Category Archives: Innovation

What makes a “copycat” brand original?  

Since our last post about Xiaomi’s innovation approach in China , the mobile phone manufacturer has come under the spotlight once again – but this time the sentiment is not positive. After the launch of the Mi4, Xiaomi has sparked criticism that it is nothing but a copycat of Apple.

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 12.00.42

Xiaomi’s CEO Lei Jun, wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, used Apple’s iconic “one more thing…” slide in the Mi4 launch event in July.

It’s not uncommon for Chinese brands to be criticized for “copying” or “improving” innovations from around the world. What is irksome for some, and perhaps admirable for others, is that they seem to do this really well.

No matter which camp you fall in, there’s a lesson to be learnt from China’s “copycat” approach and this begins by exploring what winning “copycat” brands have done differently.

Some key questions to ask:

The more I researched this topic, the more I was intrigued by it. Indeed, there’s an art and science of skillful copying that involves a careful combination of traditional thinking, social, political and technological development. From this, there are 3 particularly intriguing questions that emerge:

Is originality aspirational?

In the West, being original is king. Yet, imagine what it’s like to have grown up in reformed China. Since the country opened up, Chinese consumers have been exposed to new brands and new products on a daily basis. In a culture where everything is so new, is being original really that fundamental to a product’s success and aspirational value?

Is originality necessarily relevant?

We are at an age when innovation is celebrated everywhere, and China is no exception. However, thinking of a lot of innovation in China – many products are actually developed elsewhere in the world and then being introduced or at best adapted to China. When innovation is not developed with Chinese consumers in mind, how well can itserve their needs?

Does originality drive perception of quality?

In the past, people thought that original brands were of better design and superior quality. However, with the development of technology and skills in China, a lot of the “copycat” brands actually emerge with a similar if not better quality as the original product. In a culture where choosing a copycat product doesn’t mean a compromise on quality, what superior claim can an original product/brand claim?

While there is no hard and fast answer to the above questions, one thing is certain – innovation in China works on its own rules and won’t be dictated to by the West.


The strapline of WeChat – “WeChat, it’s a lifestyle”

Let’s take a look at WeChat…

One of the brands that thrives under the copycat label is WeChat. When WeChat first started, it was viewed as a follower of Whatsapp and many other messaging apps in Asia. Indeed, the basic features that it was launched with, e.g. push-to-talk, emoticons, and “moments” (a feature similar to “status” available in other social networks), were “copied” from other social media apps in Asia such as Talk Box, Path, and Weibo. [source]

However, as WeChat continues to develop, it has innovated into more than a messaging app, but rather a platform that delivers services tapping into different aspects of life among Chinese consumers, e.g. [source]

  • a mobile news provider – people are able to subscribe to different media titles through WeChat, enabling them to read and then share news articles easily with their friends
  • a blogging platform – people can easily register a public account and start publishing their thoughts online (or following others’ blogs)
  • an online store – the platform offers “subscription accounts” and “service accounts” to sell goods and services. People can easily browse products and services and complete payment all within the WeChat platform
  • a mobile wallet – it allows consumers to bind their bank cards to the app to make payment, it also offers investment funds where people can earn an interest

Very recently I was in a client meeting and we were talking about how we should define WeChat – is it a messaging app? Is it a social networking app? Is it a blogging platform? We came to realize that it is doing so much that we find it’s hard to define it with something equivalent in the West. WeChat might not start as an “original” brand, but it has evolved into something uniquely Chinese, for Chinese consumers.


Herborist leverages on existing Chinese wisdom to make it truly relevant for Chinese consumers

Let’s take a look at Herborist…  

As you are reading through the last example, you might argue that in tech sector, the newest is always the best, and that’s why WeChat has become successful. Now let’s take a look at another category where being new is not the most important parameter. Another successful Chinese brand that comes to mind is Herborist.

The beauty category in China has been dominated by international (Western, Japanese and Korean) brands such as Shiseido, SKII, and Estee Lauder. Domestic skincare brands either keep selling mass-market and cheap products, or they try to imitate international brands (but largely without success).

