Chinese companies launch huge branding campaign on overseas social media

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2018/4/5 10:04:24

Entrepreneurs call for government to open 'green channel' to freely access foreign websites

A series of photos showing well-polished fashion bloggers riding Chinese shared bicycles on the street of Italy during Milan Fashion Week were circulated widely on foreign social media recently.

The yellow OFO bicycles, a popular Chinese bike-sharing company, appeared to be a perfect match for the city's fashionable atmosphere. Through OFO's cooperation with fashion bloggers, their strategy paid off.

Lü Yiheng with the global branding department at OFO told the Global Times that they did background checks on the fashion bloggers beforehand to make sure that they had not previously said anything inappropriate about China or expressed anti-Chinese sentiment. 

Since 2017, OFO has tapped into 20 foreign countries to successfully attract a large number of young followers. To engage foreign millennials, OFO relies heavily on social media platforms.

OFO is not the only company to do so. Despite a wave of Chinese brands that have been taking over the NASDAQ screen in New York's Times Square, many companies like OFO resort to new tools in their attempt at overseas brand marketing.

Chinese technology giant Huawei sponsored several Instagram celebrities to promote the photo functions of its mobile phones. One Instagram influencer, Joe Greer, has 440,000 followers, to whom he posted photos of a Huawei phone, reported.

Cao Qing, managing director of China Outbound Practice at Ogilvy, told the Global Times that in the past, the role of Chinese companies was simple as they were merely processors for foreign brands. "Now with the upgrade of China's manufacturing capability and the rise of the worldwide middle-class, Chinese companies are better positioned to tell their brand stories, but the challenge is how to do that," he said.

Social strength

Forbes reported in 2015 that millennials are a social generation who indulge in social media to share brand preferences with their groups. The report estimated that US millennials alone had a consumption power of $10 trillion.

"Social media is a powerful tool to promote brands overseas. But now many Chinese companies don't make full use of it and they are blind to the power and value of social media," Lü said.

According to Lü, most of OFO's foreign customers aged between 18 and 35. Lü introduced that to better cater to these people's needs, they analyzed that, in different countries and regions, users tend to have different preferences when using social media. 

In countries including the US and Japan, people are more willing to read short news on Twitter. So the team often feeds users with updated company news on Twitter, such as the honors it has won in China. 

On Instagram, the geographic boundary is blurred and the language requirement is not high. Its users simply like to see beautiful photos of exquisite lifestyles.

"You also need to think thoroughly about what kind of hashtags should be used on different social media platforms. You can't just simply translate from Chinese; you must come upon hashtags that fit the local culture," he said.

Different from China's social media, Lü said that foreign media platforms such as Facebook can provide more accurate data for companies to advertise to targeted customers. He added that many Chinese companies lack experience in noticing these differences and fail to better brand their products on foreign social media.

A 2016 report by Blue Focus revealed that only 13 percent of American consumers get to know Chinese brands through social media, with most Chinese brand exposure overseas "low-key."

But given the demand of companies going global, some prominent changes are happening. A search on for "brand promotion" and "foreign social media" yields numerous seminars charging people hundreds of yuan with promises to teach them how to better run their overseas accounts. Some agencies charge to run accounts on the company's behalf. 

However, Lü said that as many foreign social media is blocked in the Chinese mainland, it has brought some difficulties. He called for the government to open a "green channel" for companies like OFO to explore foreign markets with free access to foreign websites.

Identity challenges

Cao said that, during the first phase of Chinese companies going global, many companies were State-owned enterprises that were undertaking infrastructure construction works. But in recent years, more mobile and internet companies as well as gaming firms joined the wave.

Cao has been helping Chinese brands go global for more than seven years. He noted that a big obstacle for these companies to win overseas consumers is cultural barrier. 

"We're living in an environment that isn't sensitive to cultural differences. So many Chinese brands don't have a clear perception that what they do can be offensive in other cultures," he said.

He noted that some direct translations of brand names have no meaning or are even offensive in other languages.

To better cater to customers in different cultures, OFO hires locals to promote their products on various social media accounts.

While localization is a useful tactic, Lü noted that it also brings new challenges.

"How to let your local employees accept that it's a company from China and agree with your values is a major task," he said. He added that some local senior managers argue that it is better to make OFO look like a "pure local company" for businesses' benefits, which Lü doesn't quite approve.

According to Lü, China's growing influence on the world stage has brought benefits for other Chinese companies overseas. "Many parties would like to cooperate with us as they are also interested in the Chinese market," he said.

But he admitted that it is still a question of how to maintain a balance between localization and preservation of one's Chinese roots. "Many people don't think highly of Made-in-China products. So we make great efforts to participate in exhibitions and let foreigners know the changes of our products," he said.

Cao said that it is not necessary to conceal the "China identity," as the key to win customers is the quality of the products. 

He added that as with more Chinese high-tech companies go global, people's past perception of low-end, copycat Chinese products is changing. And in many countries (such as Indian and African nations), Made-in-China is highly regarded.

"We should develop a deeper understanding for 'a community with a shared future for mankind' proposed by President Xi Jinping, which is well-suited to Chinese brand promotion overseas. We need to find common values with foreign customers so that they can better accept our products," said Cao.

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