SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- A social media experiment to promote Pond's Age Miracle moisturizer in China this fall is turning into a regional marketing strategy and inspiring Unilever to spend more time communicating with its customers online.
In the market for just a year, Pond's Age Miracle wasn't leaping off store shelves. It faces strong competition from entrenched brands like Clinique, L'Oreal, Lancome and Procter & Gamble's SK-II and Olay brands. Like most Asian women, Chinese tend to be fastidious about their skincare regimen. Beauty care is one of the few areas where they tend to be loyal to favorite products.
After weighing the cost of an ad blitz in traditional media, Unilever decided to take a chance on a stealthy, digital campaign to generate buzz, establish the product's credibility and encourage Chinese women to give Pond's Age Miracle a try.
Unilever and Ogilvy PR Worldwide created a blind trial program among the brand's target market, women over 25 in first- and second-tier cities who were already using prestige skin care products.
These women also tend to be heavy internet users and frequent social media sites.
"The idea was to provoke consumers to be testers of product," said Shanghai-based Laercio Cardoso, VP of marketing for Unilever's home and personal care brands in China.
On top peer-to-peer web sites such as Onlylady.com, Unilever asked for volunteers to try out an unidentified anti-aging solution and quickly signed up 150 official testers.
It was a risky decision. China's blog community is large, active and influential. Over 100 million Chinese claim to communicate via forums and discussion boards and 41 million are "heavy" social media contributors, according to Netpop.
If women hated Pond's Age Miracle, the brand's recovery would take years.
To Unilever's relief, bloggers gushed over the mysterious moisturizer in hundreds of entries posted during a seven-day trial last month. "It makes my skin look younger," "I feel my skin becoming firm," and "My skin looks soft and smooth. I like it! When I know what the product is I'll definitely purchase it," are typical responses.
The posts elicited hundreds of comments from readers who followed the trial online on Onlylady.com, the official campaign web site, Beautyforworth.com and other bulletin board sites like PCLady.com and Yoka.com, a portal specializing in high-end products and women's fashion.
When the bloggers learned the identity of the mystery product, nine out of ten continued to endorse it as enthusiastic, and unpaid, brand ambassadors. After the trial ended, many continued to update the sites with photos of the product and before and after shots of their skin.
"This is the first time we've used social media in China. We should have been bolder and done the trial on a bigger scale. There is no doubt we will use it more to connect with consumers," said Mr. Cardoso. He is developing social media campaigns for two other Unilever beauty brands due out at the end of this year.
His enthusiasm does not surprise Thomas Crampton, Hong Kong-based director of 360 digital influence for Asia/Pacific at Ogilvy PR.
"We're conducting social media campaigns in a wide range of ways with many types of clients across Asia. The hunger for it is huge. Initially, people are eager to test it in a small way, but once they see the power of it, they dive right in," he said. "The power of social media is that you're communicating with consumers on a one-to one basis but on a mass scale."
The China launch strategy was closely monitored by Unilever's global Pond's team in Singapore, which now plans to create similar blind trials to market Pond's Age Miracle in key Southeast Asian markets such as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Although Pond's is a global skin care brand, it is particularly popular in Southeast Asia.
"Everyone was excited by the response in China," said Singapore-based Mutya Laxa Buensuceso, Unilever's global brand director for Pond's.
"Social media is very important for us right now. To push word of mouth and show our products work really well, we just have to get people talking. The cost of those sites are a tenth that of traditional media, so it's very cost efficient as well," she said.
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