When Grace E. Wong was at work on Gap's opening in China in 2010, she always kept one question in mind: Chinese consumers are constantly being bombarded with new brands from overseas -- what does that feel like?
"I was very aware of the fact that we were another foreign brand coming to their country," said Ms. Wong, the VP of Greater China marketing for Gap Inc.
The native New Yorker recalled driving through Shanghai and seeing billboards for foreign brands – the ads were "beautiful," she said, but they seemed disconnected from local consumers. "I really wanted them to feel that we were a brand for them, even though we are American and want to stay true to that," she said.
To bridge that divide, the company launched a campaign called "Let's Gap Together," which paired American and Chinese personalities in the same field (art, music, environmentalism.) The ads were shot by Annie Leibovitz and focused on self-expression – a theme common to both Gap's brand identity, and to the desires of China's young consumers, whom Ms. Wong says burst with the need to tell their stories (something that shows in the country's vibrant social media scene.)
That campaign helped boost brand awareness in first tier cities from 30% by about 20 points in four to five months. Today, there are 91 Gap Inc. stores in China, including Gap Outlet locations and several venues of Old Navy, which launched in China this year.
Gap's brand awareness is now in the mid-70th percentile in first-tier cities. And revenue for Gap Inc.'s business in China reached about $300 million in fiscal 2013, three years after launching. The company expects China revenue to reach $1 billion in the next three years. Ms. Wong, named one of Ad Age's Women to Watch China 2014 for her role in building the company's brands here, says really caring about local consumers is key. Here are five other takeaways.
Working those American roots
In a July 4 promotion at Old Navy, the company gave out hot dogs and ice cream to customers who spent certain sums. For its launch, Old Navy brought part of the University of Southern California drum corps to Shanghai.
Old Navy's vision of America is "that over-the-top friendliness, optimism, that sense of Americans being very good at having fun, always smiling," Ms. Wong said. Gap, meanwhile, "embraces that can-do attitude, the idea that you can be whatever you want to be."
Build on what works
What sells well at Gap in China? Denim, as well as baby and kids' clothes. And logo Ts, "which we love because it means (local consumers) want to participate, they want to be a part of the brand," Ms. Wong said. Building on that, Gap recently commissioned Chinese and U.S. contemporary artists to do logo Ts (one artist, Wang 2Mu, did his design with a ballpoint pen.)
E-commerce is not an afterthought
Both Gap and Old Navy opened their brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce sites simultaneously. (Not all brands do that, though China is the world's biggest e-commerce market now: When Abercrombie & Fitch launched in China in April, it said it would debut its e-commerce site later.) Gap's e-commerce has helped build the brands throughout China.
"That's the beauty of e-commerce: it allows you to go into cities before you have a brick-and-mortar store, so you can teach people about the brand before you're there," Ms. Wong said.
Customer relationship management
"When we first launched Gap we were very focused on opening stores and our e-commerce business, and over the four years we've started to realize how important CRM is," Ms. Wong said. "So we increased our database of names, and learning from that, when we opened Old Navy it was something we focused on right off the bat."
Promotions, promotions, promotions
Promotions are something Gap's Chinese customers say they want. And they don't just want an ordinary old sale – they're looking for engagement.
"If you think about shopping at the market or even restaurants, the idea of bargaining is part of the culture, and so promotional activities are almost like a little game," Ms. Wong said. That might mean hotdog giveaways on July 4, or a digital campaign on the art of Christmas gift-giving.
"We learned that our target really wanted to participate in the idea of gifting but didn't quite understand how to do it," who to give presents to, or the details on wrapping, Ms. Wong said. So Gap did a digital gift-giving game – you could "wrap" an incentive offer and exchange it with friends for Christmas.
The Women to Watch China questionnaire:
Home city: New York
Hobbies: Reading, fashion and art -- "especially street art."
First job: "I worked for an agency that doesn't exist anymore, D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, working on accounts including Coke and P&G."
Lived abroad (besides now): Four years as a kid in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
Best advice you've ever gotten: Work hard. My mom always said,"There's no free lunch in the world."
If I had it to do all over again, I'd…. This is going to sound all zen, but I feel you're in this life for a reason, and I wouldn't be this person if I didn't go through what I went through.