If WeChat is working against being a copycat brand, Herborist is working against an industry that has been perceived as mass, unsafe and dominated by China copycats. However, this Chinese brand has managed to soar and achieved 80% annual sales growth in European markets. [source]

So what is the magic behind its growth? In an interview with Thoughtful China , Wang Zhuo, former Executive Vice President of Herborist, emphasized the importance to develop a product that “meets consumers’ needs so well that they love our brand.” Unlike other companies that blindly follow international brands, Herborist has leveraged traditional Chinese Medicine (e.g. it’s bestseller T’ai Chi Mask leverages on the TCM philosophy of Yin & Yang), and updated that with the latest technology to make it the skincare brand that represents a modern Chinese skincare brand.

Knowing the negative perceptions that come with the “Made in China” label, the brand has also decided to say that it is “made in Shanghai” – a subtle difference that leverages local pride to gain local as well as international acceptance for the brand.

Herborist’s approach has not only helped the brand overcome the perception that Chinese skincare is copycat, it has also helped the brand find a positioning that is authentic and truly relevant to Chinese consumers.

So what are the implications to research?

In the two examples above, it’s obvious that the success of both brands is about being truly relevant to Chinese consumers. And in my opinion, that is what makes the difference.

At this point you might say that this is nothing new to you, and on a daily basis your business is thinking of how to localize products and ideas for Chinese consumers. Yet, it is a difficult task (to do well) when the R&D and positioning are done globally.

As an insight and innovation agency working closely with MNCs, we understand these challenges. What we have been trying to do is to take “localisation” more seriously. While in the past we localise ideas “for” Chinese consumers (i.e. validating and making ideas relevant for Chinese consumers), we always try to localise ideas “with” Chinese consumers (i.e. co-creating new product and communication ideas with Chinese consumers). Experience has proven that the devil lies in the detail; successful brands (international or local) have won Chinese consumers’ by demonstrating true understanding of what they need. As an agency we’re looking forward to seeing more “born in China” innovation that the rest of the world can “steal” from.

If you’d like to find out more on brand innovation specifically in Asia, then please get in touch with our Asia MD Andrew at








Rethinking Disruption

As researchers at a strategic insights agency, my colleagues and I at FACE are proponents of change: we help create new things, or a new way of thinking, by finding a deeper level of understanding. From communications strategy to design innovation projects, our approach entails observing, listening to, and connecting with people to cultivate ideas capable of challenging the status quo – the limiting norms that govern an organization or the category in which it operates. You might say the aim of our research is to help clients become disruptive.

Clayton Christensen originally coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’ in “The Innovators Dilemma” (1997), and within the last few years disruption as a strategic imperative has rippled through the business zeitgeist and taken root in the culture.

Disruptive Innovation

From innovation thesis to digital-era mantra, the concept is now a meme, a convenient way of talking about how to keep up – and the fear of falling behind – in a world of constant change. Only recently have critics emerged, questioning the meaning of disruption and its legitimacy as a strategy. In a New Yorker piece from earlier this year, The Disruption Machine, Jill Lepore shares her skeptical view on the subject: “…despite its futurism, [disruption] is atavistic. It’s a theory…founded on a profound anxiety…and shaky evidence.” She goes on to point out that disruptiveness is not a measure of true advancement, or any indication of sustainable success, for a brand or society at large: “Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.”

Lepore’s argument is sound and provocative. It raises big questions about “the gospel of innovation” that emanates from Silicon Valley and galvanizes hopeful entrepreneurs across the globe. Is disruption, then, still a tenable objective? Yes, but it is time to reframe the mainstream take on what it means to be disruptive and how to make it happen. Here’s a quick guide for getting started:

1. Determine what you’re actually trying to disrupt, and why

Sound obvious? Maybe, although there seems to be a growing stream of briefs floating around that call for disruption without any well defined aim. For example, the goal should be to disrupt a market, or perhaps your organization’s creative process – not consumer behavior. Identifying and developing ways to satisfy latent demand can indeed lead to behavior change; however, that’s ultimately an outcome, not a strategy. The intent must be to alter a system that’s failing to deliver on that demand, not to force consumers into a new mode of experience. It can be counterproductive to invest in shaking things up when either internal energy is unfocused or the external landscape is not ripe for a shake.

