March 11, 2006

Chronicles of a China brand marketer: When branding isn’t about “branding”

Filed under: Direct Marketing,Marketing,Web 2.0 — Administrator @ 10:48 am

I met this American, Thomas, from Mooers, New York the other night while waiting for the bank manager at Pudong Development Bank to open the ATM that just eaten our bank cards. It turns out he has been in China for, get this, over 20 years as a marketing director and country manager for some of the largest consumer goods manufacturers on this planet, such as Coke Cola, Nestle, and P&G.

He started talking about what Shanghai looked like in 1982, where to get the best straight razor shave, and of course, his adventures in marketing. The last bit about marketing in China was the most interesting.

According to Thomas, branding in China isn’t about branding at all, it is all about logistics, price points and samples. From his experience he believes that before you can even build/develop a brand you’ve got to get the products into the hands and mouths of the Chinese consumer. And thus, “flashy advertising gimmicks” take a back seat to “cold hard logistical planning.” I’ll try and paraphrase what he told me:

“…not only are you building a proprietary distribution network (well oiled distribution channels are a serious competitive advantage) but also you’re dealing with suppliers unaccustomed to Western standards of quality and time constraints. That fact that consumers can see and physically touch your product might be the best, most effective marketing tool multinationals have at their disposal…

The fact is most China based marketing teams look at the branding approach the wrong way, they come at it from the direction of building short-term demand rather than building a sustainable presence. As a marketer you need to understand how the goods get to market, where products are placed, and at what price people are willing to pay for them. In China, I believe some of the best marketers are also brilliant engineers; most people disagree with this assessment…

It took Dove candy bar almost 8 years to understand this. They came into China with a large Western size candy bar, yet it was too expensive for average Chinese to afford; furthermore, they were not accustom to the rich chocolate taste. The solution was to sell sample size (or bite size) bars but this meant reengineering the entire production and distribution network, not to mention positioning and pricing.”

Well, I’m not sure I completely agree with Thomas on all of this as China’s consumers have gotten a bit more sophisticated; and yet how can you argue with someone who has been in the business about as long as I’ve been alive? I do think he makes a very interesting point about the power of samples and the importance of logistics in branding.

Anyhow, after that conversation I wanted to find out how wide spread sampling was in Shanghai, so I went into a Lawson’s, looked around, and was like, cool, lots of Western brands do in fact use sample size packaging. And, then I thought, gosh, sampling must be really expensive, at what point will manufacturers stop sampling and just go back to exclusively selling regular size products? And the I thought, in the States we are crazy about super sizing, getting biggest bang for our buck, but in China people are kind just figuring out what they like and don’t like…interesting, huh?

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