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Italian products in China

Podcast transcript #44: The challenges of promoting Italian products in China

Find here the China paradigm episode 44. Learn more about Carlo Dragonetti’s story in China and find all the details and additional links below.

Full transcript below:

Matthieu David: Hi everyone, I’m Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue consulting and the China marketing podcast China paradigm and today I’m with Carlo Dragonetti. You are in charge of e-commerce and communications, especially online communications at the Italian Trade Agency, and you have been famous before being viewed 20 million times after a speech you gave for graduation. And I believe that’s how you were initiated with social media, with how to leverage social media and videos and so on, and I’d like to talk more about this. And also, about Italian companies in China, how to communicate online? How to be an ambassador of Italy on TMall, that’s what you do currently. But, thank you very much for being with us, Carlo.

Carlo Dragonetti: Good morning, good morning to everybody. Thank you for inviting me.

Matthieu David: Could you tell us more about your story in China first, so the audience understands where you come from and what you currently do?

Carlo Dragonetti: Definitely, yes. My approach to China started a couple of – well more than a couple of years ago. I came to China because I started studying Chinese back in my university in Italy, and then I realized that my Chinese approach was not enough. So, I decided to go to Beijing to study. The first approach there – was very, very nice and after that, I went back to Italy to finish all my studies, and I felt like I really had to go back to China.


That’s what I did. Before I went back to China, I went to Vancouver, which is the second biggest community of Chinese, from China Mainland and not out of China. So, the feeling I had, to go back to China was higher and higher because my experience with them was growing. I got two scholarships from the Chinese government, for studying in Shanghai and I have been studying here for three years. Around three years. I did my masters and then – you were right Matthieu, at the end of my student career, I had sort of exploré – that’s what you’d say in French. It was interesting. It was my first approach to the communication world from the inside, not from outside. This is how I started to enter the world of e-commerce too. E-commerce and communication are very related, and that’s how today, I’m the ambassador of Italy on TMall Global.


The reason why in this world of e-commerce there are so many KOL’s, so many influencers, it’s because you have to communicate for selling. And that’s why sometimes, it’s very complicated to explain that there is a different process of communication in this part of the world, compared to the other part, where we come from, and that’s the job that we are trying to do, to support the Italian trade agency to support Italian companies in China that are not only willing to enter the Chinese market in the traditional way – offline, but also online. So that’s one of the challenges we are facing lately.

Matthieu David: I see. I’d like to go back to the origin of your presence online, especially with this video. So, this video was – how was it made? Was it someone making the video and then posting it on Weibo? And then after that, once you had been seen millions of times, have you been able to leverage these followers? Have you been able to continue to get views or it was a one-shot? Can you explain to us more about how it happened and how you could leverage it?

Carlo Dragonetti: Right, so I wasn’t looking for that, I have to admit that. I even invited my parents coming all the way from Italy because it was an experience being a Victorian, going on stage and speaking in front of 8000 students. It was interesting, but I wasn’t looking for saying something that would have made me famous – At least for a while, and what happened was that a girl, at the end of the speech – well the speech itself was at 7 in the morning in Meehang, which is a place a little bit far from the city center, so it was the end of June and it was very hot. I was very nervous because I had to speak in front of 8000 people, all in Chinese. I was a bit stressed.

So, as soon as I finished, I was so relieved that when a girl came to me and told me, hello – Wang Xiaolong, which is my Chinese name. May I post your video on Weibo? And I was like; you don’t even have to ask me, of course, you can. Well, that might have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life, because if I only knew that the girl that came to me was the owner of the account of Peer Video, which basically is an account with 50 – 60 million followers, well that might have changed my – I wouldn’t say my life, but at least the following base. My account on Weibo might have been so hot that I would still be commenting and chatting with all my fans.

That’s something that didn’t happen. Why? Because I didn’t at the time have an account on Weibo. Which is fine, because I managed somehow to leverage the story to come up with good results out of it.

First of all, all the Italian media started coming to me. It’s not common to have a young Italian speaking Chinese, who managed to become famous in China, and apart from – well I tried to divide what is – one shop communication to what might have been useful for my future. So, I started understanding whether this could have brought me something useful for my life, or it was just a one-time only famousness online? And I managed to enter in a contract with different Italian companies in China, both for the two reasons.