2. Hone your understanding of the landscape you plan to disrupt, and the constituents you plan to serve by doing so

The rhetoric around disruption can suggest that market-shifting product and service innovations are born from instinct, rather than cultivated from insight collected in field. Steve Jobs famously remarked that consumers don’t know what they want. It’s perhaps risking heresy but I’d offer an alternative view: consumers don’t do a good job of articulating what they want on their own. There’s a difference: your team may not be filled with prescient strategists and designers, but you’re more than capable of observing and interpreting what’s happening outside of your organization to activate internal ingenuity.

At FACE, we’re firm believers in the power of anthropology to inspire and guide innovation. In addition to face-to-face methods, we have developed technologies to capture and decode consumer thinking, including online research communities, a mobile ethnography tool, and Pulsar, a best-in-class social data intelligence platform.

These tools empower us, and our clients, to lead by listening. In this sense disruption is less akin to interruption as it is to conversation, in which brands are challenged to move the discussion forward in new and interesting directions.

Creativer People

3. Design an ideation process that breaks through norms

The definition of “disrupt” is to alter or destroy an existing structure. This starts internally: personnel, atmosphere, and inspiration stimulus need to converge in new ways to catalyze new thinking. At FACE we’ve pioneered a workshop method called co-creation, which takes our clients out of their methodological comfort zone in order to spark bigger ideas with more depth and longevity. Co-creation unleashes the creative potential of consumers, experts and brand stakeholders, and combines collaborative ideation, strategic planning and illustrative design. The process pushes teams to:

• Ideate with flow: there is no divorce between insights gathering and ideation for strategic or new product development. They live in the same time and place.

• Foster productive tension: facilitators find momentum in clashing people and beliefs to propel ideation forward and move everyone toward the same goal.

This method has a proven track record for creating successful innovation ideas, faster and cheaper than in the traditional linear NPD model.

Truly disruptive products and services are simplifiers at the core, but getting there is far from simple. Developing successful ideas takes a strategic approach and profound insight. Disruption’s rise to buzzword-status brought on a perception that disruption itself is a strategy that promises big results. This is misleading: if your team wants to catch the disruption wave, question what it will take to get the timing right and achieve a balanced ride to actual progress. We hope these 3 points here will help you do exactly that in your company’s innovation process.

If you’d like to find out more about co-creation methodologies then download our white paper entitled “The Co-creation Revolution“, which explores the basics of co-creation. Also, see how we implement this methodology by reviewing our study with Axe Skincare

Please get in touch if you’d like to talk about how you can get the most out of co-creation by emailing Marc at or tweet him @marc_it.

Andrew Ho at Spikes Asia: The problem with how you get your insight

A couple of weeks ago our MD Asia, Andrew Ho, travelled to Singapore for Spikes Asia, where he attracted a full house with his talk: “The problem isn’t your creative… it’s how you get your insight”.

“We look for insight to inspire great creative, so why don’t we hunt for insight in more creative ways? Everyone hates research; it’s not just creative people. It’s an uninspiring environment, we are starting the creative process in the worst environment possible.

View the full Spikes presentation here:

To understand how we become more creative during research we need to turn the whole idea upside down and re-think the entire process: begin by listening, and then co-create more ideas and insights, which will be rewarded with better briefs, resulting in incredible ideas.

But why is there a lack of creativity? Andrew believes this is down to a loss of communication: we don’t talk to each other anymore. He quoted the great Albert Einstein: “ I have never made my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”.  Instead we need to create insight creatively.

So who is responsible of all of this creative thinking? In typically bold style, Andrew concluded:

“Insight, strategy and creativity is everybody’s responsibility, I don’t care what you’re role is, if you’re not interested in these things you’re not doing your job.”

To find out more about gaining insights through creativity, get in touch by emailing

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andiho

Innovation, China Style: How Xiaomi is stepping up to challenge Samsung & Apple

When Xiaomi first launched its smartphone in 2011 in China, it was received by many as just another local “Apple wannabe” – the handset bears a strong resemblance to Apple’s iPhone and Xiaomi’s CEO launched the new handset with Jobsian flair, dressing almost identically to Apple’s late CEO.

