China has never been an easy place to build brands, and these days, it’s more complex than ever. Consumers are tech-savvy and bargain-hungry, navigating a digital ecosystem that’s unlike any other. Until now, there have been two different paths to success. Chinese companies have tended to focus on short-term sales versus long-term brand building. And Western companies have been better at the latter, yet somewhat less effective in achieving sales. But the future in China will belong to brands that can do both.

That’s why we’ve developed a model we call META, which stands for a Maintain, Evolve and Transform approach. Working with Alimama, Alibaba Group’s marketing technology and data platform, we created META to bridge these two approaches, blending China’s unique online and offline characteristics with enduring–even universal–brand-building tenets.

Why META?

The traditional approach to brand-building, familiar to most marketers, has four key elements: Targeting, positioning, planning and activation & engagement. All four are supported by a foundation of data and insights.

But this model hasn’t worked all that well in the Middle Kingdom, which is so different from other countries. There’s a level of strategic consumerism that’s staggering, and China is now home to the world’s largest (and fastest-growing) middle class. Digital commerce is shaping China at a scale not seen elsewhere. Singles’ Day, for example, created an astonishing $24.3 billion in sales this year, a 39 percent increase from last year. People here spend more than twice as much as Americans on e-commerce, even though their per-capita income is lower. And the B.A.T. ecosystem– Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent–dominate the digital landscape in a way that can be difficult to explain to outsiders.

Given these differences, we modified the traditional approach, based on our own experiences here as well as insights from more than 40 senior marketing executives.

What is META?

1. We need to MAINTAIN (a Universal) Brand Positioning

Positioning is the one element of the brand-building model that stays the same. A brand needs to have an underlying positioning that is true everywhere it goes. New technology doesn’t change that. But while global brands must be rooted in universal human truth, they must also be tailored to local cultures.

An impressive example of how this works is Procter & Gamble’s Pampers, which maintained its positioning—comfortable dryness—but adapted it to Chinese parents’ concerns about sleep. That comfortable dryness translated into “Sleep well, play well.”

2. We need to EVOLVE Targeting

Targeting needs to take in a greater depth of information, so we zero in on micro-segments, enabling us to change promotions, communications and even products for a more personally relevant consumer experience.

Dyson, for example, knew China presented a vast opportunity, but growth was constrained. It decided to target a smaller group, which it defined as the 10 percent of shoppers most likely to admire the sleek design of its vacuums and air filters, testing communications and offers to help it break through the clutter.

3. We need to EVOLVE Planning

In the traditional model, planning is based on a linear path to purchase, and content is decentralized. But to be effective, that must evolve to an omnichannel approach across all touchpoints.

Take Marriott, which is ranked as the No. 1 hospitality brand in our Prophet Brand Relevance IndexTM for example: It’s finding new ways to engage sophisticated travelers, including new digital channels for pre-stay inspirations, and easy ways to share experiences on social media. When traveling abroad, guests can make requests with a Chinese-speaking “WeChat concierge,” and pay through Alipay.

4. We need to TRANSFORM Activation & Engagement

Today, brands live in a “you tell us” world, not “we tell you.” There are many forms of brand interactions available, and it’s possible to cultivate advocates and influencers at an early stage. Activation ought to be proactive, experiential, innovative and hyper-personalized. Digital enables these new kinds of brand interactions, including those in real-time, making them personal and conversational.

Bear Electric, a home-appliance brand, for example, has increased its engagement by creating sharable moments, nutrition information and recipes, generating 1 billion exposures and 500,000 new fans.

5. We also need to TRANSFORM Data & Insights

More data is available in real-time, at an individual level, captured in a continuous stream. Brands should have an integrated view of their own consumer and third-party data, and be able to leverage that to support every decision they make. Smartphone maker OPPO has transformed its approach by partnering with Alimama to tap deeper consumer data. This new approach has found it 300,000 new fans, and boosted traffic by 120 percent.

Final Thoughts

While we’ve seen plenty of examples of brands like these adopting parts of our META model, we still haven’t seen one that has managed to implement it fully. But there’s no time to lose: Both Chinese and Western companies are well along in the brand-building race, and those that don’t modify their approach will be left behind.

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