The reason why I decided to keep using my image to – what I decided was to keep using my image to meet new people or to leverage all the connection and contact I had in China, rather than building a career on that. Now it’s funny because in the end, I’m actually doing things for my KOL career, as a foreign KOL in China, but my interests, my main interests are not in the communication to be considered a foreign KOL in China, but are mostly in the communication to be considered as one that organizes the campaign for the KOL’s.

So, let’s say this is something that is living the experience as a foreign KOL in China from inside, does help me a lot in what we’re doing, for example for the Italian Trade Agency. So, it has been very interesting. I have been in contact with the Chinese televisions, Chinese radios, Italian televisions, Italian radios, newspapers. It was a very interesting moment, and then I realized that the story of my speech went all around the world. I read articles in Polish, I read articles in Indian, and it was a fun story.

Matthieu David: I see, so the lesson we can learn from that is that, when you are in China, get your social media ready, so that if there is a video, if there is some content about you, you can leverage it and get followers and keep them, because that’s not what you had at that time. You didn’t have a Weibo account.

Carlo Dragonetti: Come on, that’s somehow a very general – it’s not common that you make a video that goes viral like that. From a general point of view, I would say yes, you’re right. But in the end, you need to feed your fans, so no matter you make something viral and it goes viral and wow! It was beautiful, it was fun, it was interesting, it was whatever – but then you have to feed your fans. So, you have to keep posting; you have to interact, you have to make stories, you have to share what you think and then try to have a strategy for that. It’s not just that ‘oh I saw a funny thing and then I post it.’

The most interesting part of having had the chance to be famous for a long while has been that I had the chance to get in contact with important people in the sector in China and Italy. One of the most important KOL in Italy at the moment wanted to meet me because his interest in China was growing more and more and he wanted to have a chat with me; I was very happy to meet him. And what he told me was that it’s very common in this time, to become famous just for something and then how do you have to leverage it? He told me, if you like glasses, you can become a foreign KOL in China for glasses, because there might be a group of people that are very interested in glasses, but you cannot be a KOL of glasses and pens together, because of the people that like pens, do not like glasses.

And this is a very bad example; these were the first things I had in front of me, to say that, there is a group of people that can be a lifestyle KOL. Let’s say Cristiano Ronaldo or Kim Kardashian, all these big, big names – but not people that start their career as influencers or foreign KOL in China. You have to start feeding your fans with pen information, or glasses information or what you see on – you know, just trying to have one single focus. Otherwise it’s going to be very complicated to keep feeding your fan and having a pool of things. So, lifestyle KOL’s or influencers, it’s a bit complicated.

At the time, I didn’t really know what I have to do. I had some agency that told me, listen, you’re Italian, you can be a KOL of Italy. That might work. I wasn’t very convinced. I decided to start working for the Italian Trade Agency, and then – the focus came to me. I didn’t go to the focus. Because I started having contacts with TMall, we were working a lot with – well, we are starting working with XiaoHongShu, with Red and then the guys from TMall Global told me – well we are starting a new content platform, content platform which is the national treasure and we would like to invite you as a representative of Italy and foreign KOL in China. That was very interesting. So, let’s say, the process of becoming a KOL now for me is a bit different.

But as I told you, this question was, how to leverage your video, right? I tried to build a path to leverage it, so to gain on it, in terms of connections, in terms of contacts, in terms of possibilities for the future. That’s what I did.

Matthieu David: What do you do at the agency to support Italian companies in China? What did you do specifically for yourself and the agency generally speaking?

Carlo Dragonetti: Okay, the main stakeholders of the agencies, the ministry of economic development. So, the goal of the agency is to support made in Italy in China. There are four offices, they’ve had a trade agency in China, plus one in Taiwan, in Hong Kong and what I am specifically doing, well the agency does support Made in Italy, organizing roadshow for a Chinese company to Italy, in Italy – or organizing groups of Italian companies in China coming to fairs. There are many different things. Many different promotional activities that the state organized for Italian companies in China.

