Category Archives: Blog

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

Watch our webinar: How Social Media Predicts Ticket Sales

Thanks to everyone who joined me last Thursday for my webinar on How Social Media Predicts Concert Ticket Sales. With over 50 attendees we had a great global audience and some really good questions at the end – I had to think on my feet! Feedback’s been really positive, so thank you all for attending.

If you missed it, no need to miss out – the full webinar can be downloaded here with slides and audio for the full experience. The webinar runs for 30 minutes, with an additional 5 minutes for questions.

Alternatively here’s our presentation ready to read:

If you liked that…

...Why not check out some of our other research studies, such as How Stuff Spreads, my webinar with Francesco D’Orazio on viral videos Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake – or some big thinking on The Future of Social Media Research.

…Or if you’d like to get in touch to talk about how the learnings might apply to your own business, or explore doing a similar study yourself, just send me an email at

…If you’d like to learn more about our social data research platform Pulsar that powered this project, head on over to or email and our team will get back to you right away.

Does social media drive sales? A research review

As social media research matures, the big question on everyone’s lips is “How can we connect this to other data?” More particularly, how can we connect it to what really matters to our business: sales?

Last week I gave a webinar on exactly this topic, sharing the results of our research study mapping social media buzz for 3 music events against ticket sales. You can find that presentation here on Slideshare, and download the full recording from this link.

In this blog, I want to put our work in context and map the wider industry thinking on this issue by summarising 5 other key social-to-sales research studies. There are a number of different ways that social media activity and sales can be compared, and I hope it’s useful to provide a summary and outline some of the key differences:

1. Buzzkill: Coca-Cola Finds No Sales Lift from Online Chatter
March 2013

Presenting at the Advertising Research Foundation’s Re:Think 2013 conference, Coke’s Eric Schmidt reported that “We didn’t see any statistically significant relationship between our buzz and our short-term sales.” (

Note that Coke are still big believers in social media’s effectiveness as part of an integrated campaign: said Wendy Clark, “It’s the combination of owned, earned, shared and paid media connections – with social playing a crucial role at the heart of our activations – that creates marketplace impact, consumer engagement, brand love and brand value.”


[image created by Coca Cola, via]

But this study is evidence that overall social media buzz – the number of brand mentions – doesn’t necessarily correlate with sales. What might?

2. McKinsey Finds Social Buzz Can Affect Sales — Negatively, Anyway
June 2013

“The consulting firm initially couldn’t find any connection between social-media buzz and sales, either when looking at overall data changes or even by applying an algorithm to assign sentiment to the buzz. But McKinsey found the relationship between negative buzz and a decline in sales when it “hand tabulated” sentiment in social-media comments.” (

This negative sentiment hurt signups by 8%, “offsetting their entire TV spend,” McKinsey principal Jonathan Gordan said at the Advertising Research Foundations Audience Measurement 8.0 conference in New York. Why? Because the negativity was primarily driven by complaints about the sign-up process and call-centre workers at the telecom provider. 

This shows how a relationship between social and sales can become visible when you drill down into more specific aspects of social data. Brand volumes didn’t impact telecoms sign-ups - but complaints about the sign-up process did.

3. Eventbrite: Facebook Drives More Ticket Sales Than Twitter And LinkedIn Across US And UK
April 2012

A different metric here – not social media volumes (aka the number of messages mentioning a brand), but the number of shares:

“The company says that Facebook is the king of all social networks when it comes to ticket sales. In the UK, if a person shares an event on Facebook, it generates an average of £2.25 ($3.60) in additional gross ticket sales. A share on Twitter, meanwhile, drives an average of £1.80 ($2.90), and an event shared on LinkedIn generates an average of £1.24 ($1.99) in additional event revenue.” (

Eventbrite’s reason for why Facebook is bringing in more sales is good sense: “The connections we have on Facebook most closely represent the people we actually know and spend time with offline,” its researchers write.

Eventbrite facebook

4. Why Twitter Buzz ≠ Movie Ticket Sales
December 2012

“140 Proof looked at 25 major Hollywood films released in 2012, compiling data on each movie’s social media activity (mentions and hashtags) two weeks before, and two weeks after the release. It found that the number of overall Twitter mentions is a poor predictor of box office sales (unlike tweet volume and TV ratings). What did correlate to box office success was the number of tweets from influential tastemakers” (

Again, the relationship between social and sales doesn’t show up when you just look at raw volumes – but it is still there. Pulsar’s range of influencer metrics such as visibility and Klout filters can enable deeper analysis of how influence relates to sales, going beyond “number of tweets from tastemakers” to understanding how influence levels and sales-power scales.

5. Vision Critical: “From Social To Sale”

A totally different methodology – they’re not mapping activity in social media, or measuring clickthroughs from social channels, but rather surveying 5,657 people asking them to report whether they’d ever bought anything they’d seen on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest.

This is worth doing because, “68% of Facebook users  are “lurkers” who post only rarely, so the influence of  social on their purchasing will not be visible from social  media analytics alone.” It’s a good reminder to think about social media users as much as an audience as content-creators - and that the path to purchase is more complex than old-fashioned sales funnel models, or simple ‘last-click’ attribution.


[image via Digital Information World]

Five studies, two key take-aways for understanding how social and sales connect:

1. Think about your user journey. How do people make a decision to buy your product – who or what might influence them? How  do people consume your product – is it particularly social, like something you would want to do with friends, or something worth boasting and sharing on Twitter and Facebook? Is it something people can purchase quickly online, or a more considered purchase?

2. Think about what aspect of social media to measure. It may not be simple volumes of brand messages that correlate with sales, but something more specific – such as influence, sentiment, or specific topics. Or perhaps it’s not messages at all but behaviours such as sharing. Most of all, remember to measure all of social media, not just owned channel activity: you’re looking for consumer behaviour, not just reactions to your own!

As these studies from a diverse range of brands show, social media does often connect to sales – not all of the time, but often with some statistical smarts & a deep knowledge of social, a link can be found.

Note that we’re saying “connect”, not “cause” - correlation can be assessed using relatively simple stats such as R-squared tests, but unpicking causation (Was it social media activity that made someone buy, or a price promotion, or TV advertising?) is a challenge for regression analysis and a bigger topic than we can discuss here.

And sometimes the relationship between social and sales can go both ways – not only “I buy a concert ticket because I saw the news on Twitter”, but also “I bought a concert ticket for my favourite band and I’m so excited, I want to tell everybody!” Perhaps brands can even hope for a virtuous circle of social driving sales, which drives further social activity, which drives even more sales… Fingers crossed!

Found this interesting? Read our social to sales study: get the presentation here on Slideshare, or download the webinar recording from this link. Thanks!