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‘Localization is just not enough’: brands’ new rules of engagement in China

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By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

May 27, 2022 | 7 min read

The relationship between Chinese and western brands is at an interesting juncture. Chinese brands such as TikTok and Shein are breaking through both locally and globally, while traditional tactics for western properties in China are failing. How can brands navigate this thicket? We asked eight experts from the APAC chapter of The Drum Network about the new balance of power, the evolution of the Chinese market and the smart ways for brands of every stripe to operate in the region.

The Shanghai skyline

We ask experts in the nuances between China and the west about China’s current brand environment / Li Yang via Unsplash

Every global brand has to grapple with the world’s multiplicity: cultural differences between markets; disparities in infrastructure; and basics such as language and currency. Cross-cultural agency Tong knows this as well as anyone. “A big part of what we do is helping brands think through how global their global agendas are,” says co-founder Adam Knight. Trouble is, “sometimes those global agendas aren’t necessarily global.” Missteps and scandal can follow.

Going into China, this can take on a specific dimension. Officials will often take a look at creative, and may not approve it. Xixi You, account director at Croud, recalls one piece of creative being rejected because of a dispute about its depiction of the Chinese border. “Just a small mistake can ruin your campaign,” she says.

‘Localization is just not enough’

But the challenges that western brands face when entering the Chinese market run deeper. We’re used to hearing that Chinese audiences are turning toward home-grown brands. The reason, says Emerging Communications’ head of planning Rocky Chi, isn’t simple nationalism, but that “Chinese brands are rising in the quality of service and how they innovate themselves compared to other global brands ... they’re keeping up with the target audience – meeting their expectations and going beyond their expectations.”

Expectations are higher and, as Chi says, “now China is the global frontier” in tech and customer relationship management. The upshot is that “localization is just not enough”; brands must tailor their approach to the Chinese market or they’ll fall short of those customer expectations.

Out with localization; in with ‘transcreation,’ ‘hyperpersonalization’ and ‘hyperlocalization.’ It’s time, our panel says, to jettison the idea of unified national identities in favor of data-backed understandings of real audiences in all their variety. Global playbooks and straightforward translations just won’t cut it. As Eugene Ng, executive creative director at Jack Morton, says: “Most of the time when we receive playbooks from global guidelines, we chuck them away and come up with something new for ourselves, to make sure that they resonate emotionally and culturally with the local market.” The key, says Across the Pond’s managing director in China Wei Li, is “not only understanding the language but being deeply valuable to the market.”

But therein lies an opportunity. As Bob Du, Jellyfish’s managing director in Singapore, has it: “If you have the ability to think critically about how your brand works in that evolving environment, both culturally and technologically, it will require you to really prioritize investments and decisions and make smarter decisions based on data and technology.”

Marketing as an operational unit

One upshot is a developing nuance between Chinese and the western conceptions of marketing’s role. For Nicolle Jayne Sing, APAC business director for social experts The Goat Agency, while western marketing remains “led by brand comms from a narrative standpoint,” Chinese marketing is increasingly seen “not from a brand or creative standpoint” but prioritizing “CRM, on-ground feedback cycles, customer recovery ... that entire ecosystem is now baked into marketing. It’s marketing as an operational unit.”

This reflects a global change, says Foolproof’s global head of practice Leslie Fountain. As brands have gone hard on ‘purpose,’ there’s been a corresponding growth in audiences’ scepticism to product authenticity. “Brands have less power globally,” she says. It’s becoming harder to rely on brand alone – in part because, as Ng says, “customers can smell bullshit ... they have a mind of their own, so it’s not so much about selling an aspiration but really speaking to what actually speaks to them the most.”

Developing relationships with customers is the name of the game in this new era – hence the focus on operations, service design, social listening and data – and here, China leads the world. That sophistication, from a simple tech stack perspective, can mean that the barriers to entry in China can now be significant, says Du. As a result, he argues that more brands should be adopting APAC-first strategies: “If you solve for the diversity in this region, it could make your life easier than solving for the rest of the world.”

An example never far from the mind in these conversations is Shein, the Chinese fast fashion retailer that’s enjoyed global success in the past couple of years thanks in part to frequent viral successes on (another Chinese platform) TikTok. On the surface, Shein presents a paradox: we’re constantly told that gen Z cares about ethical consumption and the environment above all else, but the brand’s been wildly popular with that demographic despite well-known environmental issues. For Sing, the answer is that they’ve got the basics right, while deploying intelligently on the right platforms: “Really good pricing, really good quality and a whole bunch of reviews that tell me whether it’s good or not.”

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Jellyfish

Jellyfish is a marketing performance company for the platform world, where success demands a creative, multi-platform mindset. We help brands thrive, by navigating, connecting, and harnessing the platforms that drive growth.

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Across the Pond

We’re a global, independent creative agency helping tech brands create a better world. How? We make the complex, human.

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Emerging Communications

Our mission is to fuel the growth of world-leading brands by building profitable relationships with Chinese audiences globally. Our unique insights into Chinese consumers, social themes, market trends and digital landscapes drive potent campaigns that successfully target, engage and sell.

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TONG

TONG is a cross-cultural consultancy, creative agency, and social commerce platform with the goal of positioning brands with a new generation of global Chinese consumers and tastemakers. Our team of bilingual experts headquartered in London are driven by research, innovation and a passion for consumer culture. We surface unseen attitudes and behaviours, tracking emerging trends and harnessing market shifts in order to push creative and digital frontiers for organisations such as BAFTA, Chelsea FC, Estee Lauder, Heathrow Airport, and Fortnum & Mason.

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The Goat Agency

We’re the leading global social media marketing agency powered by influencers. We pride ourselves in bringing together data-led performance, real human relationships, expert creative strategy, authentic, engaging content and laser-sharp paid media targeting.

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Jack Morton

No one sets out to be average. No one aspires to be ordinary. Jack Morton is an award-winning global brand experience agency that exists to reimagine what an experience can be. We do that by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in every format — virtual, live or hybrid.

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Foolproof

We are specialists in experience design. We create value for you by creating value for your customers.

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Croud

Croud is is a global, full-service, digital marketing partner for some of the world’s leading brands. Through the seamless connection of data, technology and creativity, we develop strategies for sustainable growth that drive immediate business impact.

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