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After becoming Procter & Gamble's second-biggest market in the world in 2012, with about 6% of the company's global sales, China is still a moving target. As the country's top advertiser and market leader in the biggest package goods categories, P&G is known for developing products that meet the needs of local consumers and building an organizational structure that empowers Chinese talent.
Today, P&G's Chinese future is in the hands of one of those local hires.
Ellie Xie, general manager and one of Ad Age's Women to Watch China 2014, is charged with keeping P&G brands like Pampers, Olay and Crest in a market leadership position amid growing competition and a fast-changing marketplace. P&G is by far China's biggest advertiser, spending almost $1.8 billion a year, about twice as much as L'Oreal at No. 2 at $1 billion and Unilever at No. 3 at $842 million, according to the Ad Age DataCenter's annual ranking of the top 100 global marketers.
"China has gone through drastic changes," she said. "Before, it behaved like a developing market. Multinational brands had better products, but the market is now more sophisticated and local brands are gaining ground."
At the same time, she said, internet and technology developments have disrupted the market, "levelling the playing field in the relationship between brands and people in a way our brands haven't had in the past."
Ms. Xie joined P&G in China as part of the Gillette acquisition in 2006, and later honed her business leadership skills and brand-building acumen as country CEO for Malaysia & Singapore, returning to the company's China HQ in Guangzhou as general manager, Greater China in June 2013.
When she returned to China, the market "seemed to experience 30 years' worth of change," she said, citing four trends that influence her leadership decisions at P&G.
1. The more affluent segment of China's population is growing much faster in sophistication, and has more influence on the people around them.
2. Japanese and Korean brands and culture are also a growing influence on Chinese consumers, especially at the high end of the market. That "provides additional angles for brands to connect with Chinese consumers," she said.
3. Individuals are empowered. "Instead of enjoying being taught and told what to do, they expect to be listened to, better understood and ultimately to be delighted," she said. "Their expectations are much higher."
4. "The biggest game-changer for P&G going forward" is the rise of internet-based technology, which is "transforming everybody's life in China [and] has a huge impact on the fast-moving consumer goods industry. Innovation momentum has become very strong here, leading to more collaborations between P&G and its local partners and suppliers," she said.
P&G is garnering creative and effectiveness awards for its digital work, including the multi-brand "Pretty Mom" campaign that she said recognizes a new mother's need to care for her baby as well as look her best before returning to work after maternity leave.
She targeted a very different consumer with Gillette's "Shave Sexy" campaign, based on the insights that men find dry shaving more convenient but can be swayed by women who see wet shaving as more alluring. After an unbranded social experiment got women comparing the two shaving methods--including watching male twins do both—and expressing a preference for wet shaving, Gillette stepped in with a sexy shaving tips video.
"It is a social, viral-centric campaign which received more than 20 industry awards and strong business results," Ms. Xie said.
The Women to Watch questionnaire:
Favorite social media: Mostly WeChat
Home city: Shanghai. But now my home city is wherever my family is.
Hobbies: Yoga, travel and scuba diving.
First job: Assistant brand manager at Kellogg's U.S. headquarters, in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Lived abroad: 12 years in the U.S. and 3 in Malaysia.
Best advice you've ever gotten: "Simplicity, patience and compassion, the three greatest treasures in life" by Lao Tzu
Biggest change you've seen in the industry: Internet and digital technology