In a country that is both digital-savvy and culture-hungry, reaching customers in China through social media is so much easier than you would imagine…
When in 2010 British haircare products company Tangle Teezer suddenly started getting lots of orders from China, the roots of its mysterious success revealed themselves in social media.
Chinese students, having studied in the UK and discovered the company's products, were returning to China and spreading the word online. Later that year, Chinese supermodel, Lie Wen, having also found Tangle Teezer in the UK, blogged about it, kicking off a second, much larger wave of Chinese interest.
“Suddenly our business in China was born,” recalls Gemma Clarke, the firm's chief marketing officer.
The following year, a Shanghai importer, run by a former Manchester University student who had witnessed the peaking of social media interest in Tangle Teezer, approached the company and a distribution partnership was formed.
Further success in China came in 2011 when a story broke among the online community that Kate Middleton had used a Tangle Teezer on the morning of her wedding to Prince William. Quick to capitalise on this, the firm created the `Princess Brush' branding for China.
Fully cognisant of the benefits of social media by now, the company engaged China-based illustrator, Ding Yichen, to help create market-specific designs, allowing it to tap into her six million followers in China.
Although social media was not part of Tangle Teezer's initial marketing strategy, in a market where combined e-commerce and digital media are so readily part of consumer life, especially among the firm's prime target 18 to 30s age range, Clarke saw a clear opportunity.
“Even from my desk in Brixton, it is possible to launch into China. It is phenomenal; we suddenly had access to 300 million online shoppers,” she says.
The approach has paid off. In 2016, China became the firm's largest global market with annual retail sales topping £18m. “It has been such an exciting journey for us,” comments Clarke,“ and it has really been so much easier than you would imagine”.
Mindful of this success story, Alicia Liu, founder and managing director of London-based global PR firm, Singing Grass Communications, urges British companies seeking maximum value from Chinese social media to major on the heritage and prestige of their Britishness.
“These are qualities that the Asian and especially Chinese aspirational generation love,” she notes. As they travel and study around the world, anything representing these values will find their way back to China - and a vast online community ready and willing for cultural and commercial exchange.
Although global channels such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter have a presence in the wider region, they either lack the impact or are subject to local restrictions, notes Liu. However, through social media platforms such as WeChat (with 650 million users every month) or Weibo (twice as many users as Twitter), communication and direct sales channels are aligned, reaching both consumer and business users on one platform.
The key to success for a British business is understanding that Asian culture is very much about forming a bond of trust first, where being able to show who you are and tell a story is vital, explains Liu.
“The reason WeChat and Weibo are so powerful is that they allow the blurring of personal life and business life,” she adds.
And with a huge appetite for peer review in this market, the facility to check what friends and influencers are saying and then being able to buy straight away social media bridges many divides. Indeed, recommendations both offline and on social networks such as WeChat, QQ and Sina Weibo have become “the most important factor in the online shopping decision,” according to another McKinsey report featured in China Daily.¹
For the beginner though, do not assume that Asian, and particularly Chinese, social media has the same “fluffy” Facebook-style content. Clarke freely admits that her first foray based on this assumption generated absolutely no interest. “It's totally different. It's much more about shopping. This is why social media can be such a powerful ally for British brands in China.”