However, in the past 3 years, Xiaomi has proved that its resemblance to Apple stops at its appearance. Instead of simply following Apple’s innovation, Xiaomi has adopted a unique innovation strategy that stems from the China market context and will likely shape and influence innovation in China going forward.

In this article, we will use Xiaomi as an example to understand how innovation in China takes a different shape compared to other markets and how Chinese brands make use of co-creation in a unique way.

CEO of Xiaomi, Lei Jun

CEO of Xiaomi, Lei Jun stands behind a background proclaiming Xiaomi’s motto “Just for Fans” (source:

Innovation through the customer journey

The rapid pace of technology development these days leaves many brands struggling to innovate truly differentiated products. Xiaomi recognizes this issue responding in a disruptive way. Unlike the most recent generations of Apple & Samsung handsets which offer only marginally superior appearance or specifications, Xiaomi has decided to sell smartphones with comparable specifications to these Western brands at very low prices. For example, its low-end Redmi handset features a quad-core 1.5GHz processor, a 4.7-inch display with a pixel density of 312 pixels-per-inch, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2,000 mAh battery – and it’s sold at only US$130.

But don’t be fooled: as Xiaomi’s CEO Lei Jun said in an interview with The New York Times, Xiaomi is “not just some cheap Chinese company making a cheap phone” – it has the ambition “to be a Fortune 500 company.”

How are they achieving this? By moving away from product-focused innovation and turning their attention to innovating around the customer experience.

Unlike Apple & Samsung, which make their margin by selling hardware, Xiaomi’s margin is primarily derived from its after-sales services and content offered to customers. To Xiaomi, the bigger objective is to ensure a unique customer experience that keeps customers coming back:

  • Making customers heard at every touch-point. Without a physical retail store, Xiaomi leverages social media as its primary channel to interact with customers, from announcing new product releases, purchasing and customization of the smartphone, to capturing customer feedback. It has forums across all the key social media platforms in China to ensure that it builds an open and equal relationship with its customers, and keep customers following their latest news
  • Turning customers into fans – by offering consultation and after-sales service at the “House of Mi”, and holding “Mi Fan Festival” annually to inject excitement among Xiaomi fans
  • Opening up Xiaomi’s apps and content – by making its operating system MIUI open for download on other Android phones, it has made Xiaomi’s apps and content more easily accessible, widening the potential to provide services to more users

Families taking photos at Xiaomi's House of Mi

Families taking photos at Xiaomi’s House of Mi (source: – WeChat China)

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like breakthrough innovation, but in fact it’s a paradigm shift – a move from technology-centric product development differentiated primarily by low prices, towards a much more to a customer-centric innovation showing deep understanding of Chinese consumers’ digital behavior.

Innovation through commercialization

In its report “How China is innovating”, McKinsey argue that Chinese brands adopt an approach of “innovation through commercialization”. Instead of spending time on internal R&D to make the product “perfect”, Chinese brands tend to launch their ideas into the market quickly and improve them through a few rounds of commercial realization and testing.

Xiaomi embraces the competitive context of the Chinese market. In response to Chinese companies launching products that are not perfect, Xiaomi go one step further and essentially say to customers, “The product launched is not going to be perfect, but please get involved and help us make it perfect with you.”

At the heart of Xiaomi’s innovation strategy is the company’s process of quickly turning consumer feedback to their advantage. Unlike other smartphone brands that launch a new phone every 6 months or so, Xiaomi releases a new batch of smartphones every week. With their process “Designed as you build”, Xiaomi’s product managers spend a dedicated part of their time collecting user feedback from an online customer forum – and once they pick up a suggestion, it can be translated into an action appearing on an engineer’s desk within just a few hours. Features can then turn from customer feedback to an improved hardware or software in as fast as one week.

For instance, when Xiaomi launched the Xiaomi MI-3, it included a new wifi password-sharing function allowing people to automatically connect to wifi in a public area and share this information with other users. But consumer response was negative, with many people complaining that the function violates privacy and encourages ‘wifi squatters’. Within a day, Xiaomi responded to the feedback by announcing they had suspended the function with immediate effect and erased all 320,000 wifi passwords they had collected from public venues. A new interface was released within a week.

