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.
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 email@example.com