product and service. Even if your brand is squarely focussed on your own local market outside China, you can still learn from some of the success of brands in China.
Below, we’re sharing some insights you may want to consider in the context of your own brand strategy because China is a fast-growing thirteen trillion-dollar market.
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1. Brands in China Really Take a Digital First Approach
A lot of western brands talk about being digital first. In reality, they often have a multichannel strategy where digital is at best first among equals. Many brands talk about a digital first approach but in fact start from a traditional brand planning approach and don’t put digital front and centre. In China, by contrast, a lot of brands use social media as the lodestar of their brand strategy and planning process and work out from there.
That isn’t just about optimizing communication for digital formats. It also involves a fundamental consideration of all the elements in your brand strategy and brand identity.
For example, brand stories and tone of voice often take on more importance in a digital world. While digital has got its limitations in some contexts it also has unparalleled reach. The other really important fact is that people have much more limited attention spans online so this means that your brand’s ‘reasons to believe’ can’t be too complicated — they need to be quickly and easily understood.
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In the digital first approach, ubiquitously evidenced in China, distribution strategy is part of the brand architecture, not an afterthought as a go to market strategy. Many brands exist only on a given social media platform and all of their distribution occurs through it.
A case study of a digital first brand in China is Meituan Dianping. It started as a restaurant review and food ordering app, similar to Just Eat in the U.K. and Ireland. However, it’s rapidly evolved into a digital “everything app”, enabling consumers to live large parts of their daily lives on its platform.
It is China’s largest e-commerce app for services, with 65% market share in China’s $45 billion food delivery market — almost twice the size of the U.S. market. It has achieved this by focussing exclusively on digital service provision: the brand only exists in the digital sphere.
An example of a western brand which is doing well in being digital first is The Athletic. The sports media platform utilises a lot of traditional media reporting formats and has a team of writers who have deep experience writing for newspapers and magazines. However, as a brand, The Athletic distinguishes itself in the crowded sports reporting area by adopting a digital first approach, where its brand is focussed purely on digital.
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2. Brands in China are so Digitally Focussed Content Marketing is Critical
Western brand owners often think of social media through certain functional silos. For example, Instagram is for photo-led content, Twitter is for text-led content, YouTube is for video-led content and so on. In China, a single dominant social media platform upends that limited approach.
That social media platform is called Weixin (WeChat). It is a one-stop platform which combines social networking (like Facebook), chat (like WhatsApp), payment (like Venmo) and retail (like Amazon).
Understanding WeChat is critical to understanding how Chinese customers make brand choices because it is a ubiquitous platform which stretches across much of their day both professionally and personally — it’s deeply embedded culturally throughout Chinese society. There is not yet an equivalent western phenomenon – Facebook comes closest but is not nearly as integrated into how people live their daily lives.
The role of WeChat has multiple implications for brand owners and marketers. It enables fast, direct to consumer communication and trade, cutting out traditional middlemen like retailers.
The downside of this digital first environment is that brand communications can drown because there are so many demands on users’ attention in one place — unless you have a very strong brand strategy.
The challenge of capturing attention so you can get prospects to follow through on a call to action, like making a purchase, has made it imperative that brand communication is highly differentiated with a strong value proposition to stand out.
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The need to consistently attract and retain attention means that content marketing has become even more critical and deeply embedded within brand strategy. Strong content marketing performs many functions simultaneously in a digitally focussed brand strategy compared to a traditional brand marketing model where it’s often treated separately or as an ‘add on’. A common example of content marketing is evidenced through brand education, brand engagement and a call to action.
In China WeChat’s digital payment function, WeChat Pay, is used at least monthly by over 900 million users, so brand owners have also had to think a lot more carefully about how to incorporate purchase transactions into their brand relationship.
A case study of a Chinese brand producing top-notch content marketing to thrive in this digital environment is Xiaohongshu. It is a luxury buying app. Producing luxury content could be costly, so Xiaohongshu relies on user-generated content to attract users without having to generate content itself. This is a smart move because it plays into the common Chinese cultural desire to show off personal success to others.
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In the West a brand which already does this reasonably well is Irish Life. Their digital brand strategy for the brand’s Health and Wellness Hub is led by content, with a focus on providing engaging content about health and wellness as a topic which is important to their target customers. This is a good demonstration, like the Xiaohongshu example, of the fact that successful content marketing does not have to be costly or especially difficult to produce.
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3. Key Opinion Leaders Help Brands in China Build Credibility
Much more so than their counterparts in western markets, Chinese brands are relying on key opinion leaders. So-called key opinion leaders (KOLs) can take a variety of different forms: they may be ordinary people, internet celebrities, celebrities more generally or people perceived to have expert knowledge. So while some KOLs have sectoral knowledge, others are micro-influencers with only limited social reach or expertise. In that sense, they are more like the modern equivalent of the Avon girl or Mary Kay representative.