This process does not only make users extra-tolerant of imperfections in the smartphone’s functionality, it has essentially turned Xiaomi users into collaborators, keen to work and co-create with the Xiaomi brand.

Xiami employee's Weibo account reposts the wifi feature suspension message

 A Xiaomi’s employee re-posts Xiaomi’s announcement about suspending wifi sharing on their personal Weibo account, leading to it being picked up by news sites (source:


As a research agency founded around co-creation methods, we have always believed that we need to work collaboratively with consumers, not market at them. Therefore it’s very encouraging to see the rise of Chinese brands like Xiaomi bringing to life the spirit of co-creation by making consumers’ preference and feedback a central part of their innovation strategy.

It’s something for us and the wider research community to bear in mind as market research grows in China and other Asian markets – that is, co-creation isn’t a wholly ‘new’ or ‘outside’ idea here.  However, whilst a lot of Chinese business do apply “co-creation”, this tends to be haphazard and with little structure. We can help businesses optimise their co-creative efforts, harnessing their customer insights to drive business growth.

With Xiaomi leading the way, we believe there is going to be an innovation revolution in China as brands look to their customers for innovative solutions and inspiration. And as an agency, we are excited to be actively involved in this new wave of innovation in China.

Want to find out how we can help your brand develop locally relevant innovation in China through the power of co-creation? Get in touch with us at

The Samsung vs. Apple court case shows the value of social media research

An excellent case study demonstrating the value of social media research has just emerged from an unlikely source: the Apple vs. Samsung patent dispute.


Documents shared as part of the court case reveal some fascinating information about how the two companies were thinking about social data in 2013.

It shouldn’t still bear saying in 2014, but the messages seems slow in getting though: social media data isn’t just about “looking back” at campaigns or the last quarter’s KPIs. Samsung recognised the power of social data for “thinking forward”, for understanding customer needs strategically to feed into product innovation and early-stage comms planning. Here at FACE, we think this is an incredibly valuable and under-used use-case.

Here’s how it works:

1. Samsung used social data strategically: to attack Apple

From Neal Ungerleider in FastCo: Networked Insights Reveals How Samsung Used Social Media to Hack the iPhone:

“Samsung took on a company with the arguably most successful consumer product ever created,” Networked Insights CEO Dan Neely told Fast Company. “Samsung asked us how to use analytics to attack Apple.”

[...] Using aggregated online posts and machine learning techniques, Samsung found several specific weak spots where they could outperform Apple. Customers specifically complained about the iPhone’s comparatively poor battery life, the inefficiencies of Apple Maps, how small the screen was, unhappiness with the Lightning cable, the lack of customization, Siri, and the iPhone’s fragility. Samsung felt that it could compete with Apple on most of these points–and, importantly, that they hard data to back up these consumer preferences.

When working with Networked Insights, a big part of Samsung’s strategy was to vacuum up any information on the iPhone 5 that was posted to social media. This meant using the dashboard they licensed to obtain every iPhone-related post on Tumblr, Twitter, Disqus (a popular commenting platform), WordPress, and YouTube, as well as new hits on Google. This information was then classified, as Neely put it, “15,000 different ways.” A big part of the problem for Samsung and others, Neely said, was the difference in extracting relevant information when they needed it versus finding erroneous information on other aspects of individual customers that were irrelevant to the task at hand. That meant a lot of data processing and fine-tuned analytics.

Importantly, Samsung used the dashboard to find what people were posting online about the iPhone–rather than just looking for posts about Samsung’s own products. They then identified specific complaints about the iPhone where their own products outperformed Apple’s products, and tweaked marketing campaigns to emphasize these Samsung strong points.

So: social media research isn’t just about tracking your own brand activity.

It’s incredibly powerful when you search for unmet needs and pain points – what are the gaps where consumer desires aren’t being fulfilled? Do this across a category (e.g. smartphones) or a competitive set (Apple, Samsung, HTC, Sony Xperia, Nexus, Motorola) to identify the “whitespace” opportunities that  aren’t currently being met.

As such, social media has just as much of a forward-looking role to play in innovation and NPD as it does “looking back” at campaign performance and the past quarter’s KPIs. Use it to shape campaigns and communications, not just to measure their impact.

