When I started writing this blog I asked myself what it should focus on. Should it be about branding – adapting the brand identity, developing the Chinese brand name (from the legal entity name to the much more complex consumer- facing naming architecture)? Should it be about product development strategy – adapting the product from the ground up to fit the market, and consumers’ lifestyle and aspirations, as well as reflect the competition? Or should it be about making marketing content fit the unique media landscape with specific local brand messaging and content strategy? And what about the more operational side, like establishing local partnerships, sales channels and even recruiting local talent?

The truth is, when you’re marketing a brand outside its home country, you face all sorts of challenges – and they’re all intertwined with each other. And nowhere is that more true than China.

In all my experience of adapting global brands for Chinese consumers, I can’t think of a single example where it wasn’t necessary to change positioning and marketing mix in a big way. I’ve transformed product positioning of consumer products like Kit Kat from a self-indulgent treat to a sharing sensation among friends. I’ve searched far and wide to find spokespeople for global brands like Lux and American Express who can truly resonate with a local audience and still stay in sync with the essence of those brands.

Of course, none of this precludes the eternal debate about how feasible or desirable it is to be globally consistent. Or the need to remember that ‘consistency’ doesn’t equal a one-size-fits-all literal interpretation of a tagline. How should HSBC speak in the same tone as the rest of the world as ‘The World’s Local Bank 环球金融 地方智慧’ (HSBC had changed its global brand platform to ‘World’s Leading International Bank’ since 2011) but express consumer benefits in a really direct way? How should a fast-moving fashion brand like H&M stand out by toning down its price point and promoting its trend credentials instead? How do British brands like Pret A Manger find their purpose and emotional attachments in the context of the local culture, so they do more than just sell food?

To make brands relevant and trigger loyalty that adds up to a sustainable price premium, global brands have to get in step with local cultural imperatives and operational realities. At the risk of over-simplifying or making sweeping generalisations, here are some thoughts about the differences they can expect to find in China.

Are you talking to me?

Language is perhaps the most tangible. One of the first tasks of the marketing plan is to develop the brand name (an equivalent of the global brand identity). That’s before you even start to develop and adapt the brand proposition, key messaging and overall content. To succeed, you need to understand both global intent and local context. If you blindly follow the conventional idea of consistency and ignore local nuances, you’ll almost certainly fail.

When it comes to Chinese names for global brands, going for the safe option of the phonetic equivalent will end up sounding like everyone else. But over-rationalizing could leave you with a name that reflects the marketing brief rather than sounding like something born natively for the local market. In 2017, Airbnb relaunched in China with a new Chinese brand name 爱彼迎(pronounced ài bi yíng) that means ‘welcoming each other with love’. But reaction has been mixed, with many already comparing the company’s strategy with other brands who have failed in China. According to AdAge, Airbnb spent a year deciding on the Chinese characters that made up the name, with brand consultancy Labbrand consumer testing over 1,000 possibilities. Yet the result has been widely criticized in the press and on social media.

Airbnb’s launch campaign in China

Names can be very subjective. So use clear criteria to help you choose. Once you’re down to a shortlist, research can be useful. Carefully testing names with your target audience will help you gauge appeal and weed out any unanticipated negative reactions. Research can’t tell you everything, and it shouldn’t be the only thing you use . Nor should it stop you taking calculated risks or simply trusting your instinct. But it does help guide decision-making and build consensus among your stakeholders.

It’s not just what you say, but how you say it

Another big difference for brands in China is how to talk about benefits. They need to be prominent, but brands also need to talk about what they mean for the greater good, not just the individual. , The western idea of reinforcing ‘what I want, and how I feel’ irrespective of societal consequences doesn’t work. So the brand communications of Holiday Inn Express, an InterContinental Hotels Group brand, emphasize ‘smart choice’ rather than just ‘efficiency’. Johnnie Walker’s ‘Keep Walking’ proposition that emphasizes endless striving for personal progression has to be ‘shared’ and ‘recognized’ among peers. Mercedes Benz, one of the best-selling brands in China, elegantly fused its global positioning with a Chinese declaration of ambition in a recent campaign, executed as a six-page gatefold ad with the headline ‘For the world, we open a new page’.

Mercedes Benz shows its presence in the Chinese market through heavy advertising spend, including this gatefold spread launched in January 2018.

It’s not just how you say it, but where

Comparisons between Western markets and China often focus on the difference in internet penetration and smartphone adoption. But the popularity of smartphones has increased dramatically in China. And digital platforms are evolving fast to become part of Chinese consumers’ daily lives.