What I am in charge of is all the communication and e-commerce relations with the main Chinese e-commerce platform. What I like to do is to communicate what the promotional activities do and specifically in China. For example – now we’re working a lot with the food and beverage sector, and that’s a big challenge because we have to face some bad strategy of Italian companies in China in the past year, for example for the wine sector. As you know, the French own the highest part of the market in terms of wine. They came to China 40 – 50 years ago saying this red liquid is called Bordeaux, and so from now on, that’s what you have to call it. And, so we created a campaign, a whole campaign investing an important amount of money – of public money, to support all the business of Italian wines in China.

Matthieu David: I understand the agency, the government agency. So, you have to promote all the Italian products in China? You cannot promote specific products, bring specific Italian companies in China, and you are doing e-commerce, so how did you do eCommerce and promote all the Italian products in China? Can you explain more about what you do in your promotion? Is it to sell products directly, with your own shop? With an Italian shop? I know Alibaba, TMall had a shop with the country at some point, but I’m not sure it got the leverage and the momentum that was expected. So, I don’t know how it is now. Could you explain more?

Carlo Dragonetti: Right. We do represent Italy; it means that we have – the goal of the agency is to promote all the possible business, all the possible Italian companies in China. No matter if they are big or if they are small. Of course, the bigger they are, the more it is complicated to represent them.

Let me make a very bad example. Ferrari would never come to us and say, support my campaign in communicating how fast can a Ferrari drive. So, what we do is, support the small and medium enterprises to enter the Chinese market. The interesting part of this is understanding how can we support the made in Italy, and what happens when we go to talk with e-commerce platforms? They are very happy to get to know us because we represent for them the possibility to enter in contact with all Italian – small and medium enterprises. Which by the way, represent the 96% of Italian companies in China?

Matthieu David: How much?

Carlo Dragonetti: 96% of Italian companies in China. So that’s pretty interesting for them. You spoke about the online promotion – that’s the brand hub. There’s a content marketing tool on Alibaba, which is called Brand Hub and there is another page that we can call it that way, where all the companies that have a store on TMall, could open their own Brand Hub. This platform is not sale driven, but its content is driven. It means that I am Nike, for example, and not only I want to sell my Italian products in China, but I also want to explain to all my beloved clients how and why my Nike shoes are so good, or my sweater is cooler than Adidas. Right. So that’s the tool. The tool is communication. It’s very useful to communicate what you are doing.

We decided to go on Brand Hub, towards also a long and strategic partnership and talks with Alibaba Italy, which is the base for Alibaba in Southern Europe, and we decided to come up with the Brand Hub because the Italian Trade Agency cannot sell products. So, we couldn’t have created a platform – let’s say, a page on Alibaba under our name to sell Italian products in China. That could have never happened.

So, what we decided to do was to invest in a communicational campaign to rope it all together in Alibaba, the Italian company that we’re already in TMall Global.

So, now we have under the helloITA name, we have more than 100 brands. If I’m not wrong, 103 at the moment. In three different categories. We go from lifestyle to food and beverage to fashion (like import Italian food in China). We have big names and smaller names, but still smaller names that are making money, because as we all might know, it is a little bit expensive to invest in Alibaba. Especially to go on TMall global. So, we have both brands that are in TMall global, and we have brands also in cross border, directly from Italy.

So, this is what we have, what we are doing now, and we organize campaigns, based on content. So not only we have a contract with Alibaba, we have a contract with Alimama, which is a company from Alibaba that sells all the advertisements. So, we are doing a media buy to try to get more and more clients to get to know our platform. And now, this is quite interesting – all the efforts of the past six months – we managed to get all this effort paid back, because in this period we had more than 70,000 followers and more than 20 million impressions between comments, between interactions, between viewers of our screenings on Alibaba, etc.

So, it is quite a challenging activity because it’s not sales driven. So, you cannot really compare if it’s going well or if it’s not going well. We have to compare these as if we were KOL’s ourselves. So, we’re trying to communicate with China about what Italy does. Why go to Italy? What to do in Italy? If they like Italian food, where to buy Italian food in China? How to buy Italian food in China? How to dress like an Italian? And not trying to do it in a way in which we’re trying to say that we are better than our Chinese friends, which is not even true, but we’re trying to do it. We’re trying to make that understanding that if they want to buy Italian, they can have a whole pavilion of where to find a lot of Italian products in China, certified and with a lot of promotion. Which is the key to having a good strategy and possibly a successful strategy on this type of e-commerce platform?

Matthieu David: Which tools work best for you? You talked about live streaming, you talked about creating content, so the cost, where does this seem like the biggest leverage, and could you be more specific on it?

Carlo Dragonetti: As I told you, we are content driven so our interest is always to increase the number of followers, which means people that can often go to see you, they receive a notification when we post something, etc., etc.

So, we have thought that in order to have a better result, we had to increase a lot the number of followers. The Italian Trade Agency organizes a lot of other promotional offline campaigns, and we realized that the interaction between offline and online is the key of enhancing and increasing the number of followers and the engagement that the followers had with our platform. So apart from all these offline activities which are working very well, usually our call to action, so you scan my QR code, I give you the gelato cup, or you want the bag, you have to scan the QR code etc., etc. – apart from this all offline to online activities, we have tools online inside the Alibaba ecosystem.

The pop-up notification that comes up when you open Alibaba – well to be more specific, when you open Taobao. The specific pop up notification that comes out can be linked to our Brand Hub. Then we have all the tools that Alibaba provides for the media by campaigns. So we get to know some data that we try to analyze and we understand what has been going well, and what has not been going well, in terms of banners, in terms of content, in terms of articles, in terms of the color of the banner, the pictures in the banner and even the topic we decided to analyze in certain campaigns, etc.

So, as I told you, we have three different factors, so every month or every important month in the Chinese online calendar, we try to shape our communication in that direction. The tools are actually very, very good to make a good campaign. At the beginning for us, it was very complicated to get to know the tools, because working with Alibaba is very challenging and it’s very interesting. It’s a Yang generation of – the average in the CC Campus, the average age is 28 years old, so they’re all very young, very willing to work and to create more. But sometimes it’s very complicated because they use their own language, they use their own communicational app, its challenging.

Now we are – We as organizers are satisfied, but the best part of this is that also the companies that have been joining so far – HelloITA, are satisfied.

Matthieu David: So, where you see the biggest leverage is offline to online. Offline events where you can use, scan the QR code and you get followers from offline to online, that’s what you are saying right?

Carlo Dragonetti: Not only in leveraging followers, but the interaction of online to offline is very important. So, let me go back again to the food and beverage promotion that we are holding at the moment, about Italian food in China. We have been working with Hema, Alibaba’s family again. We are promoting more than – if I’m not wrong, more than 100 Italian brands with even two or three untraded SKU’s, in different areas of China.

Italian products in China

This promotion is called “we are together,” and we were together with Hema in promoting Italian products in China right. What we were doing there is not only being present in GDO and in supermarkets with our tables where there were Italian chefs doing cooking shows, or we had MC’s going to talk about the stories of Italian products in China, etc., etc. – we invited KOL’s, but we were also online on the Hema App. And that was very powerful and very interesting. So, no matter you scan QR codes to become a follower, but you have to think of a promotion that can be brought together online and offline to get the best out of it. So, interactions – that’s a very good tool. Interactions – the easiest way to interact is a call to action, so I ask you to do something, and I get back something else. That’s the base that’s – there are so many different marketing tools that can enter this discussion to make the best interaction between online to offline, or vice versa, but it’s all about – how much do you want to invest? That’s very important.

Matthieu David: Yeah. Yeah. The investment online actually is always bigger than what you think, most people think that it can be a random – as you did actually with 20 million views. It can be by chance or it can be random, to get all the views, but if you want to do it in a specific time, with a specific message, then you want something very, very specific decided to work on. My final question, as we are going to have soon to end the interview, but my final question is about the identity of a nation online, the identity of a country online, I give you one concern that the French identity – it’s very difficult to promote French food, because there is no specific dish from the French food. Compared to Italy, where there are two specific Italian dishes which are pizza and pasta, for instance, which can be clearly identified with Italy.

So, the identity of a country online, when you promote it in China. How do you evaluate when you have so much identity and when it’s not sometimes very easy to promote the identity? Moreover, when you need to be fair with all the sectors. What’s your thinking about that?        

Carlo Dragonetti: That’s actually a fun fact, funny stories. You are right in saying that sometimes it’s complicated when you don’t have an identity or a mascot that you can use to enter a stadium.