2. Apple thought it was “nuts” to pay for social media monitoring tools. Their loss

Business Insider’s Jay Yarrow spotted something else interesting in the court documents:

Jay Yarow quote

Apple famously don’t do research, you say? No, Apple do do research – but they don’t necessarily do it well, as Tom Ewing recently illustrated.

You’d see the occasional interesting message if you just look at mentions of “iPhone 5″ through Twitter search… But also an awful lot of noise, at a million mentions per day kind of scale. It’d only be through luck that you might stumble across a message that’d spark any strategic consideration.

You want to understand the relative dissatisfaction with battery life, screen size, and poor signal reception? You need a social data research platform. Social media monitoring tools make this data analysable as a whole  in a way that free online tools simply can’t. For example our platform Pulsar ( collects over 1MB metadata around each tweet, making big datasets like this powerfully segmentable by sentiment, channel, hour, influence level, profile bio and other demographics – allowing for a really fine-grained analysis of not just what people are saying, but who and why.

Technology and data augmentations enable the unmet needs to be identified, quantified and ranked. Use a tree graph to visualise the most common words and phrases that follow “I love…” and “I hate…”. Use semantic analysis to aggregate topics, and compare the top topics across the range of positive, negative and neutral sentiment scores. Start coding tweets into clusters, and use machine learning to extend this across the whole dataset.

Through structured analysis, the depth of insight that can be gained from social data is vast – Samsung realised this, Apple didn’t.

3. What we’ve done

This story was met by us at FACE with a nod of recognition – we have been using social data beyond reputation management for many years now.

Here’s a couple of examples of previous work:

i) Mapping the 4G mobile launch

EE Launch Event..Mandatory Credit Tom Oldham/Tom Dymond

Like Network Insights with Samsung, we also dug into what people were saying around 4G to identify complaints and pain points. What topics were driving discussion – signal, pricing, contracts/tariffs, or the iPhone? For each we identified the specific customer pain points our client needed to address in both comms and their product offer.


But it turned out the biggest unmet need was understanding – a high share of discussion came from people expressing their total bewilderment at the new, high-speed mobile spectrum band.  We used social data to identify and categorise people’s questions, helping our client (a mobile operator) recognise and simplify the messages they needed to communicate to help people understand the new proposition.

ii) “Designing Relevance” for Nokia

Here at FACE we’ve been using social data for strategic insight for years. Back in 2010, Francesco D’Orazio and Esther Garland presented at ESOMAR alongside Nokia’s Tom Crawford on how social media research can be used alongside co-creation to produce a better innovation process:

Innovation should not be so much about ‘creation’, but more about ‘emergence’. Defining the boundaries of possible futures means creating the conditions for fostering the emergence of ideas that are already taking shape in the social space, but have not filtered up to the top or are not formed enough to bubble up yet. In a connected real-time ecosystem where the consumer can be as creative as the designer, the new model of innovation should be listening, reducing complexity, decoding the signal from the noise, collaborating with consumers and only then defining the boundaries of possible futures.

The project started with a “download” from social media to gather the widest possible range of themes and scenarios for this project:

The project kicked off with a two week Social Media Monitoring and Trends Analysis programme using netnography, semantic and network analysis across forums, social networks, blogs, news sites, microblogs, video and photo sharing sites from the United States. Using Face’s social media analysis platform Pulsar we tracked more than 100, 000 ‘sources’ (where Twitter counts as one source) and harvested almost 1.5 million items of content. These were analysed to gather insight into how key consumer segments in North America talk about smart-phones and which key themes, topics and angles were most resonant with them. 

Analysing conversations amongst users talking to each other rather than responding to researchers yielded a huge amount of richness. Furthermore, this helped develop clear learnings on language, tone of voice and attitudes to the brand and the category. It allowed for a different kind of research landscape, one which subverts the traditional question and answer format and replaces it with something far more natural and intuitive. By working in a more natural communication mode we also ended up expanding our research agenda to challenges we didn’t even know existed or that we wanted to investigate.

For the full story, read the full whitepaper up on Slideshare here, or check out the presentation:

Or get in touch if you’d like to talk forward-looking social research – I’m at