The Shanghai Connection

8 February 2019

China is a fascinating country! At the end of January 2019, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Shanghai, China for one of our clients. There, alongside our local partner, we developed our digital marketing strategy for the Chinese market. First time ever in China…

After getting the necessary visa, requesting a new international passport and puzzling together the most efficient planning possible, I started on my journey. I left home Sunday morning at 9, arrived at my hotel Monday at noon. Travel route: Brussels to Beijing (10h) and then Beijing to Shanghai (2 h). About 24 hours after leaving home, I landed in Shanghai Pudong Airport.

The flight over left little room for sleep (courtesy to the grandfather with 2 toddlers turning the airplane into a playpen). The flight back proved far calmer, and I got about 5 hours of shuteye. For former colleagues in the tourism business: I flew with Hainan Airlines and slept in a Sunrise on the Bund hotel.

The business part

This trip once again made abundantly clear how different the context, consumer & platform landscape in China, and the rest of Asia, truly is from our European context. Trying to see the Chinese market through European tinted marketing goggles is absurd, let alone trying to reach the Chinese consumer through European methods.

Chinese consumers do consider brand and products from Europe very valuable, as they symbolise authenticity and quality in ‘the land of fake’. But that European label no longer appears to be the sole key to absolute success in China. The customer journey of the average Chinese consumer is different and more complex, in no small part thanks to the quantity of available platforms they use daily.

Allow me to summarise my most important conclusions:

Multiplatform market: Chinese users are far fonder of apps than they are the web. In fact, they invariably use packs consisting of several apps to fulfil their different consumer needs (orientation, comparison, communication, buying & sharing)

Search engines (like Baidu) are losing importance in the digital landscape. When Chinese people use search engines, they more often than not are looking for general information about companies or brands instead of searching for products. Products are mostly researched in online shops such as Tmall, in the same way American search Amazon. Moreover, 40% of all search queries in Chinese search engines are brand relates. Building a brand through search engine optimization in the Chinese market certainly does not appear to be the best approach.

Commercial interests dominate! Where in Europa Google seems to have qualitative customer experience in mind, Asian platforms like Baidu are far more focused on hard selling. Just about all available platforms in China seem only interested in getting money, from both the consumer and the advertiser. The more money you invest into one of the Baidu platforms (paid advertising and the likes), the better your search results will be, regardless of quality or brand authority. Link farming is even deemed a successful SEO tactic in China.

Brand credibility: Brands (cf. land of fake) are increasingly considered as a sort of ‘light beacon’ by the Chinese consumer. Is your brand relatively unknown or can the average Chinese person not find it online (through Baidu, marketplaces, WeChat, RED, Weibo, your own website…)? Then odds are slim they will purchase your products online or offline! Personally, I consider Europeans more capable of taking risks in this process than Asian consumers.

KOL: If your company or brand does not dispose of enormous ‘Coca Cola’ sized marketing budgets to spend when entering the Chinese market, key opinion leaders (influencers) can help you along in generating brand recognition. Those influencers to not necessarily need to be the best of the best, their influence works just as well at a regional level. Chinese people are often easily influenced by new trends, especially when they are broadcast by these opinion leaders or by name brands.

Millennials: As opposed to Europe, Chinese consumers are quite young and looking to gain wealth and status fast. Looking to reach a financially strong demographic? Then millennials are the way to go. This trend could impact how you brand yourself towards the Chinese market and how your communication will flow. Communication styles should be ‘cool’, making the purchase of any product by your brand ‘cool’ as well. Big brands like Cartier, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Chanel seem to have gotten the message.

Stealing momentum: Chinese consumers are also very much guided by the Chinese calendar. Aligning your campaign planning and content calendar with it will prove absolutely indispensable in enhancing your campaign performance. Including the Zodiac calendar wherever possible is another valuable path to consider.

Smaller brands: The Chinese consumer is opening up to lesser known brands (without discarding the importance of trust, that is). Instead of focusing on the big brands with massive budgets in the Chinese market, as a CEO or entrepreneur you should focus on the opportunities for your brand. Develop relevant customer services, actively engage your audience and show your presence on all relevant platforms to build your brand name.

Mobile: It probably needs no further explanation that Chinese people are practically fused to their phones. A separate mobile friendly interface for the Chinese market could be key to developing your activities in the Chinese market, even more so than in Europe.

Voice Search & Commands: I had never fully experienced it in practice, but Chinese users constantly use voice commands to activate and navigate their apps. And the apps talk back! Local search is therefore an invaluable part of your marketing strategy in China.

In summary: make sure you are visible on multiple platforms (Baidu, Tmall of, WeChat, RED or Weibo), adjust your communication to speak to a millennial audience (content2culture), and make sure to offer customer service & interaction for your online user. Along with influencers, they are a great alternative to big marketing budgets.

The pleasure part

Again: China is a fascinating country! My trip, though, felt to short (Sunday through Wednesday) to really discover the country.

The Food

On the first day of my trip, reluctant to start an expansive culinary search, I ended up in the teppanyaki restaurant of the hotel. I experienced the best of several cultures when the Taiwanese chef prepared Japanese teppanyaki in my Chinese hotel, which I washed down with French wine… il faut le faire. But it was damned good, that guy can cook!

On the second day, and more or less adjusted to the time zone, I was fortunate enough to be able to ask one of our local connections to take me to a Chinese restaurant outside of the tourist area. Going local like a boss!

Bullfrog anyone?  Although I consider myself to be a foodie with a strong stomach, I must admit that traditional Chinese cooking was a bit testing. Aside from some ‘normal’ dishes like smoked eel in a smoky sauce, ‘smelly’ spring rolls (not my words), chicken dumplings smoked fish and Peking duck (including cartilage), bullfrog was also on the menu. The photo can speak for itself and the taste was nothing too unusual, but I did underestimate the impact of the thought of eating this animal on my stomach.

My Chinese companion for the evening must have taken great pleasure in seeing my struggle! Despite the culinary experience, the evening turned out to be fun, interesting and relaxing.

Not to say that traditional Chinese cooking is not tasty, it is miles apart from the European interpretation of Chinese food, especially when considering the psychological weight of some of the dishes. As a matter of fact, one of the dishes turned out to contain cat. But since I didn’t know which one, I had less trouble processing it.

Things to see!

On my half day off, I wound up in the Chenghuang temple and on The Bund, a type of boulevard on the Huangpu River with a view of the Shanghai skyline.

Not much can be said of these sights: a lot of Chinese people (I was just about the only non-Asian there), mostly aimed at selling souvenirs, food stands everywhere with cat or dog satay, live crab and squid, and an overwhelming mixture of smog and something reminiscent of the previous night’s bullfrog. My stomach churned…

The people

My first impression seemed to confirm all clichés about the Chinese people: little emotion, slightly grumpy, difficult to communicate with, subservient and they all look the same.

What especially stood out to me, even at the hotel, is their very limited knowledge of the English language (besides, of course, with the people I met professionally). A bartender at a very touristy place apologised for her lacking proficiency in written English on her phone and told us no one was around to teach her.

You can sense that Western tourism, and by extension Western tourists, is still something locals are getting used to.

On second glance, however, the view is very different. If you walk around for a few days and try to submerge yourself in the local culture, as far as possible, it becomes clear that they are not so different from us. Sharing beers, having fun, going out to dinner with the kids and visiting tourist spots: they do it all. Unfortunately, passing gas and spitting phlegm is also part of the daily routine.

See you soon, China!