China's Internet Giants Are Suddenly Paying More Attention to Branding

Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent All Are Making More Effort to Tell Their Own Stories; Here's Why

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A screen shot from 'Alibaba Defined'
A screen shot from 'Alibaba Defined'
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China's tech giants haven't always paid much attention to burnishing their brand image. Maybe part of the reason was that they were growing so fast they didn't have time, or maybe they didn't see much need for it. Branding isn't a strong point of Chinese companies in general.

Recently, though, there's been more image-building initiatives from companies including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. E-commerce and internet giant Alibaba, which has lost about a fifth of its market value since its record-breaking initial public offering in New York in September 2014, updated its non-descript corporate web page with an interactive feature called "Alibaba Defined." It uses videos and examples to explain in simple terms how the company works.

That's because many investors outside China don't really understand Alibaba's business model, which is different than Amazon's. (Alibaba connects buyers and sellers; it doesn't actually sell things itself.) "Alibaba Defined" includes a video of a rural shopkeeper who sells goods through Alibaba, and a day-in-the-life interactive feature about how a working mom in Shanghai uses all of Alibaba's platforms, from mobile payments to shopping sites to its car-hailing service.

That effort was created internally by Alibaba, working with a design agency, as the company released its first annual report. Baidu, meanwhile, hired brand agency Studio Output for a futuristic video laying out its vision and showing how it's more than just a search engine – like Google, it's working on artificial intelligence, including self-driving cars. And internet giant Tencent tapped Fred & Farid for corporate branding work. For Mothers' Day, the company released a sweet video showing young people helping their moms decode China's latest tech innovations in a country where the speed of change is dizzying. (Watch those videos here and here.)

Why branding, why now?

There's probably a few factors at work. Uncertainty about the Chinese economy may be creating a moment for big tech companies to take a breath, take stock and define what they're about and what their ambitions are. The decline of a few local internet powerhouses may also have led to a realization about the need to create an emotional connection with consumers to survive. Twitter-like Weibo has been eclipsed by all-purpose app WeChat, Tencent's star product. Renren, once hailed as "the Facebook of China," lost its mojo.

"Renren was a product, and products have a shelf life," said Lewis Rosa, head of Strategy for Havas Worldwide Digital in China. "The best brands don't have a shelf life. The best brands innovate and refresh and revitalize themselves. If Baidu is a product, if another search engine comes along and offers a better product, then I use it. If Baidu is a brand I know and trust, I'll say, 'I'll give you a year to get your shit together again. I believe in you, don't let me down.'"

Another factor: China's internet giants were once seen as copycats, but now they've become innovators. WeChat, for example, is a source of inspiration for Facebook Messenger. Now China's tech giants need a strong brand to make consumers stick with them if someone else comes along and copies their innovations, Mr. Rosa said.

Connecting with investors too

And of course, many branding efforts are aimed at overseas investors – especially Alibaba's. Since Alibaba's New York IPO, it has spent billions in acquisitions, and investors have been confused about its strategy. China's economic slowdown, and its stock market woes, played into the uncertainty.

"Brands that are listed in the U.S. need to do a better job at telling their story to investors and partners; this is a step in the right direction," said Darren Burns, president of Weber Shandwick China. "I think the strategy of taking hold of your story and being proactive of owned media and not just earned is critical. Think about it. Most investors or media would never use Chinese internet players' products, so education is critical."

For example: Online to offline commerce (which connects online consumers to physical stores and services) is much bigger in China than it is in the U.S. Baidu founder Robin Li has complained that U.S. investors don't understand online-to-offline; the Nasdaq-listed company considers that its main play for the future, instead of search advertising, where it makes most revenue now.

"In many ways China is creating a parallel or pioneering universe for the internet and e-commerce – one that's different from the Anglo world," Mr. Burns said. "It needs to explain it better."