"The market is a lot more complicated than simply that Chinese consumers are much more 'high touch' than [their] Western counterparts," said Greg Paull, founder of marketing consultancy R3, Beijing. "The challenge in China is logistics; you need to be in 50 or more cities, not just a handful. ... Some companies, like Coca-Cola, Adidas, Li Ning and Nokia, have taken it very seriously the last 12 months."
Connecting with China
Swiss-born Mr. Schindler, previously an associate partner in Accenture's China practice, began his trek through 20 Chinese provinces last month in Shanghai in a bright-yellow Caterham "super light" sports car. But he won't be out of touch during the 95-day journey. He and the car, playfully dubbed "Miss Daisy" through an online contest, are equipped with all of Nokia's Nseries devices. Mr. Schindler is using them to keep a record of his trip, including a bilingual mobile blog (project95.sina.com.cn) he accesses through the N95 phone. He posts photos and videos taken with the phone's camera and uses its GPS 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 created the sponsorship in-house.
Mr. Schindler's unusual journey into China's interior, combined with photos and witty writing, has earned him thousands of followers. They are actively involved in his trip, offering advice on routes to take (or avoid), pointing out scenic stops and even asking him to deliver greetings to friends along the way. For Nokia, the trip is essentially a nationwide product demonstration for a fraction of the cost of TV ads.
"It is more than just a road trip. It is a journey to discover a real and modern China," said Dan Wong, Nokia's Beijing-based VP-multimedia sales and channel management. "This very spirit of discovering reflects the essence and capabilities of Nokia's Nseries multimedia computers."
Roadshows big business
Many multinational advertisers in China are concluding that TV reaches wider audiences, but often rural viewers are too poor to afford their products or national distribution eludes Western marketers. They'd rather target the 100 million or so affluent middle-class consumers in China's top second- or third-tier cities who can afford foreign brands. Roadshows, events, in-store sampling, promotions and door-to-door canvassing are now big business for specialist agencies and 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," Mr. Paull said.
"Local brands in China are still spending on [China's national broadcaster] 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," said Alex Koi, president of local specialist agency HighTeam, Beijing. He employs 220 full-time staff as well as hundreds and sometimes thousands more on a part-time basis.
Nike has created basketball tournaments in Beijing to engage consumers, while Coke has teamed with internet cafés across China.
HighTeam isn't the only local specialist agency expanding rapidly as marketers increase their on-the-ground promotions in China. Singshine, Star Echo, Shunya, Unisono Fieldmarketing International, Betterway Marketing Solutions and Always Promotion Network have benefited from the trend. Betterway and Always have already been snapped up by WPP Group's JWT and Publicis Groupe, and more deals are likely.