Brands are diluting core values in order to reach the Chinese masses

Brands looking to capitalise on China’s population size and digital ecosystem are being lured by the easy prospect of bombarding users with mass-marketing messages – and as are result are forgetting what they stand for, argues Immedia’s Peter Bakker

In recent years, China has been a global leader in terms of technological innovation and online infrastructure. Powerful platforms such as WeChat created a vibrant Chinese content ecosystem filled with exciting and ever-changing developments.

And people are very responsive and passionate towards WeChat. They wake up reading news and updates on the platform, and remain engaged as they share the content with their friends. WeChat’s wide coverage and usability have led it to become a highly efficient platform when brands want to communicate with the masses.

In China’s crowded market, companies and their brands have to keep pace to remain relevant and on top of their digital game. Unfortunately this has led to an avalanche of bite-size content cluttering up users’ feed on WeChat, as brands race to keep up with their competitors by cutting down their campaign cycles and speeding up their updates from monthly to weekly and to daily.

And this need for speed is creating some problems: the drive for mass appeal and constant efficiency pressures have led brands to compromise on quality and durability of their content to try and appeal to all 1.4 billion consumers. Some brands will dilute their core values and content messages in order to hastily charm the masses.

Take the example of Western luxury brands. These brands rely on their reputation and heritage, which they have built over decades or in some cases centuries. However, led by the urgency for short-term profits and market shares, these same brands do not always convey these values through their more mass-oriented promotional strategies in China.

More and more brands are turning their consumers into brand representatives and in a market like China this can pose some real challenges. For example, Ferrari asked Chinese consumers to compose a poem representing well the brand. At the end of the competition, three of the best poems will be selected and their creators were awarded Ferrari watches. But while this strategy generated a significant buzz across the masses, it failed to engage their target audience and reduced the brand’s core values down to a short-lived gimmick.

Unsurprisingly, this level of short-term thinking is not sustainable. Although a mass strategy delivers to a wider group of people, having a stable consumer base ultimately delivers more value. But this requires marketers to truly understand their own brands and their core values, as well as knowing their consumers and their aspirations.

In contrast to Ferrari, British luxury fashion brand Mulberry focuses on engaging, long-term storytelling which has remained a facet of their content marketing strategy since beginning its WeChat account in 2014. Mulberry has a microsite on the platform, which features unique content such as behind-the-scenes pictures and video.

The brand has also taken advantage of the fact luxury and leather products are still relatively new ground in China, and has used this to create informative, and yet high quality engaging content addressed to a very interested audience.

It is worthwhile to note that mass-marketing and niche-marketing are not mutually exclusive. Brands need broad-based market influence; however not every consumer will actively buy their product or identify with the core values. It may be risky to jump right into a niche group in a ‘new’ market as they need time to know potential consumers, their cultures and spending habits so as to experiment and customise their brands.

Many China-based marketers have become victims of their own success and have been lured by the sheer numbers and size of the market at the expense of their core brand values and identities. They should first consider what kind of strategy to adopt; start with a niche market and then broaden out? Or cater to the masses and then narrow down? This is a crucial matter for brands to consider and decide for themselves.

Here are some suggestions for Chinese content marketers:

  1. Develop a content strategy that clearly identifies brand persona(s), goals, objectives and route to market.
  2. Identify and be selective of your audience, know who, how and where they are. Avoid catering to the masses indiscriminately.
  3. When you are ready to launch, be sure that the right people, frequency, budget and process are in place.
  4. At execution, ensure brand values and equity are consistent and universal on a global scale.
  5. When you are looking to amplify your content, be selective and targeted in your amplification opportunities.
  6. Always measure and analyse. Set clear and realistic targets and measure every step.
  7. Finally, plan and take the time to strategise and plan before hitting the ground running. Do not get lured in the speed trap from the onset

Ultimately content marketing in China is not that different from anywhere else. The key differentiators are: available platforms, sites and audience behaviour. However, the size of the market, coupled with a thriving economy, drives many brands in China to set much higher expectations in terms of their content marketing effectiveness and conversions. Therefore, they risk falling into a mass marketing trap at the expense of their well established brand values and equities.

Peter Bakker is the managing director of the communications agency Immedia Services


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