Global Observer

Marketing to Chinese consumers with social media

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HONG KONG -- One of Asia's top social-media marketers discusses why it is crucial that luxury brands engage with Chinese consumers online.

Brands like Bobbi Brown would have to talk to Chinese consumers through Weibo, not Twitter

HONG KONG — Thomas Crampton, the Asia-Pacific director of Social@Ogilvy for Ogilvy & Mather, spoke this week to the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry here about the importance for luxury brands to engage with Chinese consumers through social media.

Afterward, we discussed further the role of social media in China right now, which he says is a medium paramount for brands looking to successfully enter the Chinese market. "If a company’s not involved in social media, I used to think it’s a lost opportunity," he said. "Now, if you’re not involved in social media, it’s a serious risk to your brand."

Crampton, who has been traveling around the world to speak with luxury designers, stresses that China’s social media plays a hugely significant role in the everyday lives of Chinese consumers, greater even than in countries like the U.S. “China is the most social media connected country in the world. Bar none,” he said. Ask a room of Chinese university students about their recent media consumption, and you are bound to find that hardly any one of them would have watched the state-run television news network CCTV that week, he said, while nearly all of them would have used Tudou and Youku — China’s versions of YouTube.

Furthermore, social media plays a key role in Chinese consumers' knowledge and decisions about the luxury products that they have come to covet so much in recent years as a result of growing wealth. The growth of luxury consumption is expected to grow dramatically in Asia over the next 15 years, with a large part of it coming from China. And 69% of Chinese consumers purchase or consider purchasing products after looking up brands online, Crampton said, citing the Global Web Index from 2010.

Without a social-media strategy targeting a Chinese audience, companies risk being perceived incorrectly or in undesirable ways. On the other hand, by reaching out to Chinese consumers, "you can play a role in education, teaching people how to live the good life," he said. "And they’re very keen to learn in China.”

Crampton gave an example of the American cosmetics maker Bobbi Brown, who began in 2010 to tweet on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter. She, or more likely whoever is managing her account, responds to fans' questions in Chinese. The move significantly raised her profile as a makeup guru. She now has over 170,000 followers.

Because of China's censorship, nearly all of the country's social media is based within its borders. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned, for example, so China has its own version of everything, which Chinese citizens use almost exclusively.

It is a lagging awareness of high-end brands combined with a strong culture of showing off their possessions one study by researcher CIC concluded that 87% of online mentions of fashion brands in China is related to showing off that makes the opportunity ripe. Being able to send the right message about your brand becomes crucial when consumers have never heard of it before. "Nobody knows what the brands are, so this is an opportunity and a danger," Crampton said.

But companies looking to use social media to connect to Chinese consumers need to first know how their brands are being perceived — this is where the pros come in. Using various tools, agencies are able to analyze what people are saying about the brands online and then tailor their marketing campaigns to influence those perceptions.

Crampton said that because someday, all marketing campaigns will include a social-media component, marketers who specialize in the medium will cease to exist. "With the growth of that interest in social media, it’s really going to be something that goes from being a specialty to something that is integrated into everything that happens," he said. "So I think that what I do is going to disappear, in effect, and I hope that I don’t lose my job. But my job should disappear eventually, theoretically."

"Because what I do will be so integrated into what everyone else is doing. That’s why social media as a separate specialty will cease to exist."

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure