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Win your market on China’s Singles Day

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Emerging Communications on the investment that Chinese brands and retailers put into consumers and their marketing practice

In a pre-campaign livestreaming performance this year, Alibaba’s Singles Day has officially been launched, and the big winners are Viya and Li Jiaqi (aka Austin Li), two of China’s most famous livestreamers. During their October 20 livestream session, the power duo sold $3.1bn (20bn yuan) in GMV – nearly 10% of the entire 2020 Singles Day Event.

Singles Day is a national occasion, a festival about much more than the opportunity to acquire bargains. It started as an event for single people, but has grown to incorporate the entire population. Planning begins many months in advance by brands and retailers that compete in generating the most spectacular and biggest surprises that are about entertainment and creating consumer connections, as well as sales through immediate commercial opportunity.

The public look forward to November 11 with great anticipation, and often spend large amounts of time researching money-saving opportunities, and then broadcasting their strategies on social media followed by boasting of their acquisitions. It becomes a competition to demonstrate who has the best plan, and who has bought most wisely. This behavior is widespread.

Brand and retailer activity

Brands and retailers put significant creativity into Singles Day campaigns, with a heavy emphasis on competitions – some with major prizes. Marketing engagement rates in the lead-up to the event are extraordinarily high via sophisticated use seeding, gamification, influencers, social media and other online messaging.

A key element of the event that can be usefully learned by marketers from outside China is that it is not treated as an isolated day of sales or promotional activation. It is integral to complex omnichannel strategies. This, in turn, is based in acquiring a very detailed understanding of consumers, which enables brands and retailers to create highly-targeted and relevant customer propositions, with buying journeys to match.

Marketers often use a wide variety of communication options confident of high conversion rates. Livestream demonstrations and selling is highly effective, and popular with the public, as is gamification. KOCs (Key Opinion Consumers) or celebrity influencer messaging and peer-to-peer-based offers on social media are also used. Frequently, these channels will be used to promote creative in-store experiences such as augmented reality (AR) games, or the unveiling of limited-edition offers and product launches.

What drives the seamless and accurate brand promise and customer journey building that is common to nearly all brands and retailers in China is having detailed knowledge of target consumers – what they will buy, why and what buying experience they want. Companies use deep learning through social media listening, data analyses, focus groups, behavior tracking and listening and testing via social media community management. These processes are used intensely on a continuous basis. It enables marketers to generate accurate sales propositions throughout the year, including Singles Day, New Year, Golden Week, Valentine’s Day and other calendar events.

A good example of putting customer understanding and service at the heart of a company is that of retail giant JD. It employs 16,380 staff in its research, design and operations department. They employ a variety of tools to gather, analyse and track information including artificial intelligence (AI), big data, cloud functions and image recognition. This builds detailed pictures of customer psychographics, and enables the company to create accurately targeted marketing and matching buyer experiences. The result last year for JD on Singles Day was more than £29bn in sales.

Games for successful engagement

Gamifying shopping on Singles Day, and in the lead-up to it, has become hugely popular. Last year Taobao (approximately similar to eBay) created a skyscraper building game that allowed players to qualify for coupons, and it was reported to have been played by more than 400 million users.

Such games attract huge numbers of consumers seeking discounts or winning vouchers, and special offers featured within games. This year an estimated £100m will be given away in coupons, with JD and Alibaba each saying they are distributing more than £22m through games, or as incentives to get friends and family to play and buy together.

It is not just Chinese brands that have learned how to successfully generate high levels of engagement to produce impressive financial returns. Although western brands are notoriously slow to learn in China, and some never do, Estée Lauder was one of the top-selling brands in the lead-up to and on Singles Day last year.

The brand created an integrated digital communications strategy with a mix of celebrities, outdoor media and use of KOCs and KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). Celebrities were employed to build consumer reach, and fuel excitement using key social media platforms. One response was, ‘Let’s make a Single Day record,’ urging peers to buy Estée Lauder products to show support for the brand’s chosen heartthrob celebrity.

However, the communication used was more sophisticated than simply hiring well-known personalities and putting them before audiences for endorsement purposes. In the lead-up to Singles Day, they were used for interaction with target consumer groups, and this in turn was supported by outdoor advertising. Celebrities were also used to anchor livestream selling and promotions broadcasts on the Taobao platform.

Estée Lauder also employed a marketing tactic that is being used much more this year. It promoted pre-event selling, and in its case took early orders from fans of both the brand and the celebrities involved. On TMall alone, more than £51m in sales was recorded in the first 25 minutes of opening the offer.

By comparison to the level of commitment that goes into the Chinese shopping festival, Black Friday is a relatively straightforward discount promotion-based event. To drive sales in China, marketers have to become more inventive in creating engagement. It requires significant commitment in consumer insight in order to understand the most effective propositions and communication.

The investment that Chinese brands and retailers put into learning pays off in markets where marketing practice is five-to-10 years ahead of the west. Anyone who wants to see what the future of consumer engagement will look like should visit a Chinese Tier 1 city when travel restrictions allow.

Click here to download our guide on retail lessons from China and influencer marketing – packed full of key concepts, tips, valuable insights and strategies.

Rocky Chi, head of planning at Emerging Communications, with editorial input from Michaela Zhu.

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