China’s internet economy has now raced ahead of the West’s, making China a truly mobile-first market. Besides the sheer size that goes with a billion-plus population, it’s also ahead on features. Consumers in China can now use the internet, specifically WeChat 微信(Pronounced Weixin in Mandarin), to do an extraordinary number of things. Apart from messaging (the key feature when the brand launched in 2011), it’s evolved to include voice and video calls, integrated news and public service announcements, gifting, ride-hailing, food delivery, doctor/dentist bookings, and even visa applications. It integrates social media, search and e-commerce, all inside one walled garden. A recent official report estimates that, as of September 2017, an average 902 million users log in to WeChat daily, up 17% year-on-year, and send 38 billion messages.

WeChat’s reach is appealing for global brands. But it also makes it easier to do business in China by bypassing stringent licence requirements. On the other hand, its multi-disciplinary nature makes it incredibly challenging to create appropriate content fundamentally different to the fragmented content in the West.

As a start, an official presence on WeChat can help global brands control their marketing message in China, create personalised interactions with their audience and directly manage customer relationships through the app. All of that could have a huge impact on brand loyalty if they handle it with care. Chinese consumers can discover and find out about brands and their products, interact with trusted friends and buy items all through one platform. So content needs to fulfill long-term brand building objectives: bridging online and offline experiences, creating a distinctive tone of voice, acting as a customer service with social listening functions, and creating a seamless buying experience.

WeChat is extending its reach to a version for business communication called Enterprise WeChat. Among other things, it lets employees track their annual leave days and expenses, and clock in and out. To underline the scale of adoption, DiDi ChuXing, the latest brand success in China, has encouraged its 7,000 staff to communicate almost exclusively on Enterprise WeChat.

Don’t just spot differences, celebrate them

Chinese consumers are increasingly sensitive to how global brands behave in the market. Brands that celebrate local culture while skilfully infiltrating their global essence can win their hearts, especially if they bypass one-size-fits-all global consistency to craft a local tone of voice. Global brands need a ‘first follower’ in China to localize and lend authenticity to the brand. In 2017, Burberry chose China’s pop, movie and fashion sensation Kris Wu as their first local Key Opinion Leader (KOL). That opened up China’s millennial market, giving the brand social currency to let its message spread on the many social commerce platforms.

Another powerful tactic is to allow local interpretations of global ideas. In December 2017, Adidas re-imagined its ‘Original is never finished’ creative platform with a new set of creators from all over the world including Kendall Jenner, James Harden, 21 Savage, Young Thug, and Eason Chan. It proved that when you create freely, the outcome will always be original, globally.

The global edit:

 

The Hong Kong edit:

 

The Korean edit:

 

China is complicated. Economically, socially, culturally and demographically, not to mention politically – whichever way you look at China, it bears little resemblance to the West. And it keeps getting more and more complicated. So one blog will never cover all the golden rules on marketing there.

There’s no single route to success when launching your brand in China. But it’s safe to say you need a plan that works for your brand and product category, and your ambition in the market. There are also other issues, like product extension, local legislation, censorship, and product safety (especially for food brands). All these steps are essentials you’ll have to consider before developing any marketing strategy for China.

Note: I have contributed this blog to VengaGlobal and Gala. An edited version of it had appeared on my LinkedIn profile.

When developing a global campaign for a local market, the first thing many people might consider is how do we maintain the global idea and adapt it in a creative way so that it is relevant to the local market.

Or make sure we use local creative talent to craft the content, from copywriting, art direction down to every detail in the execution. Making sure that the advertising appears just like it was created with the local audience in mind in the first place.

Perhaps choosing the right media-mix with targeted consumer touchpoints that works best for the local consumers. Such as creating outdoor billboards for Latin America, or enhancing consumer engagement with a concerted social media initiative for China.

All of the above are true.

But one fundamental question we sometimes forget to consider is whether the product itself needs to be fine-tuned.

A mobile phone brand could be a business tool in one market but a fashion accessory and status symbol in another.

A hotel brand may appeal to leisure travellers in one country but has developed with a stronger business travellers focus in another.

The brand core values remain globally universal, but the way the product is “formulated” can be different. That goes beyond just crafting the global advertising and making it work, but take a step back and look at how the product can be localised and presented.

Sometimes it means getting out of the brand’s own comfort zone.

That was what Oreo had done.

In China, Oreo has always been popular among kids. Their tagline “扭一扭,舔一舔,泡一泡” (roughly translated as “Twist it. Lick it. Dunk it.”) was established ever since the brand launched it back in 1996. The product is synonymous with the child-like style of fun. But they seem to have fallen into a victim of their success. Kids reaching a certain age have grown out of it, and stop finding it relevant to them.

