How China’s oldest beer brand Harbin Beer has won over young males through eSports

Harbin Beer has collaborated with eSports in China to engage young men

China’s oldest beer brand Harbin has won over the elusive audience of males aged 18 – 29 through a series of collaborations and sponsorships of China’s eSports teams.

The Anhueser-Busch InBev-owned brand has targeted the rapidly emerging sport over the last few years in a bid to engage with young audiences after research revealed its huge popularity with Chinese men aged 18 – 29.

Harbin has sponsored eSports events, teams, and this year it sponsored five Chinese teams creating the Harbin Beer eSports Legion. The Drum spoke with Joseph Lee, senior marketing director of mainstream brands for AB InBev APAC North, about why the beer brand got involved in eSports and how the association is impacting the brand in China.

“Back in 2015, we started a passion points study to understand 18-29 year old male and we learned that beside food, traditional sports and music, this group really likes eSports. In fact, they had the highest affinity rate with eSports, which was very surprising to me at the time, ” says Lee.

“For the FMCG sector, eSports was still rather strange and many marketing people, possibly beyond the level of GM, may have no knowledge or understanding of eSports. However, we realised we needed to step into this area to target young men.”

Harbin sponsored a one-hour live stream of an eSports event and leveraged its involvement with free giveaways to consumers. Lee said the company noticed “a lot of traction between our brand and the consumers. It was our first attempt and it seemed like it was working.”

With a successful first attempt under their hats, and eSports experiencing a rapid rate of growth in China, Harbin returned the following year with a bigger investment by sponsoring one of the eSports Dota teams.

“It was amazing. We saw even more interaction between our brand and the consumers, and we saw a lot of consumers creating UGC, and create a language for us, creating slogans and taking our slogan, ‘Happy Together’ to create content, language and discussions. We also saw our volumes increase by ten times more than normal so we could see it was doing well.”

This year, Harbin sponsored the entire China Team for the TI7, which is the World Cup for eSports, as well as sponsoring five teams - LGD, VG, iGV, Newbee and iG - under the Harbin eSports Legion. The activity coincided with the brand's historic high in terms of brand metrics across 24 cities in China.

Lee says the aim of the eSports involvement is to build stronger brand recognition and IP so that Harbin is recognised as part of the structure of eSports and not just as a team sponsor.

“We are hoping that we can build an IP instead of just saying that we are a sponsor of IPA and Dota. We are trying to create our own IP, through Harbin eSports Legion, because we are sponsoring the five top teams and all of the five top teams are under the Harbin eSports Legion. We want to do this because people don’t really remember who the sponsors are, but if do it for 3 years or 5 or even 10 years people will remember it.”

Harbin has the advantage of being one of the first brand movers in China’s eSports sector, while there are a few international brands involved, such as Red Bull, BMW and Sprite, many are still yet to embrace the sport.

“Not many other brands yet but I think many brands can see the opportunity but whether they know how to get involved is another story. We do see some good cases though, such as Red Bull.

“Being the first mover is very important and continuing to do what we are doing is also very important. Consumers embrace our brand more and they are expecting what we will do next. In the first year it was the live stream, then sponsoring one of the teams and right now the total league. We always have to give something fresh and something new that they couldn’t imagine so that they will continue to love our brand even more, so we are having a headache trying to think what we will do next,” says Lee.

With eSports exploding globally - the eSports ad industry is expected to surge from $280m in 2016 to more than $1bn by 2021 – and China showcasing a huge appetite for content, Harbin’s involvement is a savvy strategy for the future.

As one of the world’s most competitive markets, China’s size and scale makes it a challenging battleground for all brands, however, the lack of distribution deals for beer companies, which require store by store distribution, rather than account based sales makes it particularly difficult.

AB InBev currently has the third largest market share in China behind market leader Snow, which has 25% share, and Tsingtao. However, overall, it has been a difficult time for beer brands in China where the market is stagnant.

“Beer in China is not growing. Last year the market declined 4% although this year it is quite stable, we don’t have final numbers yet but it seems to be quite stable. We are confident that is should be able to turn around,” says Lee.

Perhaps because of the increased market competition, Harbin has sought to embrace innovative new strategies in a bid to stand out, however despite its increased investment in eSports, it is still only a portion of its overall marketing efforts, which still require more traditional approach.

“eSports is one of the big parts of our marketing and hopefully one day it will become one of our biggest campaigns, but right now it is not yet there. If eSports becomes more acceptable for older people and for females then we can make it become a big campaign, says Lee.

“With traditional media, like TV commercials, and all the things we do, there is no communication possibility. We push our message to the consumer and we hope you like it and that’s it. With eSports there is a lot of interaction starting with the game and live streaming and our team members who reply to the consumers. It is very interactive and people feel they are speaking to someone real and they understand the brand, so it’s very different.”

For Lee, eSports is the best fit for the brand to create affinity and engagement with young men, and hopefully this will extend to women as well as the game grows.

“We are the first beer brand that is 100% devoted to targeting young people. We spare no efforts in targeting people who have different interests, whether it is music or eSports. We believe young people no longer focus on boring TVCs, as many are not watching TV any longer. We believe that a good platform with good content is the best way to target young people.”

“eSports is in an infant period now in China, but one day it will be very strong and as the first brand engaged with this we hope it will be very successful,” says Lee.

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Danielle Long

Danielle Long is APAC Correspondent for The Drum with a remit to cover news from China, Australia and New Zealand. Danielle has 15 years experience as a marketing journalist and has worked on publications in the UK and Australia. She has interviewed some of the world’s leading marketing, advertising and creative brains and has written about almost every standout brand and marketing campaign from the last 15 years.

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