By now brands know that they can’t just waltz into China and expect the same strategies they use in the US to work there. But too often this takes the form of trying to “localize” their activities by putting a Chinese spin on to plans originally created for Western markets.
This, I argue, doesn’t take culture seriously enough. It treats it as a problem of basic translation, as though the copy and digital channels can simply be swapped in to “Chinesify” a digital strategy, while the foundational insights and structural approach remain the same. But this doesn’t recognize what culture is.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as “systems of meaning” and “the total way of life of a people”. From linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that “the structure of a language affects the perceptions of reality of its speakers and thus influences their thought patterns and worldviews.”
So designing a brand strategy in China has to start from this fundamental basis: meaning, thought patterns and worldviews. “Sina Weibo = Chinese Twitter” is not going to cut it.
In one of my previous blogs, I described how three Western brands are succeeding in China through deep insisghts into Chinese digital behavior and family relationships.
Here I look at more depth at digital content strategies, and how some brands – such as Coca-Cola – have succeeded.
Let’s look at how Coca-Cola uses online content in the two markets as an example.
In the US, Super Bowl ads are an attraction in and of themselves. So when Coca-Cola wanted to make an engaging ad campaign called “Mirage” for the football game, they went all out. “Mirage” was a choose-your-own-adventure style ad with three teams racing to get a Coca-Cola. After watching the set-up TV ad, Super Bowl viewers could then log in and vote on whom they think should win the Coke and even “sabotage” the other teams, unlocking more content.
In China, Coca-Cola recently launched their “Share a Coke” summer initiative. In Western markets, this initiative takes the form of names on the bottles, but in China the names are substituted with nicknames like “cool dude.” The packaging campaign is combined with online activities, such as a Sina Weibo contest, search marketing ads on Baidu, and a campaign website. This campaign is all about community and the social aspect of the brand. It encourages people to literally share a Coke, or at least share content with each other. Meanwhile, the American campaign is competitive, pitting teams against each other.
Now, of course the two types of campaigns are different. One is a three month campaign for summer and the other is event-driven. But by studying how these campaigns structure their content, we’ll be able to identify some key principles of developing social content for China vs. the US.
Channel integration in the US… but channel multiplication in China
Our social media in the States is dominated by Facebook and Twitter. In the US for instance, 94% of US teens have a Facebook page and 24% use Twitter. The percentage on Twitter is rising, up from 16% in 2011. While there are plenty of other social networks in the US, only 11% of online teens use Instagram, 7% YouTube and 5% Tumblr [Source]. As Facebook and Twitter have developed, they’ve also built in ways to integrate content from other channels, with Facebook news-sharing and Twitter Cards bringing this content in-app. This further reduces the need for users to travel to other networks. Brands can concentrate on their Facebook channel and Twitter channels to reach much of the market in the States.
Not so in China. Chinese people are members of more social networks on average than Americans – 3.4 networks in China compared to 2.1 in the US. Part of this could be because each network has its own distinct purpose:
- QQ/Qzone is focused on gaming, as is 51.com
- Sina Weibo has most brand and celebrity activity (most like Twitter)
- RenRen started by reconnecting school-friends
- WeChat is for chat
- Pengyou uses real names
- Jiayuan is for dating.
- Douban is devoted to interests and hobby groups, e.g. music & film
Channel specific strategies in the US… but channel agnosticism in China
This network proliferation affects how brands have to structure their campaigns in the different markets. In the US, there seems to be a focus on making content fit the channel. This kind of strategy only works, however, because there aren’t really that many channels to focus on.
As part of the “Mirage” Super Bowl ad, Coca-Cola went ahead and made custom content for a variety of platforms, such as Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. They shot behind the scenes photos for Instagram and pre-recorded the race losers’ press conferences for YouTube.
In China, this simply wouldn’t work. You’d have to craft different content for both Weibos (Sina and Tencent) separately, not to mention all the other platforms. That’s a bit much, particularly when Western brands are still building their content teams for the Chinese market. Why not just be channel agnostic?
This is Coke’s strategy in China. Amy Chen, interactive marketing director at Coca-Cola Greater China, described how it is important for a brand to remain platform agnostic, “If your communication is good, it doesn’t matter which social platforms you use to receive customer response.” [Source]
You can see this philosophy in action in the Chinese version of “Share a Coke.” On the campaign website, users can easily share content to both Sina and Tencent Weibo and they’ve used their TV ad in their Baidu search marketing. Content is not channel specific – it’s channel ambivalent.
Chinese internet users create more content than Americans online
There is more to this than the structure of the social networking landscapes in the two markets, though.
Chinese people are more active content creators than people in the US. In China, 76% of internet users are content creators, actively posting to social media. In the US, that number is just 25% (see more stats here).
Using that knowledge, let’s revisit how Coke approached the US and China again. In the US, the campaign focused on releasing new content and voting. Not sharing, and not submitting ideas. Yes, there was engagement – the audience could also choose to sabotage the other teams. But the focus wasn’t on posting, organizing friends, or inventing new ways to sabotage. It was a simple, though definitely fun, game.
Meanwhile in China, users on the campaign website are invited to create their own nick-names for their Coke bottles and share those with their friends. As part of the Sina Weibo contest, followers reposted the nicknames that caught their eye. Yes, this is low-level content creation, but it is content creation nonetheless.
Chinese consumers are more accepting of branded content
According to this study, 77% of Chinese web users believe brands with a social media presence are more attractive. Compare that to this research that says that only 15% of North Americans even trust posts by brands on social media sites.
This might be why Amy Chen also made a point to say that brands should nurture the trust they have from consumers. For example, not running a “win an iPad” promotion and to gain followers when you risk losing all those followers once the promotion is over. What she means is that brands should maintain their authenticity. This in turn will help them retain the trust consumers have in them.
Going back to the two Coca-Cola campaigns, then, there is a clear difference between the type of content consumers were asked to engage with. In the US, the content was actually a humorous story about three different teams racing across the desert. Yes, they were racing to get a Coke, but really people were engaging with the fun story. After all, the three teams were showgirls, cowboys, and badlanders. Maybe they should have added pirates and ninjas, but that’s still plenty of fun characters to play with. It’s branded content, but the story is not just about the brand.
Meanwhile in China, consumers were engaging directly with the Coke packaging, suggesting and sharing nicknames that they would put on the bottles. This aligns with another of Amy Chen’s points – putting the consumer on a level footing with the brand by having them share the common message. In the Chinese campaign, consumers are playing directly with the brand itself, co-creating the meaning. Unlike the American campaign, here the brand is truly center-stage as consumers design their own product packaging.
These three points add up to two very different pictures in the US and China. It’s more than just saying that they have different social networking sites in China than in the US. There is a very different approach to using social networks and engaging with brands in the two markets.
Some brands get it. Coke certainly seems to. In the US, fan engagement with the “Mirage” campaign surpassed expectations, topping 11 million. It’s still too early to tell if the “Share a Coke” campaign will achieve similarly stellar results in China, but I’m optimistic for the brand. They’ve put the effort in to understanding the Chinese social media landscape and consumer-brand relationships – let’s hope it pays off.
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