by David Liu
September 5th, 2012

Chinese consumers are bombarded by more and more marketing messages every day. They are clever and maturing very quickly. In the online market, even those born long before the digital age are understanding the resources that are now available to them. They can access resources outside of China;  they can look into your brand’s history; and they can very quickly access whether a brand or product is genuine. They are becoming more sceptical too. For that reason, brands need to offer greater transparency and genuine engagement.

Internal communications are an important as part of that transparency approach. It used to be that internal and external communications were separate, but now that’s not the case. Staff in China can become your strongest advocates if they’re empowered to do so.

You also need key opinion leaders (KOLs) who can offered trusted opinions. Consumers won’t buy a product online that they’re not familiar with and earned advocates are always better than bought endorsements.

In China, the ‘Zhais’, also known as ‘Cocooners’ in the US, are an emerging group. The Zhais absorb everything digitally. So for them, every step in the purchasing process needs to happen online smoothly and efficiently – from initial brand introduction through to purchase and home delivery. That also means that the internet is their first (and perhaps only) reference point when it comes to getting to know a brand. Search engine optimization is very important, as is a strong presence on third party platforms like product review websites.

These Zhais in China are, not surprisingly, very active in Role Playing Games (RPG). Brands can tap into this through creative product placement, or even by creating their own games. Also, these virtual environments are highly developed, and within them one can find KOLs unique to that community. Just like anywhere else, it’s all about understanding what the needs and interests are of the Zhais and exploring the right tactics to be sure your brand reaches them in a way that is most effective.

Up to date research is certainly valuable to gain insights into online consumer behaviour. But it’s important to keep in mind that things can change quickly. Sina Weibo was launched only three years ago, and now it’s become one of the most powerful platforms on the Chinese internet, with well over 300 million users.

Social media have obviously become incredibly powerful, both for personal communication and as a source for information — more so in China than in many other countries. In some cases, what people read from sources like Weibo is even more trusted than what is available in the national news. So social media are most definitely important places for brands to build relationships with consumers. For this to be successful, brands need to do two things: use social media to demonstrate brand transparency, and leverage third party key opinion leaders as credible sources. Together, this will help ensure that the target audience relates to and trusts the brand.

But social media should not be activated at the expense of traditional media. Brands should understand that the message is much more important than the medium. Chinese consumers online are very savvy, so when it comes to building relationships with consumers online, it has to be done in an authentic and genuine way.

Chinese consumers love famous brands, but they’re also fickle and eager to find the latest big brand to give them what they want.  There are still plenty of opportunities to become the next runaway success in the China market. But that also means that those brands at the top have the most to lose. It’s just as critical for them to stay current, listen to this fast-changing audience, and respond in authentic ways that deliver the right content to the consumers who are searching for it.

David Liu is chairman, China, at Weber Shandwick

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