As the world shakes off the restrictions of a global pandemic, many global brands are re-focusing their marketing efforts on China. However, a barrier that still exists today is the misconception that their brand will be successful in China simply because they have “made it” in other countries. Despite the international travel restrictions to China, the Middle Kingdom has progressed in waves beyond people’s imagination.

Some brand owners might continue resort to applying a band-aid solution to their brand strategy in China, without making the necessary investment to understand local market insights, behaviors and preferences. However, the “lift and shift” strategy that might have worked in the past, is no longer effective in China.

The Orangeblowfish, which has been based in China’s most cosmopolitan city, Shanghai, since 2012, identifies three creative brand strategies that we believe are essential for brands to be successful in China: (a) create an emotional bond with consumers; (b) be nimble and flexible to react swiftly and (c) reimagine retail.

Strategy 1: Create an emotional bond with consumers

One common mistake many global brands make is that the creative brand strategy for China is developed by an international team in a brand’s headquarters country, with little involvement from the local team who will do the execution.

According to Siu Tang, founder and executive creative director of The Orangeblowfish, “when local market insights are not taken into consideration, you diminish a brand’s success.”

This is not an earth-shattering concept. When you’re developing a brand strategy for the European market, would you engage a creative team in Asia to do it? Probably not, because the local cultural nuances and consumer preferences between the two regions are completely different. Yet many brands continue to leverage creative teams they are comfortable with to manage their strategy for China, even when these teams have very little experience or understanding of the market.

Ultimately, brands who succeed in China know how to create an emotional bond between a brand and its consumers. This emotional bond helps Chinese consumers understand the brand and its DNA, and often it’s more about how your message is said, than what is said.

One such example, is how ASICS created a powerful connection between their brand and its customers. ASICS engaged The Orangeblowfish to develop the master visual brand storytelling for ASICS’ retail stores in Mainland China and assist with the launch of their Runners Hub in Shanghai. “This space is all about helping customers experience what ASICS can provide, and creating a community that puts the consumer first,” said Tang. The ASICS Runners Hub offers services to help customers get measured or assessed to see what shoe will work for them or help them improve their posture. Consumers can also try out shoes at the on-site track or rent shoes to take home to try out and provide feedback to ASICS about the products themselves. This community-driven experience has built a relationship between the brand and its customers, showing that ASICS knows the importance of getting to know the runners who will wear their products.

Thus, it is critical to understand not only your target market’s demographics, but also its culture and values and how you can connect your brand to these values. This can be as simple as understanding that for the Chinese, “Valentine’s Day” is in the middle of the year; which fell on August 4th, 2022. Knowing these subtle differences demonstrates that you have taken the time to understand Chinese consumers, an understanding which can pay off in a big way.

Strategy 2: Be nimble, flexible and adapt to market changes swiftly

China has a huge population that is often the first to embrace new technology and trends, while increasing their purchasing power in leaps and bounds. Therefore, not only are global brands competing against each other, but also against incredibly strong domestic brands who have an added advantage by understanding not only the local market culture, but also that they need to move quickly. In China, trends come and go extremely quickly, and what is popular one moment is passé the next.

Tang has seen brands get overwhelmed. “If you try to play catch up with trends and things in pop culture or social media, you’re always going to be behind, and you can really get swamped and bogged down.”

However, Tang suggests that brands need to focus, and adapt their brand and creative strategies to strengthen consumers’ understanding of their brand core values. Knowing that things might derail, it’s best that creative teams are flexible to respond to consumer behavior and feedback. “As much as brands want to be authentic, be prepared to make mistakes. Make changes if something doesn’t work.” Tang added.

However, even if there is a slip-up, Tang says that global brands don’t need to panic. “Chinese consumers tend to be quite “forgiving” of brands that slip up from time to time, and a marketing or product error doesn’t mean the end of your presence in China,” he says. With a trial-and-error mindset, brands can gain comfort in the fact that a launch or campaign may not always be successful, and there is always room to fine-tune a product or strategy.

Strategy 3: Reimagine retail

The reimagination of retail is enabling brands to re-think their ability to optimize their retail space. Before Covid, everyone was excited about being online 24x7. Convenience resulted in heavy online consumption from ordering take out to getting groceries, buying products and consuming content. Since the Covid lockdown, people are keen to be outdoors in nature, resorting to basic human instincts to connect with others and interact with each other.

“What we’re seeing in China, is that brands are approaching us to revamp their retail space into a place that brings together their community,” says Tang. “Brands are learning that building relationships with consumers that are deeper than one transaction will boost brand following”.

Although the importance of digital channels won’t go away, the post-pandemic situation gives brands huge opportunities to be creative. “We’re working with many brands to design multi-use spaces that are visually appealing yet functional – whether it is to host learning or sharing sessions or bringing key opinion leaders (KOL) to conduct brand building and live streaming online to showcase products,” says Tang.

While collaborating with ASICS on their Runners Hub, The Orangeblowfish worked with ASICS to design EGD (Environmental Graphic Design) that would enhance the space, creating brand touchpoints and content that consumers can interact with both physically and virtually.

“Chinese consumers are always carrying smart devices with them into retail spaces and expecting to do something cool. Whilst the retail space is considered an offline experience, brands need to be prepared to engage consumers, through in-store QR codes for example, that link to online product pages that continues the engagement when the consumers leave the store.”

Another example of the power of connecting the online and offline consumer experiences is the YUESAI retail space at New World mall in Shanghai. Tasked with improving foot traffic and boosting its brand appeal for a new generation of customers, The Orangeblowfish created a new retail experience by integrating state-of-the-art technology into the retail space. In addition to scannable QR codes that opened product information on their phone, customers could learn more about a product by simply placing it on a sensor touch pad built into the counter, which would reveal product details, customer reviews and related products. Developing an online interface for the in-store skin analysis experience also allowed customers to easily receive and share the results of their skin analysis, plus the recommended products, by simply scanning a QR code afterwards. Combined with the space’s rejuvenated modern design, this refreshingly new perspective on YUESAI’s retail experience increased sales and traffic to their retail store in as short time as two months since the counter store redesign.

Ultimately, this integration of marketing, PR and retail strategies is all about storytelling. As Tang says, in China, storytelling and content really matters. “Brands must dig into the brand to visualize the content and ensure they have the content for all the consumer touch points to make their experience memorable.”

Keep an open mind

At the end of the day, the China of 2022 is hugely different from what it was, and there are big opportunities for brands who embrace these trends.

“The brands who will be successful will be the ones who keep an open mind,” says Tang. “This time in China is the most interesting, and there is so much creative freedom for things we can do and try out. Brands are very willing to try new strategies and technologies, and consumers reward creativity.”