• Alexander Liu-Middleton

Marketing in the new era with Chinese characteristics

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

When we created our campaign for the large Chongqing baijiu (Chinese sorghum wine) brand Jiangxiaobai, the whole process with the brand’s marketing team moved not within months, but within weeks. If this had been a similar scale Western company in a developed market, brand managers would have been laying plans for months, involving consultancy with a range of agencies and platforms from TV to billboards, allocating budget to various elements, discussing creative approaches, filming TV commercials, and producing static print media and website adverts.

The China approach though is different. We went straight to Douyin, the massively popular Chinese app that gave birth to its Western subsidiary TikTok. Created a series of fifteen-thirty second story-driven videos that clearly conveyed the key message, quality and tradition, for young urbanites. The videos were then distributed as prioritised content across Douyin and via KOLs and the brand’s own accounts. Within weeks the videos had racked up millions of views via mobile phones. There was no mention of pricing of vendors. As is the norm in China, the whole campaign was about getting brand name onto people’s screens and creating and keeping a presence there.

The simple thing is that whereas other developing markets have responded to standard Western marketing approaches, albeit with a little tweaking for local customisation, China is just not doing that, and those principles can no longer be seen as universal. Western companies should not rely on exporting their existing marketing strategies to China, but adapt new ones for China based on the new local scenario, and even learn from the experience and import these back to their home markets.

The major factor in this is the technological leapfrogging of the Chinese consumer. A move that Chinese marketers understand because it is the world they live in, but their Western counterparts have been slow to pick up on.

Modern Western marketing evolved over almost two centuries, first newspaper advertising and billboards, then magazines, radio, television, the internet accessed via computers, and smart phones. This has created a relatively disjointed media world, with consumers taking information from various platforms, and an ecosystem made up of relatively independent outlets.

Mainland China, however, largely missed this evolution, and so jumped in at the last stage as the economy took off in the first decades of the twenty-first century, just as the smartphone was appearing. The result of this, is a population which compared to the West is almost totally smartphone dependent, with the average person spending around seven to eight hours a day using their phone. Even email is far less widely used, with smartphone-based messaging apps being the far more dominant means of communication for administration and business.

The leapfrogging over the centuries of evolution, also meant that Chinese media technology companies had a blank canvass when it came to creating platforms. This allowed for the rapid expansion and consolidation of the market under the big three, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, collectively known as the BAT. This big three straddle industries which in the West are dominated by industry specific companies, delivering social media, television shows, news and sports coverage, online payments, and e-commerce.

Thus, Chinese marketers have developed an approach which understands that the Chinese consumer is a mobile-first consumer and that the distribution of their information relies on a small number of companies. This approach focuses on the creation of shareable, viral content which is then distributed via the dominant multi-channel media giants of the BAT. The interesting thing, is that this is usually faster, cheaper, and in some ways more effective than the traditional Western marketing strategy.

What will be interesting in the coming years, is how much this can be applied to Western markets. Although the West is less mobile-first than China, there is a strong reason to believe that this is the way it is evolving, albeit more slowly due to the strong cultural attachment to and presence of older media consumption methods.

The Differences

Firstly, as we saw above, Western media developed over a long period covering various evolutionary moments in technology. China did not need to go through that evolution, and where it did it happened much more rapidly, so Chinese consumers effectively leapfrogged even the computer to move straight to smartphone. Therefore, the marketing theory, principles, and methods are based on the assumption that mobile devices are the primary way to reach consumers. With around 90% of online purchases being made on mobile phones and people spending seven or eight hours a day on their smartphones, that is understandable.

Compare that to the West, where marketers have had (and still do have) a range of channels through which to reach consumers, TV, direct mail, magazines, radio, billboards, newspapers, magazines, email, and websites. This leads to a promotion-focused mindset, especially because each channel needs to prove that it’s earning an ROI.

In China’s, with its smartphone-centric world, marketers focus on content-based experiences that will connect with consumers and quickly influence behaviour. This begins with thinking about content, information, and knowledge that can be engaging and shared, not advertising and price promotions.

