Find here the full China Paradigm episode 49. Learn more about Thomas Nixon’s story working with digital marketing strategies in China and find all the details and additional links below.
Full transcript below:
Matthieu David: Hello, everyone. I’m Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue Consulting, and this China marketing podcast, China Paradigm. Today I’m with Thomas Nixon, the co-founder of Qumin. Qumin is a digital creative agency.
Thomas Nixon: Thank you very much for that introduction, Matthieu. Qumin, as you kindly introduced to us, was founded by three of us. There was Yan Peng, who is a native Chinese and has moved over to the UK probably when he was doing his university degree. That’s where he met Arnold, who actually was born in Xi’an in China, and moved over to the UK when he was about 11 years old. So, Arnold has this great ability to see things both from the Chinese side but also the Western side. And there was myself who was, as you can tell, very, very English, but I started studying Chinese when I was quite young, and then the Chinese University.
We’ve always had this ability to look at things across the whole spectrum from a Chinese side and both from a Western side. That has helped us to establish that presence in the international market doing Chinese work, as well as doing Chinese work in China and supporting companies there.
The London office was actually the first office that we set up because that’s where we all met. There was a sort of distinct lack of that time of any companies outside of China supporting businesses to access the Chinese digital ecosystem. When I talk about the Chinese digital ecosystem, I’m not just simply referring to China mainland. I’m talking about all of the Chinese diasporas that live across the world, which have become so crucial and instrumental to the growth of a lot of the luxury industry, for example.
I remember back in the early days at universities – and they still continue to thrive in Western digital marketing from foreign students – but in the early days, it was working and supporting overseas tourism and Chinese people that were looking at studying abroad. Then we began to expand and grow and build out our Chinese digital ecosystem.
We are a full-service digital marketing agency which is dedicated to building strategies in the Chinese digital ecosystem. It’s so important for us right from the beginning to offer everything from the brand creative through to the technical execution. Majority of us are actually from a technical marketing background. We began working with brands that were beginning to enter into the Chinese market for the first time. Everything was led from a performance marketing point of view from their global teams. It began working with their global teams in Western markets. That meant that we then had to open up a Shanghai operation. In about 2013, one of our first really big clients was Skyscanner.
Matthieu David: Which was bought by Ctrip.
Thomas Nixon: Yes. We were there from right at the beginning when they were talking about entering into Mainland China, all the way for about three or four years through the acquisition with Ctrip. We saw that full journey which is super exciting to be on. We had to do lots of things that were very much out of our comfort zone. It took us as a digital marketing agency which dedicates in building Chinese digital ecosystem on a kind of growth spurt and allowed us to learn a lot about how to establish and set up tech companies in China.
That led to growth in our Shanghai operation, which is headed up there by Peng. We’re still relatively lean operation in Shanghai, around 10 people. The majority of the operations from a performance of creative online platforms in China still happen in the UK. Then I’d say in China; they have a small accounts team and then a few operational people where we haven’t been able to find the skillsets necessarily that we want here. And our Insights Team is obviously based on the Chinese market.
After a lot of growth, working with international clients, we’ve recently begun to establish more of a client services operation in New York. And that’s largely because we are seeing a lot of demand for the same services that we’ve been offering for largely European companies from the London office, for American companies in the States. We just wanted to be geographically closer to a lot of our targeted Chinese consumers that are expanding over there.
We’ve probably got quite several quite high profile clients, both from working with Chinese digital ecosystem expanding internationally from Western companies going into China. We tend to have what we call a market maturity model. As we begin to work with brands, we need to establish what phase they’re at in their growth journey. Whether they’re targeting Chinese consumers, and today they’ve never ever done anything in Mainland China, there are a lot of tactical executions that we can do to help businesses drive Chinese growth, but purely from Chinese living outside of China or Chinese tourists traveling outside of China. Then that sometimes moves them into cross-border, e-commerce, cross border sales for those brands. Eventually, when they feel there is a big enough market demand, it then moves into the entry of the Chinese market in the Chinese digital ecosystem and then from there into market growth.
Different people always have a different entrance point. We tend to work with quite a large number of clients. Last year, I believe we had about 34 clients across the agency. Probably at any one time, we’ve probably got somewhere around 15 active client projects going on. They range from everything from retained, what we call “business as usual” online platforms in China
and helping grow communities for some of our brands or lead generation activity, all the way through to campaign executions that are aimed at either driving sales for a new product or for looking at driving awareness around key periods of the year for certain brands. They used to be quite a heavy mix towards retained work and now, as the clients get larger, things have changed a bit more into social media campaigns in China.
