The company is the sole sponsor of “Project 95-Explore China with Nokia Nseries,” in which a former professional racecar driver, Peter Schindler, is making a 20,000 km road trip across China in a bright yellow Caterham “super light” sports car. The handset giant is the latest marketer to turn to field marketing, rather than TV, to reach urban, tech-savvy consumers in the mainland.
“The market is a lot more complicated than simply that Chinese consumers are much more ‘high touch’ than western counterparts,” said Greg Paull, founder of R3, a Beijing-based marketing consultancy. “The challenge in China is logistics, you need to be in 50 or more cities, not just a handful. That’s why good field marketing will be so crucial to brand success in China. Some companies like Coca-Cola, Adidas, Li Ning and Nokia have taken it very seriously the last 12 months.”
Driving Miss Daisy
Mr. Schindler, who previously was an associate partner in Accenture's China practice, began his trek through 20 Chinese provinces--well over 20,000 kilometers--on May 9 in Shanghai. But the Swiss traveler won't be out of touch at any point during the 95-day journey.
He and the car, playfully dubbed “Miss Daisy” through an online contest, are equipped with a variety of Nokia's Nseries devices, including the product line's flagship gadget, the N95 phone. The handset was launched globally in September 2006, but hasn't been available in China until this month.
Mr. Schindler is using Nokia's products to keep a record of his trip, such as maintaining a mobile blog, project95.sina.com.cn, he accesses through the phone. Although he writes the blog in English, a local firm called Lionbridge translates them into Chinese. He also posts photos and videos on the blog taken with the phone's five-megapixel camera, and he uses its global positioning system function to help navigate China's back roads. Nokia has worked with Sina Corp., owner of one of China's leading community portals and the blog's host, on the online promotional activities but it created the sponsorship in-house.
The unusual nature of his journey into China's interior, combined with fascinating photos and Mr. Schindler's witty writing style, has earned him thousands of followers in China in the first three weeks and the mobile blog continues to pick up speed. They are actively involved in his trip, offering advice about which routes he should take (or avoid), pointing out scenic stops he might miss, and even asking him to deliver greetings to friends along the way.
When the road trip ends, Nokia will auction Miss Daisy and the proceeds will go to the China Youth Development Foundation to support sports and education programs for children in remote regions.
More than a road trip
But for Nokia, the trip essentially is a nationwide product demonstration for a fraction of the cost of a national TV campaign, even though the sponsorship cost Nokia "millions" of yuan, according to a spokesman in Beijing, meaning a minimum of $130,000.
“It is more than just a road trip. It is a journey to discover a real and modern China. This very spirit of discovering reflects the essence and capabilities of Nokia's Nseries multimedia computers,” said Dan Wong, Beijing-based VP of multimedia sales and channel management in China.
Nokia has also invested in digital media to reach its target consumers, namely young urban adults with white-collar jobs, "particularly through music," said Chris Leong, VP of mobile phone marketing for China in Beijing. "You can participate with a higher degree of engagement."
The company has partnered with MTV in China with a variety of road shows and online promotions and it recently promoted a dedicated music site (music.nokia.com.cn) that allows Nokia handset owners to download music by sponsoring six Chinese pop stars. They will maintain blogs on the site and record a song together.
Many multinational advertisers in China are concluding that TV may reach wider audiences, but often viewers in rural areas are either too poor to afford western-made products, or western manufacturers haven't managed to get distribution throughout the whole country.
Advertising slots on the national state-run broadcaster CCTV have skyrocketed, with inflation topping 10% annually in the past few years, which has encouraged marketers to find more targeted, economical solutions in the mainland. Why pay to reach 1.2 billion pairs of eyes when foreign brands are really only affordable to the 100 million or so middle class and affluent consumers in China's top two or three tier cities?
Ironically, considering that China is one of the largest countries in the world, both in terms of geographic size and population, advertisers are finding it can be cheaper and easier to approach them one-to-one or at least in small groups.
Big trend in smart field marketers
The rising popularity of road shows, special events in shopping malls and other public areas, in-store sampling, promotions and door-to-door canvassing has turned into big business for specialist agencies in these areas, as well as for companies that offer mobile and internet marketing solutions.
“The biggest trend I am seeing in China right now is the growth of smart field marketing agencies,” said Mr. Paull.
“A lot of companies are moving away from pure advertising. They also want to bring more local relevance to their communication and help consumers show more preferences, so field marketing is more effective,” agreed Singaporean Alex Koi, president of HighTeam, a below-the-line company based in Beijing.
“Local brands in China are still spending on CCTV, because they are new and need to build awareness. But international brands that are well-established like Nike and Coca-Cola are moving away from TV. They don’t need to spend so much money,” said Mr. Koi, whose agency now has 220 full-time staff with hundreds and sometimes thousands more on a part-time basis.
International brands move away from TV
Instead, Nike has created basketball tournaments in Beijing to engage consumers, while Coke has teamed up with thousands of internet cafes in China and popular online games like World of Warcraft. Events also work for niche marketers. HighTeam created a luxury immersion program for 20 super rich Chinese that taught them how to appreciate jade, art and fine wine and food. At the end of the evening, a 19-year-old who attended the event last year in Beijing decided to take home a Ferrari 430 model.
HighTeam isn’t the only agency that is expanding rapidly in China as marketers increase their on-the-ground promotions in China. Singshine, Star Echo, Shunya, Betterway Marketing Solutions, Always Promotion Network and Unisono Fieldmarketing International have benefited from the trend, as well as from interest from global advertising holding companies.
Always has been acquired by WPP Group’s JWT, for instance, and Publicis Groupe has snapped up Betterway Marketing Solutions. Further acquisitions are likely, given the growing interest by marketers like Nokia in below-the-line marketing in China.
"I would never say CCTV is not important for the reach factor. They are," said Nokia's Ms. Leong. "However, we need a good balance between TV and activation and other on-the-ground programs. Broadcast is two-dimensional. But the other is tactile. It's real life."