Secondly, the big three channel-straddling giants, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, the BAT. As companies, they are like an amalgamation of say Whatsapp, Facebook, Amazon, HSBC, Google, Twitter, EA, and Sky News and Sports. Tencent owns the world’s largest gaming platform, news agencies, and Weixin and WeChat, the main social media platforms. It provides financial services via WeChat Pay and QQ Red Envelope Mobile Pay, it is the second-biggest shareholder in JD.com, one of China’s largest online retailers, Tencent Video is one of the largest streaming service in China,  and Tencent Sports is the country’s premier online sports-media platform.

It is probably for the good that Western regulators prohibit this kind of concentration of media power, but it does mean that Western marketers are more accustomed to using fragmented channel-based strategies to reach consumers. This makes it hard for them to understand the Chinese media landscape, where they fail to grasp the efficiency and potential of the multi-channel giants.

Thirdly, big data on a scale unimaginable in the West. Whilst Western marketers analyse data from a range of sources because information is not easily connected between channels at the consumer level, the BAT have the power to collate information from almost every aspect of a consumer’s life and develop a deep understanding of what is relevant to them. They know how the consumer approaches banking, entertainment, gaming, social media, and news, in a way that even Google couldn’t manage. This allows great efficiency in targeting advertising, even across a vast market of hundreds of millions.

Fourthly, speed. Marketing teams and directors make decisions more quickly than their Western counterparts. This is partly due to the Chinese companies’ need to show growth and momentum for their investors. A company that stands still in China’s business environment will die. Creating awareness and relevance in the market is crucial to this.

How do Western companies embrace this?

Utilise the BATs. Saying this as a representative of an agency that works with the BATs may seem self-serving, but it is true. Their data and powerful delivery ability is key to building a strong China campaign. Ignoring them is like ignoring Google, Facebook, et al. and taking an approach that focuses on regional newspapers.

Utilise key opinion leaders (KOLs). The KOL ecosystem in China is more developed than in the West. Not only is it highly nuanced, with a huge range of KOLs with everything from universal influence to the tiniest niche specialisation, it is highly organised with relatively standardised rates and processes. This makes it not just effective and fast, but relatively easy to navigate, tailor and forward plan in terms of expected results.

Remember that this is a smartphone-first landscape. You should focus on experiences that are created for the smartphone. Rapid delivery of engaging content that can be easily consumed and tells stories people want to hear share is key.

You also need to remember that the smartphone experience is not a television or a laptop. People’s viewing times are shorter, but often more engaged in that shorter time. The creative process needs to take this as the basis for design.

Start with the Chinese mindset. Forget TV, digital, billboard, or print, go straight to viral socially engaging content. This is faster, cheaper and yields better results than advertising. Of course, KOLs are critical to this approach, and far more so than in any other country in the world, and it is not just about sharing videos. It means featuring and live-streaming and getting fans to interact with them and your brand. This latter approach is really rewarding. In real time, you can watch sign-ups, engagement, and brand impact.

You should also focus on creative content that builds relationships with your brand. Chinese marketers know the power of the smartphone video to engage the viewer and build brand awareness, and that this does translate into conversions in a way that promotions do not. Create content that consumers want to watch and share, driving engagement and influencing behaviour in the short and even longterm.

Integrate your platforms. You should think about creating a single brand experience that cuts across platforms. For instance, with so many platforms being run by the BAT, you can structure a campaign that seamlessly jumps from, say, video sharing to gaming.

It may not be suitable for every company, but the last lesson can be one of speed and risk versus steady planning and long-winded strategising. Chinese companies focus more on market share and are willing to take short term risks for longterm dominance. Many of them can tolerate relatively low profitability in order to scale up quickly. This difference, driving market share versus bottom-line profit, gives the Chinese companies an advantage because they are willing to make big investments and take short-term losses to achieve long-term dominance.

Chinese take-aways

For Western marketers looking at the Chinese market, understanding the environment should open up a range of possibilities. Without multi-channel fragmentation, it offers marketers a relatively easy to understand and easy to navigate canvas on which to work whether they are based in China or in other countries.

The key is speed, creativity, understanding the smart-phone delivery’s strengths and weaknesses, and a willingness to utilise the BAT to spread a campaign seamlessly over a range of platforms.

You can see more on the key social media platforms on this sample campaign for the international education sector:


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