The Alibaba 11.11 festival is huge, at writing it is half way through the shopping day for 2016 and the latest count is that a record $12bn had been spent so far.
This year the marketing machine behind the sales day went into overdrive, enlisting Katy Perry for its TV extravaganza, hosting an eight-hour-long shoppable fashion show online, as well as turning to cutting edge technology like VR and AR and taking it the masses.
For the breed of marketer that likes a big budget, a bigger target audience and no limits in pushing the boundaries for innovation, this is the dream job and it's held by Chris Tung, chief marketing officer at the Chinese retail giant.
Tung spoke to The Drum in the middle of the preparations for this year’s festival. What’s most striking about Tung's experience of the 11.11 festival is not what’s happening now, but its journey. It's pivoted from a quirky sales idea around catering to single people on Chinese valentine's day, to what is now Alibaba’s ambition to be benchmarked next to Christmas and Chinese New Year as a family festival.
“We want to change it from being about singles day to family fun, where you can buy from global markets. We want it to become a family festival like a Chinese New Year or Christmas,” he says, “It’s something that people will benchmark with Christmas hopefully.”
Alibaba 11.11 2016
Alibaba effectively has ambitions to become entwined in global culture, but a culture that exists around a trend that it sees most potently in China - upgrade consumption. As China’s middle class is growing, there’s a need for people to get information and entertainment around how they get to the next level of consumption. This is the foundation of the family festival, with TV galas and AR games, that Alibaba has planned as a longterm strategy.
“11.11 has a lot of our long-term strategy for internationalisation and upgrade consumption. It is a lot to do with creating a platform for global brands. Internally 11.11 is a big enabler to drive ourselves to another level for years to come. It’s why we always think big and work hard to make a difference. I think essentially from a marketing standpoint we want to make a festival that after years, we are in no doubt of wanting to have a Christmas of the west and Chinese New Year in China. It will be more fun each year and we’ll have more global brands involved each year,” he explains.
The scale of consumers in China that are ready to shop online means this has already taken over the pre-Christmas holiday shopping sales days in the West - Black Friday and Cyber Monday. However, Alibaba isn’t just looking to create a domestic festival. This year the activity spilled into Greater China and even countries in Southeast Asia like Singapore and Malaysia, allowing people to buy from the sale elsewhere.
One challenge surrounding this will be its branding. In China it’s moved to Alibaba’s preferred name of 11.11, which reflects the date it’s held each year. Elsewhere in the world, it’s Singles Day moniker persists.
“The key strategy behind everything we do right now based on insights and we are long gone versus Singles Day in China. We do have a high recall in markets beyond China because the story of Singles Day story is so memorable. For partners and brands all over the world there is a residue memory of Singles Day. My intent is to talk about this festival as the 11.11 festival this year,” he adds.
Forming an important part of translating this ‘internationalisation’ of the festival is the technology that Alibaba is weaving into its strategy at every moment. As well as the live catwalk show that allowed people to save items ready to buy on sale day, the retailer used VR to let shoppers in China walk round virtual stores for its Western partner brands like Macy's.
“We’re doing something pretty innovative. From a marketing perspective, it is a very engaging integration of entertainment and shopping. We want to demonstrate that AR and VR is not just code, tech or a buzzword that people keep talking about on techy journals. We want to bring it to life in a fun way that people find unique as an experience for online shopping, there should be no borderline between entertainment and shopping.
This is where Alibaba’s marketing is so interesting, all of it is trying to prove a point or a thesis about people or technology. It is unashamedly trying to sell product too but it’s also making a point about where we’re headed as consumers.
Beyond 11.11 Alibaba’s globalisation efforts will be most keenly felt in Southeast Asia, in terms of where it’ll first go head-to-head with Western rivals like Amazon. Via its Southeast Asian ecommerce business Lazada, Alibaba just got into grocery shopping in the region as Lazada bought Singapore’s Redmart. Almost within the same day, Amazon announced it’d be launching in Singapore before looking at other Southeast Asian markets. If Alibaba wants to be as big as Christmas, Amazon could have its work cut out.