For Chinese Consumers, Alipay and WeChat Are the 'Most Relevant' Brands

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Alipay (l.) and WeChat android apps
Alipay (l.) and WeChat android apps
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What brands do Chinese consumers consider most relevant to their lives? Payment platform Alipay and all-purpose mobile app WeChat top a new ranking based on a survey of nearly 10,000 consumers by brand and marketing consultancy Prophet.

Both Alipay, an affiliate of Chinese online giant Alibaba Group, and WeChat, an app created by another Chinese internet company, Tencent, are global leaders in digital innovation. They're also services consumers use every day in mobile-savvy China.

The other top names on Prophet's China list were Visa, Marriott, Uber, Ford, Adidas, Alibaba online shopping platform Tmall.com, Volkswagen and Ikea. Eighteen local Chinese brands appeared in the top 50.

Prophet began measuring brand relevance about a year ago in the United States and expanded its survey this year to China, the U.K. and Germany. It polled about 10,000 consumers in China's tier 1 and 2 cities, the most cosmopolitan areas, to get their take on over 275 brands. The survey, which consumers answered online in June, centered on four categories: how customer-obsessed brands are, how innovative, how pragmatic and how inspired they are in creating emotional connections and earning trust.

Alipay and WeChat were strong performers in categories across the board. Alipay, sometimes compared to Apple Pay or Paypal, is ubiquitous in China. People use it to shop online and in stores and restaurants, and it's expanding fast beyond China to merchants targeting Chinese travelers. WeChat, meanwhile, also offers a payment service; its messaging service has largely replaced texting, and people also use it to pay utility bills, order takeout, shop and book hotel rooms and hospital appointments.

There were quite a few surprises in Prophet's China list. While the consultancy's U.S. survey includes brands like Clorox, Hershey's, Betty Crocker and Ziploc in the top 50, in China there were no everyday household brands, and many names on the list were aspirational, from Audi to Shangri-La hotels. There was also a lack of food or beverage brands in the top 50 -- Starbucks, which is growing fast in China, didn't appear.

"There's a huge drive for healthiness in China," said Jay Milliken, senior partner at Prophet's Hong Kong office. "There are two categories, fast food and sugary beverages, that did very poorly in China. And they did badly across the globe."

Visa came in at No. 3, but the Chinese payment card solution, Unionpay, was No. 13. Unionpay is widely used in China but perhaps isn't perceived as international.

Uber, oddly, came in at No. 5, and China's local ride-hailing giant, Didi, was No. 75. That may be because Didi is perceived as an Uber copy. The two were locked in a price war in China until Didi announced in August that it was buying Uber's China operations.

And while an emissions scandal rocked Volkswagen a year ago in the U.S., that hasn't apparently dented its brand in China, where it came in at No. 9. That could partly be because there's less awareness of the scandal in China. The company's sales are also going strong in China: Its deliveries were up 11.4% in China in the first nine months of the year, though they dropped 12.5% in the U.S.

One of the brands that didn't make the top 50 – China's Xiaomi, which makes smartphones and other consumer tech gadgets -- is a cautionary tale about the need to be relentlessly relevent, Mr. Milliken said.

"A couple of years ago everybody was talking about Xiaomi," Mr. Milliken said. "All of my American colleagues had to learn to pronounce 'Xiaomi.' And Xiaomi was going to win the market in China and also become a dominant brand in the world."(Xiaomi's name, for the record, is pronounced something like 'shee-ow-mee.')

But sales have been disappointing, and it was beaten by three other local brands Vivo, Oppo and Huawei, in third quarter smartphone delivery volumes, according to IDC. In Prophet's list, Xiaomi came in at No. 75, Vivo at No. 17. Samsung ranks No. 45 in the China survey, carried out before the Galaxy Note 7 disaster.

Apple is the No. 1 brand in Prophet's U.S. list, followed by Amazon and Android. But in China Apple has been losing market share to high-quality but affordable local smartphone brands, and it's only No. 27 there.