Alibaba’s appearance at the Cannes Lions festival last week saw its chief marketing officer fly into the south of France for the first time in the hopes of wooing swathes of Western marketers to its new advertising platform, Uni Marketing.
Getting CEOs to understand exactly what Alibaba does for brands outside of China is still a hurdle and has been the key focus of its London office since it was set up two years ago. But with the roll out of what it dubs a “unique” ad offering, the e-commerce giant is now looking to attract CMOs with the promise of being a “collaborative” partner rather than a closed data marketplace like Amazon, to which it is so often compared.
It kicked off the week-long industry event revealing it had inked a deal with Publicis Group, giving the French advertising giant the keys to the vast amounts of data Alibaba carries on half a billion shoppers as well as users of Youku (Chinese version of YouTube), which it owns, and Weibo (Chinese-version of Twitter) in which is has a majority stake.
This, in essence, is the Uni Marketing framework: “a system that leverages the multi-dimensional data around our shoppers to help build brands in a different way,” chief marketing officer Chris Tung explained to The Drum.
Alibaba is pitching it to Western businesses as a way to understand the behavioural patterns of Chinese consumers to advertise more effectively against them. Marketers can come in through one of four key pillars, the first of which is the ‘Brand Databank’ where Alibaba aggregates all the consumer data it has across its platforms, analyses it and then turns it into insights for brands to work against.
The Brand Databank also acts as the base for the three other parts of Uni Marketing: Uni Strategy (which “provide a complete picture of consumer behavior” across touchpoints”), Uni Communication (a media planning and ad-serving tool which pulls information from across leading online Chinese media and feeds it back into the databank) and Uni Operation (where brands can create and deliver personalised content and manage consumer relationships across Alibaba touchpoints).
There is also Uni Desk, an advertising planning and serving system that allows media agencies to leverage the Alibaba database as a DMP to service clients.
“It’s a co-creation process between agency, Alibaba and advertiser for a much more targeted and better ROI type of advertising,” said Tung, saying it can plot a consumer’s “life journey” with any brand and tell advertisers how to personalise their comms and target the ad or other form of content accordingly.
“You’re talking about having access to not just the most powerful data in China, but in the world. I call it a GPS system. The old way of doing marketing is like working with submarine radar; you’re looking at a small screen and the definition isn’t high enough. Only when the ship comes into radar can you see it. So, you think you’re targeting people and you find some advertising to get there. But now we have a GPS system that looks at the whole universe and has a broader and deeper understanding of customers behaviours and form meaningful segments. The visibility is much higher for the brands.”
Aside from the landmark deal with Publicis, Alibaba has also been working directly with global FMCG-companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and L’Oreal for the past six months on what it claims is brand building activity, rather than pure performance marketing (which much of its advertising efforts had focused on to date). So, even if a brand doesn’t actually sell products on Alibaba it can, Tung claimed, still expect to reaps the rewards from spending ad budgets with it.
“There’s a mobile phone maker that launched its 7th generation last year,” hinted Tung, declining to name the brand directly. “[Alibaba] helped it to really locate consumers that would buy the 7th generation phone. We helped accumulate 3 million leads for it. That’s a big asset.”
The proximity Alibaba has to a shopper’s buying behaviour and visibility on the where, when and what content they are watching with is rivalled only by Amazon, which has also been working hard to bolster its own advertising offering.
But unlike Amazon, Alibaba isn’t actually selling its own wares on the marketplace and so claims a certain level of impartiality that it believes advertisers will warm to.
“We are running a totally different marketplace to Amazon. We’re supporting our partners to build their brands through our data capability. And so, the key words from Alibaba, are that we’re open, collaborative and can make it easy to do business anywhere,” he said.
Indeed, several agency executives The Drum spoke to at Cannes were keen to get involved with Alibaba. The global managing director at another French advertising company, Havas, mused to The Drum that this was the first year at Cannes where the presence of Chinese companies could be acutely felt.
“Alibaba has showcased its big data offer to help [advertisers] understand every stage of the purchase funnel, and the patterns and behaviours of their hundreds of millions of consumers. They are not there to copy and paste. They are here to innovate and lead the next step of the industry, which is literally the merging of marketing and commerce. They are the forefront of it,” Dominique Delport said.
“The positioning is different [to Amazon]. Amazon is very impressive in its model, but obviously as Jeff Bezos [Amazon chief executive] said, your margin is my opportunity. Alibaba has a different approach that is more holistic and harmonious in the Chinese way – more ying and yang. It’s a much more partner-led approach and it seems to work.”
Meanwhile, WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell – who has been vocal in the threat that Amazon poses – said that ‘caution’ is not a word he associates with the Chinese giant.
“Chris Tung did a presentation at our Stream conference and I didn’t hear caution. I heard 49% growth; selling $16bn worth of stuff in one day [Singles Day]. If that’s caution I’d like to have a little bit of it,” Sorrell added.
But, there is caution. Other executives The Drum spoke to have said that while collaboration with platforms like Alibaba is always welcome, they are aware of just how quickly (and easily) the switch can be flipped from friend to foe.
According to eMarketer, Alibaba took 40.3% of all money brands spent on mobile advertising in China in 2016, the equivalent to $11bn (£8.6bn). Come 2019, that figure is expected to soar to about $24.1bn.
Little surprise then that Alibaba currently has a team of 500 people dedicated to working on Uni Marketing, “a commitment no other company [has shown] to marketing innovation” while it’s investing heavily in scaling the platform globally, namely in South East Asia and Russia where its e-commerce platform is popular.
And marketers should now get used to seeing Alibaba at industry events. Tung said its top executives are set to appear at any advertising event or conference where brand marketers will be attending in force, like Cannes, over the coming years as it doubles down on efforts to promote the platform.