What China's Drone Makers Could Teach Other Chinese Brands

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For big Chinese brands, the classic story is this: They grow huge in their home market, then find it tougher to build global brands. That's been the case for many Chinese electronics or appliance companies, including Haier, Hisense and Midea. Even Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, which now gets about 58% of sales outside China, battled for years to go global.

But one category has veered off that path: drones. Many Chinese makers of consumer drones, including category-dominating giant DJI, have successfully built themselves as international brands from the start. Today the global market for civilian drones is 85% Chinese brands, according to IDC. Their rise has come as Chinese tech companies are spending big money on research and development and trying to change the image of what "Made in China" means. The category is still niche, and marketing and ad budgets are small, but Chinese companies are trying to be savvy about retail, content, and PR.

One Chinese startup shipped its first "selfie drone" in October and about six months later it went on sale on Apple's global website and in the Apple Stores in five countries and regions. Called the Hover Camera Passport, it's a lightweight camera that flies around taking photos and videos of its users; the company says it's useful for when you don't have an extra person to take photos, like for a couple on their honeymoon or for a family at a gathering.

In some Apple locations, you can take the $499.95 product for a spin in-store; Ad Age tried it in Shanghai, where it turned heads as it buzzed around. While many Chinese companies don't even have a PR contact on their web site, Hover Camera Passport reached out to Western reporters and generated a lot of coverage about its Apple Store launch, including in Quartz, Mashable, Forbes and many tech media outlets.

Leading up to the Apple launch, most sales have been outside China, said MQ Wang, the former Twitter software engineer and Stanford PhD who founded the company that makes the selfie drone, Zero Zero Robotics. The company's marketing efforts center on working with influencers, especially travelers. "It's really not about getting some big-name celebrity to endorse the product -- I think lean and meaningful marketing is key to the success of startups," Wang said. "A product like this, if it's done right, should sell itself."

On the other end of the spectrum is mighty SZ DJI Technology Co., better known as DJI, the maker of the Phantom 4 and the smaller Mavic Pro. The company is the category leader and had revenue of about $1.6 billion last year. It's sometimes called "the Apple of drones."

DJI's dominance is a challenge for other drone makers, from Chinese companies Ehang and Yuneec, to U.S.-based GoPro to France's Parrot, which announced layoffs in January. When drones are in the news, for better and worse, so is DJI. A DJI drone crashed into the White House lawn in 2015. The company recently made much of Syria and Iraq a no-fly zone; there have been concerns about the Islamic State turning civilian drones into weapons.

DJI's biggest market is North America, followed by Europe, Australia and China, PR director Oliver Wang said. DJI works with influencers, goes to trade shows, and as of last year, has sponsored the FIA World Rally Championship. It's constantly trying to figure out the best strategy.

"We are the inventors of civilian drones, we are not camera manufacturers, we are not smartphone manufacturers, we have no examples to follow," DJI's Wang said. "That's the problem and the opportunity in terms of marketing ourselves."

So far, content marketing is a priority, and it works with an in-house team. The company went on ABC's Good Morning America to live stream spectacular nature scenes, like a volcano erupting in Iceland and a flyover of lions, elephants and hippos in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater. Its YouTube channel is full of striking video from its content team. One video showed researchers in the Sea of Cortez using a drone to collect samples of mucous from whale blowholes; they refer to the drone as a "snotbot."

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