Matthieu David: Because it lets you manage it on social media campaigns in China and so on. You’re already present in China, so this is a social media campaign in China that may work for them. You talked about the size of the team in Shanghai. Can you tell us about the total size of the team? Would you mind showing?
Thomas Nixon: Yes, of course. It’s just over 30, and there’s only a few at the moment that is operating out of the States. The majority of that team is based in London.
We had a few fluctuations over the years actually. One of the challenges for a lot of Western agencies operating in China – and you probably know this from the networks around Shanghai – is that for us, we have a very high standard of what we want to deliver for because of the caliber of the clients that you’ve mentioned. Every single thing that we communicate to that target Chinese consumers, whether it’s an update in a report, an e-mail, all the way through to the actual work itself, it has to be absolutely perfect in the way that everything is written, the way it’s communicated, in the way that we’re doing our data analytics because they have high expectations. These are the world’s biggest and best companies largely. So, it has always been very important for us to control that quality.
Attention to detail is something that we’ve always struggled to get from our marketing in the Chinese digital ecosystem over the years. We have invested a lot of time into building out that team. We have had bigger teams in China over the years, but ultimately we found that because of the staffing and what I believe is a kind of huge investment into the digital industry in China, specifically Shanghai, the wages have increased, the churn is very high for people going to new jobs. So, you get a lot of title jumping, where somebody is probably a title two or three times in, sometimes, what their actual ability level is. The problem is, you end up having to hire three people to do the job that one person should be doing, which is not an effective way to run a commercial operation.
We’ve tended to find that the quality of the Chinese staff that we can find in the UK is actually higher than sometimes what we can find in China. And because we’re closer to the targeted Chinese clients, it’s easier to control the output and our communication, which is kind of where we see a little bit of our advantage in some places but it can be a disadvantage in others. So, it has been an interesting challenge for us.
Matthieu David: I’d like to make sure that people listening to us really understand what you do. From what we’ve seen on your website, the services that you provide are branding, CRM, experiential, film, illustration, KOL, naming, PPC, SEO, social, strategy. In a more specific way and very easy to understand for people listening to us, I would like to take some cases.
You have worked for Manchester United, so it’s okay that you had a lot on your website. You said on the website what works specifically for them on the CRM. How do you work on a CRM for the club through a campaign? For me, the West doesn’t lean to each other very easily. Could you explain more?
Thomas Nixon: Yes, of course. One thing I think people are not often so clear is the way that businesses operate when they are football clubs. Ultimately, a football club gets all of its commercial value, its sponsorship value from its number of marketable records. So when a sponsor comes along, they say, “Okay, if I attach my brand to this particular football club, I’m going to get not just this awareness and reach through the TV media, but I’m also going to get access to be able to sell my products to their fans.” That’s the reason that Manchester United is the most commercially astute clubs on the planet. It’s because they have a very, very strong and rich targeted Chinese clients of marketable records.
Now, one of the challenges for them in Chinese digital ecosystem was a lot of the methodologies that they were using in the west to collect those marketable records. They actually didn’t work, for example, so they had online platforms in China that they could use on Facebook or on Twitter to get people to sign up to win football shirts or signboards. But these online platforms in China didn’t work, and those activities often didn’t work. So they have, I believe, 8 to 9 million followers on the online platforms in China: Sina Weibo. I think it’s just over maybe 100,000 or so on the online platforms in China, WeChat based on what you see from the read rates as well.
One of the problems for us is that that audience base had actually become quite expensive to reach from a Weibo perspective because of the cost of the Weibo ads to reach your own fans. But on WeChat, it becomes saturated. So we got to the point where we almost captured every single record of all of the followers of online platforms in China. We wanted to help them grow beyond those numbers.
We’ve been working with them now for probably about three years, and we’ve run a series of different types of social media campaigns in China. For the first one, we built a technical solution to allow them to actually host competitions in China and to capture those records. That particular solution worked across online platforms in China. We could very quickly spin up a short quiz that then people could enter, and we could capture those records for them.
