SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- If you've ever worked in non-traditional advertising for a big agency in China, you can probably relate to this scene: You're in a conference room 24 hours before a client presentation with department heads from every discipline, each of whom has prepared creative strategies based upon a "big idea" for a mobile phone client, centered around a television ad based upon a big celebrity endorsement.
When your turn to present to the room arrives, the exec creative director looks shocked and asks, "Where's the Big Idea in this retail work?"
Here comes the hard part, trying to explain that Chinese consumers don't take in media at a store the way they do on television. Shoppers are looking to buy and are therefore making more tactical product decisions.
The differences don't stop there. Chinese shoppers in lower-tier cities are more price-driven, while their upper-tier counterparts in sophisticated markets like Shanghai are looking for unique features, requiring different executions. In this environment, you argue, brand imagery filled with celebrities doesn't fit their mindset and is therefore not effective.
Nearly every time such a debate comes up, the winner is the same--Jay Chou or another cool local pop star or actor in China, whose image is firmly (and expensively) planted in the center of the agency's 360 degree campaign circle. The retail slice of the pie sits in the lower left hand corner next to the public relations section, supporting his mugshot to be spread within thousands of retail outlets throughout the country.
This battle was lost for two fundamental reasons. First, the agency's blind belief that 360 degree advertising actually works in all situations and for all channels. Anyone who questions this belief will be quickly reminded of award-winning global campaigns such as Unilever's "Campaign For Real Beauty" for Dove, a prime example of a "big idea" successfully surrounding the consumer at every touch point.
The second reason is execution issues. The right way of doing things is often lost to laziness. It's simply much easier to use the same message and image over and over in different channels then to target your campaigns based upon consumer interaction. And since the advertiser spent a fortune to get Jay's endorsement, it should be maximized whenever possible.
There is merit in those reasons--but times are changing as marketers start to shed the traditional 360 approach as a campaign planning concept, especially in China, where consumers are already actively involved in the process for some major brands through online communication channels.
Also, word of mouth is spreading more rapidly than ever before in the mainland. Shoppers can now converge on a store, armed with better information and stronger opinions faster than the marketers can influence them.
To survive, advertisers and their agencies must get into the conversation quickly. The best term for this I've seen so far was coined by the American new media blogger, David Armano, who used the term micro strategies to describe the evolution of the industry.
According to Mr. Armano, campaigns based upon micro strategies are created through rapid planning iterations and quick launches, measurable insights and results, with further adjustments before being re-launched again.
The process is constantly in motion, and several campaigns can be launched simultaneously depending upon the communication target and channel. Because the process doesn't rely on big-production media budgets to survive, campaigns developed through micro strategies can be quickly discarded if they aren't effective.
In China, the process is now possible because we have better consumer data than ever before. Tracking consumer behavior from the channels that influence them all the way to the shopping floor is now much easier.
A good example is "3 Steps Before Bed," an online campaign for Johnson's Baby brand in China. Johnson & Johnson's used peer influence to persuade mothers the program was the right approach for their baby. It engaged six "mom ambassadors" to blog about the special bathe-and-massage routine and act as forum administrators on the Johnson's Baby Chinese web site.
New mothers were encouraged to register their details for product information and special promotions. The additions to J&J's Chinese database were double the expected target.
Ideas will still continue to be the cornerstone of an agency's business, but the way agencies develop and execute these ideas needs to change, especially in a complex market like China. The 360 campaign wheels surrounding big ideas served the multi-disciplinary agency well in the past, but now it's time to put them aside.
Bryce Whitwam is the general manager of Wunderman in Shanghai.
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