Change in China tends to be a long time coming. Little transpires for years – if not decades – and then something new comes along and pole vaults past everything.
Take the restaurant industry as an example. It saw little change for years and then hipster and fusion-inspired eateries sprang up right next door to family-run restaurants still serving bowls and cups encased in plastic.
Then China went from cash to online payments almost overnight and bypassed the era of mass credit card ownership we still have in the West.
And new apartment blocks continue springing up opposite relics of Soviet design from the 1980’s. From restaurants to apartment buildings, China is a patchwork of ultra new and evidence of a bygone era.
But change happens so fast that new and old can co-exist in harmony for extended periods too. In Hangzhou, public bikes share the road with their shiny competitors. No one knows how long the public bike model will last. But public bikes remain popular in Hangzhou despite the availability of their lazy-to-park rivals.
Marketing practices in China are no different. Marketing tactics have evolved so fast that old forms have yet to retire. They live on – unrecognizable from their successors – but effective until millions of late-adopters finally convert.
In this post, I turn my attention to old and new marketing tactics that coexist in China today.
The Old Way #1: Door-to-door Sales
One of the normalcies in my previous job was the constant stream of salespeople entering the office. Unsolicited sales calls were a daily occurrence and with each visit came a new flyer. Our office was a magnet for flyers. Mind you, this wasn’t helped by the fact we didn’t have a receptionist to play gatekeeper! Unchallenged, they fluttered in and out, clutching flyers with everything from lunchtime food options to commercial real estate.
Then there were the salespeople that could enter completely undetected. At times you’d get up to make yourself a coffee and come back to find a new flyer on your desk for the gym downstairs or a local English academy.
While they can be great masters of stealth, China’s door-to-door sales army are less well-trained in the art of a persuasive sales pitch. The standard protocol is to directly walk in and ask: “(insert product/service) xuyao ma?” and scan for a flat surface or a pair of hands to offload a flyer. At the sign of any resistance, the typical follow-up response is to leave and try next door.
While my current workplace has physical barriers to entry, I’m told this marketing tactic is alive and well in many office buildings in China.
The New Way #1: Online-to-offline
In the past, traditional brick and mortar businesses were constrained by location. The only way to scale the size of their customer base was to invest in flyers. Online-to-offline (O2O) has changed all that.
O2O is empowering offline businesses of all sizes to reach new customers through online technology and platforms such as Dianping and Meituan. This is enabling businesses to streamline operations, including booking systems and online payments, and tap into a new source of customers.
The Old Way #2: Stencil Advertising
While office buildings have long provided a steady target for door-to-door salespeople, apartment blocks have not. Bolted metal security doors command respect in China. Nor do apartment dwellers in Beijing or Shanghai have the habit of inviting the salesman in for a cuppa.
But small business operators have found an alternative route around this problem. Rather than wrestle the security door and a hostile reception, they have turned their attention to the unprotected hallways. The blank concrete corridors of residential buildings provide an endless canvas for free stencil advertising.
Common culprits include local plumbers, electricians, and locksmiths. These makeshift billboards are an eyesore for residents – until that darned day when you leave your keys inside or the shower pipe bursts!
The New Way #2: Live-streaming
Rather than interrupt people at home with door-to-door sales, live-streaming delivers advertising as a novel form of entertainment. Akin to the late night infomercials we’ve become accustomed to in the West, product demonstrations take place in China via online streaming.
Online personalities demand a captive audience as they push products in real-time to thousands of concurrent users. Live-streaming is transforming other industries as well. Real estate agents, for example, use video streaming to connect Chinese buyers with properties on the other side of the globe.
The Old Way #3: The Wagon & Megaphone Approach
In most Chinese suburbs, there’s usually at least one pesky sole-trader with a wagon and a megaphone. Wagons vary from portable fruit stands to vehicles hauling discarded household appliances.
Mornings and weekends are the best time to run marketing activities, as residents are most likely to be home or asleep. This is where the screechy megaphone kicks in. The trick is to pre-record a short marketing message, set it on repeat, and blast it over the megaphone. Elderly residents are then usually the first to rush downstairs. While the megaphone-wagon combination is a sure-fire way to grab attention, this is one old marketing tactic I hope and urge to dissolve first.
The New Way #3: Online Platforms
The new way to reach Chinese consumers when they’re at home is online. Whether you’re listing products on an e-commerce site or your own micro store, online platforms are a cost-effective and scalable channel to reach new customers. Establishing an online presence also builds trust with Chinese consumers, who use the Internet as a go-to resource before purchasing.
The Old Way #4: Mass Advertising
A number of factors have driven China’s adoption of instant messaging apps. Stickers, online payments, and free voice messaging have each played their role. Another driving force has been the refuge from the alternative – an SMS inbox overloaded with notifications and spammy advertising. Pesky messages are a daily and sometimes hourly occurrence in China, but obviously, it must work.
The New Way #4: Data-driven Advertising
Rather than spam an audience with mass advertising, companies can now tailor promotions to end-users. Using Big Data capabilities powered by the cloud, advertisers can issue recommendations to users based on their location, search history, and past purchasing behavior. Businesses can also analyze visitor behavior through analytical tools to drive website optimization.
Much has changed in China since I arrived in 2010, and much has not changed at all. Old and new seem light-years apart, and yet they co-exist in an extended period of twilight. Old marketing tricks still work in China. But new tactics provide the fastest path to cut through the noise, scale a business, and leap past the competition.