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Understanding China marketing – on China’s terms

Over the past decade, China's marketers have been at the forefront of innovation and creativity, coming up with some of the most authentic, leading-edge campaigns the world has seen. Naturally, as the country continues to mature and proliferate in size, coupled with consumers' increasing sophistication in behaviour, the practice of marketing in China has rapidly evolved as well.  For many leading global brands entering this market, their overall approach towards marketing products and services has historically been that of global-to-local adaptation, where high-level directions are first set in stone - for export and localisation. While this philosophy has worked in the past, it is no longer applicable particularly in China. For a country that has successfully (and aggressively) built out its own ecosystems in media, finance and tech infrastructure and services, China's marketers have in turn developed unique approaches to marketing to its consumers. Below are 3 key principles that will go a long way towards achieving brand success in China.

Direct relationships with BATs for cross-platform integration

With Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent entrenched in virtually all aspects of industries in China, it is important for marketers to directly engage with them for more meaningful and effective marketing planning. A great example was BMW and Tencent’s collaboration to launch a new SUV at the Beijing Motor Show in 2019. In order to drive awareness and interest among consumers across China (in addition to those attending the show), the automaker leveraged Tencent’s entertainment, sports, news, gaming and finance divisions and created a live concert as the platform for a virtual car show. The campaign also featured KOL virtual test-drives and real-time interaction with young people, many of whom were able to vote for their favourite test-drive experience. The results spoke for itself – 10 million people viewed the concert and over 22,000 people experienced virtual ride-alongs with KOLs. Most importantly, however, was the way BMW planned and executed such a campaign in a short space of time, which would not have been possible without Tencent’s ecosystem of companies.

Content over promotion

Content marketing is certainly not a brand-new concept in marketing, but it is true that China has long embraced this over “hard” promotions for many years – and they’re the ones perfecting it to the point that Western-based conglomerates are taking note. In 2017, Tencent bought rights to the Chinese novel, The King’s Avatar and developed books, animation and games. Spotting the potential opportunity, McDonald’s China worked with the conglomerate to integrate their products into the animated series, and made the products part of the story itself. The program was implemented across Tencent’s gaming, digital book, social, banking and animated series platforms – and even expanded to off-line experiences through even more content; engaged top gamer Zhou Zekai (周澤楷) on “offline” commercials; and a customised McDonald’s / King’s Avatar store. In all, 17 million people watched the series and drove tens of thousands to visit the themed store.

Always think social, viral

An obvious point of course, but in a market like China, successful viral campaigns are incredibly hard to achieve – given the size and intense competitiveness of the marketplace. For many leading global brands, viral success comes not only from brilliant creative ideation and execution, but also identifying the right (and many times surprising) channels to collaborate with. Cosmetics brand M.A.C. is a prime example of getting all of these elements right. After noticing the major draw of anime and mobile gaming for China’s Gen-Z, the company worked with mobile game “Honor of Kings” in 2019 to create limited-edition lipsticks – themed around the game. This partnership, previously thought unlikely, came from the fact that the mobile game was played predominantly by women. When M.A.C. observed mentions of its brand among players during the game, the company quickly sprung to action and created 5 additional shades for the female anime characters’ lip colours. In addition, the company enlisted female idols from hit reality show Produce 101 and influencers to roll out the viral collaboration.

The rest, they say, was history. Virtually all of those lipsticks were sold out within a day online, and the campaign still continues on to this day – in the form of a new experiential retail space in Shanghai, where customers can virtually try on lipsticks and cross-sell its customised HoK eye shadow shades – created by top influencers like makeup artist blogger @MeililimFu (傅沛) with over 1.3 million followers.


Adrian Fu is Icicle Group's Communications and External Affairs Director. He is a multi-disciplined professional with over 20 years of experience in corporate and technology industry brand marketing. He is also an award-winning songwriter and recording artist, with Mandarin and Cantonese albums to his name. Adrian is an avid reader and a student of meditation.


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