Eyes on China? Think beyond the obvious calendar dates

Alibaba’s Singles’ Day has fast become a genuine international phenomenon. The 11/11 annual event smashed sales records, generating $1bn in online sales in under a minute, and $30.8bn across the day.

The most comparable online shopping event beyond China’s borders is Black Friday, and this delivers just a fraction of these kinds of sales. And yet Black Friday has rapidly spread internationally from a post-Thanksgiving US sales event into a global online and physical retail bonanza. It’s not hard to see deal-seeking global shoppers looking to exploit similar Singles’ Day offers next year, as it becomes ever easier for people to tap into international e-commerce promotions.

And yet – Singles’ Day’s very success could be squeezing other brands out of the market. It’s an event owned by one single, large shopping ecosystem, and a very successful one at that. But its very size can be a barrier to entry. For western brands looking to attract a fraction of Singles’ Day success, simply getting involved on social channels in the country can come with a hefty price tag. It’s also not easy for brands unfamiliar with the Chinese social media landscape to think that running campaigns will be as easy as flicking the ‘on switch’ and watching the cash roll in. In our experience, it’s anything but. Simply setting up a new brand on WeChat or Weibo can take a minimum of a few weeks. This is setting aside any potential issues of brand identity or recognition in the Chinese market, which have proven already to be the downfall of many unwary western brands looking to engage in the region.

The impending Chinese New Year may seem a slam dunk for western brands to get the attention of Chinese shoppers. However, tapping into the Year of the Pig could also prove costly. For similar reasons to Singles Day, when events become well known beyond the region, the price tag for involvement can go sky high. For brands looking to make a splash in the region without breaking the bank, we often find that there are other opportunities which needn’t cost the earth, and can prove just as effective.

For a similarly themed event with Alibaba, there’s Double 12 Day, which is Singles’ Day’s little cousin. It encourages support for smaller or medium-sized brands which can struggle for standout during the 11/11 rush. Less well known outside of China’s borders – at least, for now - 12/12 gives a much more natural foothold for brands seeking to build an audience in the region, and at a lower price tag for social activity.

It’s likely that 12/12 won’t remain as accessible an option for long, especially once the secret gets out. Savvy brands need to do their research to find other opportunities to engage.

The Chinese New Year on 9 February gives the next such opportunity, however, 2019’s Year of the Pig is unlikely to prove a ‘hidden gem’ where brands can connect with customers without competing with others. Children’s Day on 1st June, the Qixi Festival (also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day) on the 7th July, the Autumn Moon Festival in September all provide alternative calendar options which brands could explore to help their social campaigns to connect. It goes without saying that more established calendar events and dates from around the world like Black Friday, Valentine’s Day and Christmas can also provide platforms.

The key to real success will always be the campaign’s relevance to targeted Chinese consumers. It’s not enough for companies looking to build an audience and a market in the region to put some yuan behind a social campaign and consider that a job well done. It’s also far from acceptable for a company to simply market to all Chinese consumers as if they represent one homogeneous mass. If we have learned anything from running campaigns into the country, it’s that it is culturally rich and diverse from one side of the country to the other. It's deceptively simple for companies beyond China’s borders to focus solely on Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai as primary target locations for consumer campaigns. Following the maths of other countries, that would be where the bulk of consumer spending power and more digitally connected consumers are based. In China, it’s almost as if the opposite is true.

The country’s second, and third tier cities represent over 90 urban areas, while over 170 locations in the country boast over a million inhabitants each. Urban development can be swift in the country – one of the established top tier cities, Shenzhen, had a population of under a million just forty years ago. That has since swelled to over ten million. Anywhere else, focusing on the top two or three cities in a country should deliver a reliable amount of reach. In China, a brand could be barely scratching the surface.

China’s economic potential and current spending power are well established, and highly attractive to overseas brands looking to expand. But in the rush to engage around the major events, brands are risking missing numerous and powerful ways to stand out, build a dedicated following of fans and set themselves up for long-term success in the country. We would advise that any marketer looking to get the most bang for their yuan could reap the rewards if they look beyond the attention-grabbing numbers of the major international events. For true engagement in China brands have to show they understand the complexities and culture of the country in more depth, and exploring other calendar events can deliver this objective, rather than jumping on big brand event bandwagons.

Jimmy Robinson is co-founder of PingPong Digital.

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