CEO Adviser: Eastern Exposure


Historically, marketing ideas and trends have traveled west across the Pacific. 

In this digital era, things may be changing. With mobile marketing, it’s time to see what’s traveleing from the Far East to the West.

This wouldn’t be the first time we could see the future by looking to Asia. 

I recall seeing a presentation by the Japanese wireless company DoCoMo at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Surprisingly, nearly all the people in DoCoMo’s presentation were shown texting rather than talking on their phones.

At that time, texting was virtually unheard of in the United States. Now, for most of us — and certainly for my kids — it’s the preferred way to communicate.

In a similar way, by looking at China, we can see both our future and our past. All eyes were on China when Alibaba recently launched the largest IPO in history. Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma calls online shopping “a lifestyle” in China. Almost three-quarters of digital buyers in China say they prefer shopping online to traditional retail outlets. A MasterCard survey found that nearly 60 percent of Chinese online shoppers made purchases via smartphone. In fact, China is massively mobile. It’s the largest smartphone market in the world. Ditouzu, which translates roughly as “the lowered head crowd,” is a term invented in China to describe those who are addicted to their mobile phones.

Chinese mobile consumers are, therefore, tech savvy. They use their devices frequently — several times a day — and in some different ways from the way we use ours. That’s our future — and we can look to China for some fascinating ways to embrace it.

But China’s mobile infrastructure is immature, and most smartphone users still only have broadband access via Wi-Fi. So Chinese consumers are less “mobile” with their mobile devices than we are, often using their at-home Wi-Fi because it goes faster.While marketers here look for ways to engage customers everywhere, location is not nearly as likely to change in China.

Taking mobility out of the equation can simplify marketers’ choices when they look to build relationships with customers. Local mobile apps — such as Moji Weather and WeChat, an innovative group text and video service — are beloved by Chinese consumers. Marketers can use these popular apps to become part of consumers’ daily mobile lives.

WeChat, for example, is a great tool for mobile couponing. Global retailers like Papa John’s and small local businesses offer QR code coupons in offline materials that people can easily scan with WeChat.

But clever marketers take it even further. For example, Starbucks launched a “naturally awake” campaign that endeared the company to customers by asking WeChat followers to send an emotion to Starbucks, which then replied with a link to a song that fit the customer’s mood. 

Our client, Volkswagen, uses WeChat to engage customers. VW created its own digital platform that allows people to design their next vehicle online. Engagement on this new platform is tremendous. Social sharing is encouraged, and these users do it with passion. Imagine if as many as one-third of your Facebook followers were so engaged with your brand that they shared your posts!

In the West, marketers have been slow to try these types of fun, relational approaches. Not so long ago we’d hear questions like: Who would want to friend a brand on Facebook? Twitter is boring — who wants to know what some random guy ate for breakfast? 

We’ve gotten so far away from the “if you build it, they will come” approach that we’ve lost our imagination for what could work. Seeing what goes on in China should open our eyes to more possibilities. 

The enthusiasm of Chinese people for mobile engagement with marketers is exciting and is sure to go beyond Alibaba and WeChat. We can hope it’s a harbinger of the future for our country. 

Thirteen years ago, at the Winter Olympics, I learned that voice plans in Japan were expensive, so sending texts turned out to be a good work-around for consumers. Who knows what fluke of pricing or fashion or necessity will create another trend?
The marketing landscape is now global in a way it never was before. We need to stay alert to both the similarities and the differences in cultures to maintain our balance and our success. Whatever happens abroad will have an impact on us, sooner rather than later. 

Spyro Kourtis is president of Seattle’s HackerAgency, a unit of the Interpublic Group.

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