Richard Lee, one of the most influential marketing execs in China, is setting up a content studio with two high-profile co-founders. The venture in Shanghai, called Frontier, is co-founded by Lee, Alex Xie and Tina Wang, and is being pitched as a one-stop shop with expertise in marketing, entertainment, creative and media.
Lee, who left PepsiCo early this year, had been instrumental in shaping the food and beverage company's branding, including oversight of a huge annual Chinese New Year campaign that blends viral entertainment, music, celebs and charity. That campaign, called "Bring Happiness Home," is 6 years old and counting.
The launch of Frontier echoes similar moves by two top U.S.-based marketing execs. Brad Jakeman, the president of PepsiCo's global beverage group who oversaw the marketer's in-house content creation arm, is starting his own consulting firm. And Jonathan Mildenhall left his role as Airbnb's chief marketing officer to set up a brand consultancy.
Lee, Frontier's chairman, worked for PepsiCo for nearly 20 years, including in the U.S. as global marketing VP of sparkling beverages. At one point he was simultaneously CMO for both PepsiCo Greater China and for the beverages unit of PepsiCo's local partner, food giant Master Kong.
In addition to his role at Frontier, he's China chairman for events giant Live Nation, and he dreams of nurturing a big Chinese musical act that could resonate internationally. He does consulting too, including for Master Kong.
Frontier co-founder and CEO Wang has a background in media. She worked at Nike and Johnson & Johnson, and rose to become PepsiCo Greater China's marketing director. She has expertise partnering with China's influential digital and video platforms. Xie was group creative director at BBDO Shanghai before co-founding local independent creative agency Civilization, which has a staff of about 80 and PepsiCo as a client.
Frontier is a sister agency to Civilization, with Xie as the link between the two shops. It has about 10 employees but isn't ready to announce clients yet, though the focus is on helping local companies build their brands. That's probably where the most opportunity is in China: According to Bain & Co. and Kantar Worldpanel, local brands gained market share over foreign ones last year in over two-thirds of 26 fast-moving consumer goods categories.
'Brand IP Marketing'
Lee says the content studio will do what he calls "brand IP marketing" – finding a brand's core message and spirit, and translating that into something like entertainment, not advertising. The goal is to create a sustainable platform, not just a campaign.
In China, brands often pay big money to sponsor shows on TV and online video services. "But what if a brand actually created the show, and then executed their entire marketing campaign around it?" Lee says. "That's brand IP marketing, assuming the show's spirit and tonality fits with the brand."
Lee says finding positive social messages will be important; that's something PepsiCo's "Bring Happiness Home" did by focusing on bringing families together for the holidays and by fundraising for charities. "Bring Happiness Home" also has had a strong musical element, tapped celebrity performers to do viral videos and evolved in unexpected ways. One year Pepsi and Civilization crowdsourced videos of people going home for the holidays, and the next they told the life story of a performer famous for an '80s TV version of China's classic tale, "Journey to the West." That nostalgia-inducing video got hundreds of millions of views.
Consumers in China are skipping commercials, as they are elsewhere. The country's influential video platforms, iQiyi, Youku-Tudou and Tencent Video, encourage people to sign up for paid subscriptions with the enticement of cutting out interruptive ads. Plus, consumers mostly watch video on smartphones, where the ads are small. It's harder now for brands to make an impact.
"People need engaging content, brands need engaging content," Lee says. "And when we try to work with celebrities, and when we try to develop their song into a music video, incorporating our core advertising message, it's win-win. We have engaging content for them, and they have someone to push the song and album."