So Oreo recently reinvented an extension of the product by introducing a “slim version” targeting to the trendy female adult audiences. Supported by a locally relevant multi-platform campaign and social media push. The brand personality of “fun” has been maintained, while attracting and retaining a new audience segment along the way.

oreo-thin-kv-flavor

Great global brands can be twisted, shaped and turned in all sorts of ways yet still remain recognisable. Different communication strategy needs to be considered at different stage of market development.

At the end, adapting a global campaign of a global brand is a marketing exercise, not just an executional exercise.

What are some of the other good examples that you have come across in your local market?

Note: This article was first posted on LinkedIn

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You can tell a lot about a person by the apps on the front screen of their phones. For Apple, you can tell a lot about a person by the front cover of their MacBook Air!

A new TVC for the latest generation of MacBook Air features over 100 customized front covers of the machine. The graphics all integrate perfectly with the Apple logo (complete with scratches and dents). It symbolizes the fact that consumers are now taking charge of any brand.

These days, for ideas to soar, we have to transfer ownership of the idea to people, so it can be integrated with local culture. Coca Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign replacing the logo with thousands of people’s names has been a success all over the world. The recent Airbnb identity celebrates the “share economy” by allowing hosts to customize the Airbnb “Bélo” logo with their choice, turning the brand into something that people feel they belong to. A customizable idea is the secret of a global campaign.

The visual oriented execution of the new MacBook Air is a perfect example to demonstrate that ideas can naturally go global, without any worry about cultural differences. I can imagine that the execution could also be tailored-made with such accuracy and relevancy for each market, without losing the essence of the creative platform. The potential to allow the idea to flourish in different social media platforms, letting consumers to customize, tag, pin, share and follow, is enormous.

Who said there’s no such thing as global ideas?

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When a western brand enters a foreign market, a lot of people will first set sight on the name. However, a name, as important as it seems, is just part of the defining factors. Let’s take a look at how a few brands across different categories have done recently.

Fashion

When American casual fashion brand Old Navy opened their 22,000 square foot, three-level flagship store in Shanghai in March, they did not launch with a Chinese name. Critics came pouring in right after. Some people criticised the overtly American presentation in their merchandising and launch activities. Old Navy may not be a brand that can accelerate so quickly in the market. Their parent brand GAP (also without a consumer facing Chinese name) launched their own-brand shop in 2010 in China, and is still gradually finding their way in the market. Shanghai is likely to act as their platform to anchor their presence and pave the way for a nation-wide launch of their e-commerce business, and that will be the time when their Chinese brand name will play an important role.

Old Navy_screen

Within the everyday fashion category, it is common for brands to launch without their Chinese name. H&M and ZARA, among others, all followed the same formula. When I worked on the launch of H&M in Shanghai and Hong Kong at the time, what the campaign had managed to achieve was to establish a new ‘category’ in the market. The message was defined through innovative media and owned channels such as their own house magazines. The brand also came in at a time when the millennial generation emerged, and ‘affordable fashion’ perfectly fits what they need. In a market filled with all kinds of Chinese fashion brand names, it was perhaps wise for these brands to focus on their authenticity. What latecomers like Old Navy need now is to craft the next ‘movement’, and to break the new dress code into the mass market. Perhaps adopting the notion of ‘made with Chinese’ rather than the traditional approach of ‘made for Chinese’, and leverage the impact of co-creation with the younger generation in the country. That, to me, is the real localization tactic.

Food

“今個夏天我會喺銅鑼灣開間好正嘅意大利餐廳。”

This was, apparently, what Jamie Oliver said in his video announcing the opening of Jamie’s Italian in Causeway Bay, the heart of the busiest district in Hong Kong.

Traditionally, food is not an easy export. Even though Italian food is arguably one of the most accessible cuisine in the world, and starting with Hong Kong is going to give the brand a good testing ground of the concept, before they enter further into the mainland market. Jamie Oliver cleverly adopts his down-to-earth persona by appearing to be playful in this promotional video. A subtle way to say, “Hey, mixing with local culture is in my DNA”. If he is clever enough to ride on his personal brand, he should engage with the local market through his fantastic social enterprise activities and food revolution campaigns. I believe there is a market for a meaningful brand – a global one.

Professional social network

LinkedIn中国_00001

In a different category, Linkedin has just announced their expansion in China and has launched a simplified Chinese language beta-site branded “领英” (literally meaning ‘Leading Elite’, phonetically as ‘lǐng yīng’). Linkedin (the global site) claimed to have more than 4 million members within China already, but through the partnership with Sequoia China and CBC, they hope to refine and localize the product’s offerings to the Chinese users. The decision to launch with a Chinese brand name, in their case, will help to make sure the Chinese users can communicate comfortably in native language in a business context. However, whether they can fine-tune the nuisances of the communications within the platform to reflect the Asian way of communications is yet to be seen. And once communications start to involve cross-border interactions, how can they effectively help global users to connect and communicate successfully and seamlessly, is also a crucial element. All these challenges, is not just a well-coined Chinese phrase can help.

