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China Marketing, Digital Marketing

Is China the B2B Crystal Ball for the Next Normal?

Asia was the first region to be impacted by the Corona-19 virus, with cities like Shanghai implementing robust lockdown procedures and public health tracking initiatives at the end of January, just as the Chinese New Year holiday period, the largest human migration event on the planet, began.

And thanks to the measures adopted, China appears to be amongst the first regions to focus back on the economy and back on generating growth. So what can the rest of the world, and B2B marketers in particular, learn from China’s experience?

This question was one we recently pondered in some detail when Brandigo partnered with our friends at The Marketing Practice on a webinar discussing the future of B2B marketing.

And it’s not just us who have been thinking about it either. Thought-leaders around the world have been looking at Asia in general, and China specifically, to see what the world can expect from a “new” or “next” normal (depending which nomenclature you prefer). McKinsey recently published an article looking at the Asia perspective and highlighted some interesting aspects including Covid-19’s impact on the social contract. We have first-hand knowledge of this here in Shanghai, with mobile tech and platforms more associated with e-commerce being utilized as a national health code system and citizens comfortable forgoing concerns about privacy and data-usage for what was perceived as serving the greater good.

As a B2B marketer living and working in China, here are the three things I learnt from our lockdown and the impact I believe they will have on the future of China marketing.

Blurred lines exist between B2B and B2C but remote working is not here to stay

When I was allowed back into our office at the beginning of March there was a palpable sense of relief both in the Brandigo office and the rest of the building. People were pleased to be back. My own personal productivity went up which felt great and I enjoyed having that distinction between home and workspace back. A lot of the discussion back home has been around how the virus has accelerated the move towards remote working and how working practices will never be the same. Here in China, that isn’t the case. Working from home is not part of the culture here and the speed that people have embraced being back at work demonstrates this.

As mentioned above, there is a blurred line sometimes between B2B and B2C in China, with apps like WeChat crossing over between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ time. This is an important consideration for B2B marketers and their China digital strategy but trying to engage with new legions of remote workers is not the way to go.

Make sure you are part of the solution

China is very good at generating national unity and support for its own institutions and businesses, with homegrown brands making sure they are staying visible and being perceived as contributing to the recovery. International brands had three options when the Covid-19 crisis hit, go dark and wait for things to pick up, remain visible and adapt messaging that encouraged consumers to stay safe or demonstrate how they were making an active contribution to educating consumers on how to stay safe and how their brand was pivoting to aid the recovery. The first option has seen many of the foreign brands who adopted the strategy fall behind in terms of brand awareness and market growth.

The second walked a fine line between maintaining positive sentiment and negative perceptions of virtue signalling. Brands who got this wrong, particularly in China, faced the wrath of consumers. As the below graph from Statista shows, 76% of Chinese consumers convinced others to stop using a brand based on its inappropriate response to Covid-19.

statistic_id1110243_global-consumers-discouraging-from-brand-use-due-to-poor-covid-19-response-2020

The latter strategy though has been by far the most effective, with brands launching campaigns that demonstrated empathy and community support, were educational and motivating, or provided a solution to some of the problems people faced during the lockdown. Despite shuttering 5,000 stores in China during the lockdown, Nike is starting to see profits return to previous levels thanks to a smart pivot to online as well as consumer engagement through apps like the Nike Training App which focused on in-home workouts and wellbeing. A donation of $1 million to China Youth Development Foundation to help provide supplies and equipment for the treatment of Covid-19 also demonstrated Nike’s commitment to China.

The company is now using its experience in China during Covid-19 as a playbook for the rest of the world.

B2B plays catch up in the digital revolution

China has long been a world leader on e-commerce and an early adopter of the latest mobile tech, evident in the current evolution to 5G infrastructure. Livestreaming has increasingly been a fixture of the e-commerce landscape but its impact grew exponentially in China during the Covid-19 crisis.

Yet despite all of this, a lot of B2B interactions and engagement still relied on face-to-face meetings in one form or another.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact in this space with digital communication channels such as DingTalk accelerating their role out during the China lockdown and hugely increasing their number of users. Some businesses altered the KPIs of their salesforce to allow video conferencing to count as contact when previously only face-to-face meetings were considered. Another significant impact is the cancellation of all trade shows and industry exhibitions in the region. The China Import and Export Fair (also known as the Canton Fair) for example, one of the biggest of its kind in the world, took the decision that its 127th exhibition will be completely online. It is going to be fascinating to see how that plays out and the challenge for B2B marketers is going to be in creating a digital presence that really stands out.

"When I was allowed back into our office at the beginning of March there was a palpable sense of relief both in the Brandigo office and the rest of the building."

- Steven Proud

Brandigo, Global Marketing Director

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