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Trust can be a significant challenge in the Chinese market, with its reputation for fake products even such as fake eggs. This means that building credibility is more challenging than in most western markets because when prospects or potential customers do not trust a brand they do not buy. KOLs are seen by consumers and B2B customers as a sort of helpful filter: If they give their blessing or endorse something, it must have merit as otherwise the KOL risks their reputation.
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Livestreaming is one important manifestation of this, which has not yet really taken off to the same extent in the West. KOLs are constantly communicating with their audience, including livestreaming, to keep engagement levels high.
A case study of how this has been used by a western brand in China is fashion house Givenchy’ brand collaboration with a KOL called Mr. Bags. His online videos and reviews of luxury bags attract a huge following and lead instantly to sales and frequently sell outs with very short time frames — minutes not days!
This is also applicable for B2B. Pharma firms in China are strictly regulated, so KOLs such as doctors are a critical part of pharma firms selling into medical supply chains. Typically, pharma companies will work with practicing doctors, respected academics or influencer such as patient groups to increase understanding of the benefits their brands offer to their end audience.
While doctors typically cannot produce marketing content, the pharma company can interview them and use the interview as the basis of its content. This is optimised to work within a digital context – for example, doctors will pen pieces about a certain condition which the pharma company will then share on its WeChat or Weibo accounts.
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4. Brands in China are Increasingly Channel Specific
The old way of doing things was that a brand usually existed fairly agnostically with regard to distribution channels. Only once it got to discussion of distribution was there much discussion of how to communicate a brand in a way relevant to a given channel. Increasingly that has changed because, as mentioned above, platforms such as WeChat mean that the distribution channel has often become part of the brand itself.
In China, a lot of brands are now being designed largely or exclusively in terms of how they can exist on specific digital channels. A key example is TMall, the online marketplace of Alibaba. It includes luxury brands such as Cartier, as well as low-priced consumer brands.
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What they mostly have in common is that they are increasingly approaching their brand strategy right from the beginning with a view to how it will operate in the TMall channel. So, for example, pricing may be less critical if there are no competing sales channels, but triggers for consumer excitement such as brand stories and visual communication become even more important.
TMall provides a fascinating case study for western brand owners of how brands in China are becoming more and more channel specific. The video below provides a primer on TMall, which in 2020 is forecast to have a total transaction volume of over 400 billion euros.
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5. Flexibility to Play with Category Rules helps Brands in China Win New Markets
China entered the consumer economy fairly late so it had a lot less baggage when it came to how customers perceived the rules of certain categories. That allowed brand owners to play with established category “rules”. So for example, while in western markets certain colours in consumer goods packaging cue certain benefits like dark packaging for premiumness, and B2B branding often uses a conservative, authoritative tone of voice, in China such rules have not historically existed to the same extent.
The same is increasingly happening in western markets, as low costs to entry and online distribution have also created an environment in which a lot of traditional category rules no longer rigidly apply.
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A case study comes from the category of Chinese white spirit drinks called baiju. As such drinks tend to be premium-priced and suited for gifting occasions, they tend to be presented with colours Chinese associate with festivals, such as red and gold.
A challenger brand called Jiang Xiao Bai has been very successful with entry level pricing, radically different packaging semiotics and a tone of voice targeted at younger consumers. As well as moving into lower age groups than typical baiju brands, this also allows it to expand consumption occasions beyond festivals. In other words, Jiang Xiao Bai has done what sherry brands have failed to do in western markets in recent years.
A Western example of the same phenomenon is Dead Happy Life Insurance, who are subverting the standard branding rules of the life insurance category with a playful brand presented in an upbeat tone of voice.
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You may think that the Chinese market is another world away and has nothing to do with your brand or market. That would be somewhat short-sighted because brands in China, like those mentioned here, are blazing a digital trail with trends that will eventually become ubiquitous in the West too.
Look more closely now because they’re giving you a glimpse into a new way of doing things. There is probably something you could learn from how brands in China approach branding strategy so you can re-evaluate your own approach and, more importantly, mindset to grow your revenue.
Increasingly, they do not just talk about being digital-first but really demonstrate what that means in practice. As part of that, content marketing becomes more important. Other changes also follow: key opinion leaders become more visible, while distribution strategy is more closely tied into branding strategy.
Breaking down traditional barriers also enables more experimentation, including brand strategy which defies traditional rules. These trends may be seen in China already, but they are not just relevant for brands in China. They reflect the shifts in branding required to thrive in a digital world, wherever your brand operates.
Questions to Consider
- In what ways is your brand strategy digital first?
- How does your approach to social media get the right brand communication to your target customers at the right moment?
- What are the three most compelling pieces of content you use or could use in communicating your brand?
- How could you get more benefit from band ambassadors and key opinion leaders?
- What does your brand bring that makes it stand out in its category?
- Could you leverage the insights from a brand audit health check to make more informed decisions so you can grow your revenue and increase your market share?
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- For a more detailed list of leading Chinese brands, see KPMG’s report https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/cn/pdf/en/2018/09/leading-chinese-cross-border-brands-the-top-50.pdf