Think beyond language

A well thought out localized brand name, is just one of the ways to gain traction in the market. The most important part is whether the brand can identify the ‘market’ for their product. They should have the insight to localize the product elements and understand how they can fit into the lifestyle of the local market. Without a clear positioning, finding a Chinese name may just be another hit and miss exercise.

JOMO

It has become very difficult for us to think about just one thing at a time. In the process, we have all become self-confessed information junkie. We absorb everything from every sources, and joining the dots along the way. In the past month or so we have been reading every piece of articles and reports from journalists, thought leaders, trendspotters, you name it, on what we will expect in 2014.

One insight that I find particularly inspiring is the desire to stay focus in the increasingly mad world of multiscreen, multi-channel, multi-everything life.

The JWT Intelligence team call it ‘The mindful living’, predicting that more people will be drawn to the idea of shutting out distractions and focusing on the moment. The Ford 2014 trend report defines it as ‘the joy of missing out’.

There is a saying in Chinese 物极必反 that literally means ‘when something reaches its extreme, it reverses its course’. That is exactly what’s happening here.

In the visually dependent culture, every day, 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook. An additional 40 million go up on Instagram. We are very busy.

We look at our smartphones 150 times a day, sometimes during times when we should be enjoying the moment right in front of us.

We multitask. We spread all the devises in front of us while watching the TV, and willingly interacting with everything and everyone at the same time.

We all do these sometimes not out of design, but out of a FOMO (fear of missing out) mentality, a habit, or that they are just so readily available.

We crowdsource. From making things happen to getting funding for our next invention.

We strive to gain the first million users in the first week of launch of any new app, so we do everything we can to ‘growth heck’. In the process, we lose sight of the fact that we could be damaging the brand rather than building it.

We give excuses for imperfections.

I think this will lead us to the next wave of new opportunities – for brands to focus back on genuine experiences and differentiate what they offer with the others.

Technology once were a novelty in our lives had become a commodity. We crave personal connections again. We want meanings. That I believe is what will guide everything in the year ahead.

I believe there will be true innovations that help us to achieve a new kind of mindful way of living.

We still take pictures, but now we may use it to learn something. Enter #Jelly, the new app that allows you to snap a picture and ask questions about it to your network of friends. Co-founder Biz Stone said, “Because knowledge is different from information”. A snap on Jelly, may seem to have a bit more depth to it then?

Food creators will do more in order to draw our attention back to enjoying the food rather than photographing them. May be even a ‘slow food movement’?

Now, if you think you have missed out on any of the trend reports, don’t panic. Here I have curated a selection that had caught my eyes. But scan it quick, for you should know that, what’s true today will be history tomorrow.

Enjoy the moment.

brand experience China

There is a subtle difference between brand pushing messages to consumers, and letting consumers discover what the brand represents.

Recently, a giant pavilion in the shape of a Louis Vuitton suitcase emerged on Moscow’s Red Square. The construction is part of an exhibition called “The Soul of Travel”, marking Louis Vuitton’s 150th anniversary. The blatant display of branding in a conservative culture didn’t go down well.

In fact, consumers in parts of the world where branded goods used to represent status are now turning towards more subtle expressions of taste. China is one of them, and luxury products have already seen heavily branded merchandises slowly losing their charm.

Brand presence has to be more intelligent, subtle, understated, and localised.

In doing so, brands need to dig deep into their DNA or develop a multidimensional personality, and not just fulfilling a functional benefit. Sportswear is not just for helping people excel in sports performance but as a fashion statement; cosmetics is not just about beauty but about fulfilling a social purpose; and coffee shops are not just about beans but about sharing with friends.

Brands are also becoming more like publishers. Creating content around the brand needs more than just one dimension. To be involved in popular culture, particularly the creative side, gives brands the opportunities to contextualize the brand stories, and build key components of their brand promise. It can also give them “currency” and relevance in specific local markets.

There’s a trend that resonates this movement – brands are making the most of retail space. Not just as a place for transaction of sales, but also as a place where they can project a multidimensional character of their brand.

The beauty and make up company Sephora created a pop-up museum concept in New York entitled “Sensorium” in 2011. The category of perfumes has always been solely relaying on glossy print ads and images, but the interactive journey of the setting of the “Sensorium” space introduces consumers to a new way of appreciation of fragrance. All of a sudden, beauty is not just skin deep, but adds a layer of intelligence to it.