We have pasta; we have pizza, we have gelato, right. We have Italian products in China that can be sold but what we are trying to do is – not only we have these Trojan horses to enter China, which is the most famous things. The most commercial Italian products in China, but as I told you before, Italy has 96% of small or medium enterprises that sometimes cannot make numbers to feed on China. So, we also have to balance all of this, so the campaign we’re trying to organize is more about the quality of Italian food in China, no matter it’s a Trojan, no matter its pasta, pizza or gelato or its very good balsamic vinegar, or its very good milk, or its very good whatever – it’s very good water, which any other country might have, but what we have to do is increase the awareness of Italian products in China.

That’s the biggest challenge and to do that it’s even more complicated because you have to fight Ananas pizza, pineapple pizza, you have to fight things that are not real Italian or really high quality. The high quality that you want to communicate.

So, pineapple pizza is always a big deal between Italians and international friends. That was just an example to say that you have to fight what sounds Italian and what is Italian. The parmesan from Kraft is not Italian, because we have the Parmigianino, and how to explain it to a person that never used cheese in his food culture.

So, it’s a big challenge. It’s part of a bigger process.

In closing, I wanted to analyze another aspect. We are now working a lot with Slow Food, which is a very important company – well it’s an association actually that promotes a certain type of values in terms of food. So, the fair food, the clean food that protects not only the person that has the food, but also the producer of the food, and that are a new idea of facing the fast food growing culture of food.

Why we have decided to cooperate with them is because we would like to have more training and more activities that can help Chinese consumers or international community in China, to get to know more and more about what is Italian food and how Italian ingredients can match the Chinese cuisine, what can be Italian food in China.

Matthieu David: I understand, so you’re trying to do what a lot of countries have a hard time doing, that is how to match their products which are very cultural to Chinese food.

Carlo Dragonetti: Sorry I can’t hear you again very clearly. Can you start again?

Matthieu David: You can’t at all or can’t clear?

Carlo Dragonetti: Okay, now I can hear. Can you say it again?

Matthieu David: Yeah, so when you said that you try to match Italian food in China and ingredients with typical Chinese dishes, which is what some countries have tried to do as well. If I take the case of France, for instance, the wine which is coming from France, don’t always fit with the Chinese food where you have a lot of different dishes – which dish? Which cuisines and so on. At the same point, a wine like Bordeaux with very spicy food may not work very well, but still, it’s very famous. So, it’s not easy actually to match, so you were saying that you work with Slow Food association?

Carlo Dragonetti: Right. That’s correct. It’s also quite a matter of perception of the consumer that the customer might have of an ingredient or, let’s say about wine. There’s a funny story about wine. I was in one of these promotions with a big number of producers of wine; we were talking with a lot of wine importers in a very big restaurant in Beijing. We were having one of the best Beijing duck, and they served the food, and there were a couple of Chinese friends and wine importers there, and they told me – look what they’re going to do. This guy was an Italian man. And I was very curious because I thought I knew more about China than he did. So, they finished eating their Beijing duck, and instead of drinking a glass of wine, they drank a sip of coconut water.

So, it’s more about the culture; it’s more about what you have been doing so far rather than what you expect the market to do. So, that’s true – so far maybe we as a bigger Italian community might not have been doing the right thing, so far for example in communicating wine – but the reason why we decided to start cooperating with Slow Food, is because we want to train Chinese chefs, we want to train Chinese foodies, we want to train more and more about what we have been realizing is that the Chinese interests in Italian cuisine are growing more and more. Italian restaurants are popping out a lot in the first year in Shanghai; the interest in Italian food in China is growing a lot; the interest for Italian ingredients is increasing incredibly on e-commerce platforms.

So, based on this wave, we are trying to give our support. Although we have always been facing, and we had always been facing the challenges of what this Chinese market is, which is a very, very complicated world.

Matthieu David: Thanks Carlo for your time, thanks for talking to us this early at 8 a.m. China time. Hope you enjoyed this episode of our China podcast, China Paradigm, sorry for the technical issues. That happens sometimes; I don’t know why. It’s always perfect with Zoom, and sometimes there are some technical issues, I don’t know why. It could be the occasion actually to continue in another episode, about specific cases could be interesting or specific cases you’ve worked on, specific segments of the Italian industry and economy. Thank you very much again and I hope you enjoyed this.

Carlo Dragonetti: Thank you very much for having me in this episode of your China business podcast. I wish you a beautiful day and keep in touch. Bye.

China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.

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