Brand Purpose State of the Nation China

State of the Nation: As China opens up brands need to get outdoors too

By Yi Ji, senior business director

February 21, 2023 | 7 min read

As China reopens and people get back outside, brands have an opportunity to join them and engage them through innovative, technology-driven activations. In the latest State of the Nation, Yi Ji, senior business director at 160over90, an Endeavor company writes that China has always valued face-to-face interaction and, after recent years, it's more valuable than ever.

Shanghai's Nanjing Road filled with pedestrians at night

In the last few months - and at what can only be described as ‘China speed’ - the second largest economy in the world has gone from the stranglehold of the zero-Covid policy to zero-Covid…literally. The lockdown times are well and truly in the rear-view mirror.

Everyone is trying hard to forget what a challenging year 2022 was, witness to multiple lockdowns across major cities and the tightening up of restrictions across the nation. But it’s worth taking the time to remember, as lean times are the best times to learn. And there were plenty of takeaways.

52% of brands in China cut budgets in 2022. What money was being spent saw a shying away from outdoor advertising and the experiential space, and a further shift to online as the main consumer engagement battlefield. As a nation increasingly more online and made up of digital natives, it’s a shift that makes sense, right? Not so fast.

China is a country that has always valued face-to-face interaction, and this extends to the world of marketing. While online channels have grown in importance over the past few years, offline activations still offer a unique opportunity for brands to connect with consumers. Furthermore, in a time when many are feeling isolated and disconnected, offline activations can provide a much-needed sense of community and connection. Through our experiences and observations working with brands, those who continue to voice out in the experiential space still receive positive reward.

All of this, however, depends on an intelligent strategy and a more advanced game plan. Chinese consumers are sophisticated and discerning; they seek meaningful and lasting experiences. This requires brands to carefully consider the type of activation they create and the message they wish to convey.

The recent FIFA World Cup in Qatar took place at the tail end of the pandemic, with travel still limited from China. Visa responded by building a virtual tour, designed to include those who were not able to be physically present at the onsite experience. Utilising virtual reality and other innovative technologies, Visa was able to provide an immersive experience that allowed clients to feel as though they were at the event, a part of the overall journey and experience. This not only strengthened the relationship between Visa and their clients, but also positioned Visa as a brand that is at the forefront of innovation and technology, in a country where that is paramount. To borrow from football terminology, Visa hit the back of the net here.

Chinese consumers are highly receptive to new technology, and there is a growing appetite for immersive experiences that blur the lines between physical and digital worlds. Brands that can create innovative, technology-driven activations are likely to have a significant impact on Chinese consumers, and the use of virtual and augmented reality in offline activations is an area that we expect to see significant growth in.

While we’re still (virtually) in Qatar, it’s worth taking note of another trend… and one that was impossible to ignore at the FIFA World Cup. It was an important tournament for Chinese brands, who went international in a more confident and sophisticated way than ever before - the likes of Mengniu, Hisense, and Vivo becoming Official Sponsors, taking pride of place on advertising hoardings during games, and being beamed into billions of homes and phones globally.

It’s a phenomenon we have seen replicated across major sporting events, from the Asian Games to the Olympics, and one we can expect to see more of as Chinese brands look ever outward.

Closer to home, the situation surrounding the China International Import Expo (CIIE) inspired some imaginative and successful offline activations. Also taking place during the tail end of the pandemic, many brands had to shift their focus online. However, brands with an established offline presence used it to their advantage by building up offline appearances to provide online content and engagement. Many set up booths that allowed users to interact with products and receive giveaways (China sure does love a giveaway), which were then shared on social media platforms. These efforts resulted in higher engagement rates and stronger brand awareness.

There are countless more examples of successful offline activations, ranging from HSBC's Badminton tournaments, which helped position HSBC as a brand that understands and supports the local culture and community, to The Macallan Experience, which was a masterclass in immersive brand storytelling, appealing to the educated, urban, high-end China market, and generating significant buzz and social media coverage as a result.

With China opening to the world once again and more competition for consumer attention, brands will need to work harder to stand out - a sophisticated strategy that takes the needs and preferences of Chinese consumers into account is essential for success. While online channels continue to grow, offline activations offer a unique opportunity to create an experience that is meaningful, memorable, and authentic, for brands to create a lasting connection with Chinese consumers that will pay handsome dividends in the long term.

Yi Ji is senior business director at 160over90, an Endeavor company.

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