In September this year, Starbucks opened two flagship stores in Beijing. They are not ordinary flagships, they are brand-defining establishments. One, located at Beijing’s glitzy and busiest Kerry Centre, is a 4,000 square-foot, two-story “coffee tribute”. The temple-like space features a giant, bold, Starbucks siren icon on the exterior of the building that illuminates at night. The other “eclectic” version, located in Sanlitun, is a 24/7 operation. Featuring ceiling-to-floor glass windows with a special club on the second floor called “Club 1971” that features live music by local talents on weekends. The Chinese Millennials are in dominance. It also reflects the young Chinese growing up in the one-child system with a strong desire to connect with their brothers and sisters outside the family.

In Shanghai, Under Armour opened its first store in China by blending art and science, presenting the Chinese consumers a sensory journey into the brand. The “retail theatre” is located in the new Jing An Kerry Centre, and designed by Marc Thorpe Design in collaboration with HUSH Studio.

China has a complex relationship with sports, although Chinese athletes are winning more medals in the global stage, but still relatively few Chinese has a personal relationship with sports. Global brands such as adidas adapted their strategy by creating two different divisions, on the one had is their flagship sports performance line; and on the other hand, capturing an aspect that translate sports into lifestyle and fashion. The result is, sub brands such as Originals and Y3 had been successful through the halo effects and the connections with its sports performance heritage, effectively crafting out a strategy that is relevant in the local market.

But developing local product strategy is not enough anymore. The idea behind the Under Armour’s “retail theatre” is to open up the minds of the consumers by redefining the notion of training – not as a pursuit of profession in sports but working to achieve physical greatness. It elevates the proposition from a physical one to an aspirational one.

In an age where authenticity of the brand is so critical that it defines what the brand is all about, by presenting consumers a production quality of epic scale it breaks down the boundary between the physical space and the digital, it will certainly triumphant over any content people get just from small screens.

Creating unique brand experiences is one of the most powerful, immersive means of building a brand. Ultimately, it boils down to making it relevant to local consumers while enabling sharable conversations.

Share A Coke campaign

Great global ideas do not come about easily. There is always the challenge when an idea works really well in one market, but does not resonate with the consumers in another. There is also the misconception of consistency and the danger of adapting global ideas for the local market without taking into consideration of the context, focusing more on the similarities and not the differences.

Traditionally, the narrow definition of a great global idea means the ability to adopt the same message and adapt it for the local market, maintaining ‘brand consistency’ and maximise cost savings. While this is still true in the broad sense, it is no longer enough. Not only the guiding message needs to be adapted, or transformed, to connect with local audiences, in a connected world, the way that the message is ignited is also likely to be different.

A recent campaign of Coca Cola was a good example.

The ‘Share a Coke’ campaign was first started in Australia (originated by Ogilvy). Overnight, the much loved, but often overlooked, Coca Cola changed the logo on the bottles to 150 of Australia’s most popular names. It took the entire country by surprised.

The strategic thinking behind the campaign was that for a big global iconic brand like Coca Cola, people don’t find it ‘personal’ enough. The campaign was so successful that it was subsequently launched in markets including Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and the UK. This year, the China team (working with Leo Burnett Shanghai) adapted the campaign by applying local creativity. Instead of showing people’s names on the bottle, they put the very local and colloquial ‘nicknames’ that are fondly used by Chinese among friends.

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A quick recap on how the idea has been transformed in different countries:

Australia – the original:

UK: (similar execution for the Netherlands and Belgium)

Greece:

China:

The result is an authentic execution building on local culture and nuances. Not only did the idea travel, but they also managed to adapt it creatively for each local market, so that the consumers felt that the idea was created natively for them.

Each market also had their own way to connect with the people. In Australia, the campaign was activated by an interactive billboard at Kings Cross in Sydney, taking advantage of the digital technology and transfer people’s names instantly through SMS messaging. In China, widely recognised as a mobile-first market, an app was designed to facilitate sharing of the chosen ‘nickname’ to people’s friends via social networking platforms.

Interactive outdoors billboard in Australia:

An app created for the China market:

icoke_app

Such creativity blurred the boundaries between origination and adaptation. I call it creative solutions.

This is the kind of creativity that every successful global campaign requires. Miles Young of Ogilvy Group commented recently that with budgets under pressure, clients aren’t prepared any more to have advertising developed in every one of those markets by local agencies. I also think that a shared brand vision globally can deepen the cohesiveness of the corporate culture internally and maximize the power of collaboration.