The other application that we built was an H5 app, which was a selfie app which allowed you to have a virtual selfie with one of the main IT players, which is a fun one to create because we got to go and shoot loads of imagery of all the players and able to meet our idols.
Matthieu David: H5, some people don’t know. H5 is a responsive website, HTML5. You can open it on WeChat; you can open it on your mobile. It’s essential to create H5.
Thomas Nixon: Yes, absolutely. A lot of people talk about online platforms in China, but actually, there are so many other online platforms in China that people are on. Often if you’re trying to build an application just specific to one online platform in China, I do find it a lot better to build these HTML5 apps and H5 apps. These are known in China.
We then had quite success from the selfie app. But again, we found that it was only reaching a football audience, a specific Manchester United Football. With very little media spend that was available to amplify these, we had to rely on a lot of organic traction, which is difficult to do on online platforms in China when it’s something specific to these football fans.
So, we went back to the drawing table. We went and did some insight into how our targeted Chinese consumers behaved both on online platforms in China and offline as well in the real world. We found that the consumption of football was actually happening a lot later at night because of the timing of the games that they were watching. It was largely young, single men that love gaming and Manga. A lot of the time, they were watching these things either late at night in the dorm rooms or Internet cafes. We found that their experience of football was often combined with them gaming at the same time or engaging in Manga.
So we came up with this an idea with the club to basically create something. The first time that was actually made specifically for that targeted Chinese consumers. It wasn’t something like, first was a quiz that could be for any market or the selfie app could be for any market. It was actually something that was based on the Chinese market. Then we basically developed a full Manga story, and then animated it, drew all the pictures. You’ll probably see that on the website. We also have a few videos.
Matthieu David: I do see it.
Thomas Nixon: That was obviously quite a difficult process because we have to get sign off from all the players. There are a few nuances about who can have horns and who can’t have horns when they’re devils. There was a lot of back and forth about José Mourinho and things like that. From a creative point of view, it was a big challenge. But we then created alternative story arcs as well within the actual video. Depending on which route you chose, you’ve got a different outcome of the kind of story, but we have the same ending.
As part of that process, we had what we called a progressive CRM data capture. Rather than just having the data capture upfront as a just a name, phone number, e-mail address, those kinds of fields, we actually integrated it into the story. At certain points, they would ask for certain pieces of information which could get a lot more rich and engaging.
In that way, we weren’t just collecting records; we were actually building some affinity with the targeted Chinese consumers and building something that targeted Chinese consumers could really engage with and feel it was created for targeted Chinese consumers. It was hugely successful. We actually won a few awards in the UK for it – actually, the first Chinese marketing award, a UK marketing awards event. That was quite good.
Matthieu David: It’s interesting because I see the creativity not being only the design, not only the digital marketing strategy in the Chinese market. It’s a way to interact, a way to engage with the audience. And creating a game, with the game you have a quiz, which is a part of the creation, how you engage with the targeted Chinese consumers.
I went to your website, and you’re the type on one website for your social media campaigns in China which you called Man United Fast. I was a bit surprised, and I went on your website, and I guess through this example, we’ll know more about what you did. You ask for the e-mail. You ask for the name, the birthday, the country, and the e-mail – even in China. Last year, online platforms in the Chinese digital ecosystem were all those. How can you ask for the e-mail?
Thomas Nixon: That’s one of the things that over the last few years have been a constant discussion. We’ve always felt that it was better to build and develop a social CRM, Manchester United, as you mentioned, or WeChat records. Because every e-mail address that comes through that we were capturing was QQ numbers with the qq.com at the end, as you know, we were a bit concerned from our point of view that people wouldn’t have e-mail addresses, first of all. Second of all, they wouldn’t use them. But actually, China has one of the highest open rates for the e-mail marketing database than any other markets, which was extremely surprising to me.
Matthieu David: It is.
Thomas Nixon: Somebody is using those e-mails. To us, it has never dampened the spirits of the targeted Chinese clients to continue to push for that particular marketable record. Obviously, for them, it’s key to push through the types of advertising you would get for an e-mail. It’s very hard to do that through SMS, CRM, or trying to do that through other channels except for WeChat. I do feel that WeChat is the strongest opportunity for them. But I guess the ownership of WeChat within the United team was in a different department, so for us, it was very important just to drive e-mails. But still to this day, it does get a hold on the highest open rates of any market.
Matthieu David: It’s just in numbers, but open rates. When you say the highest number of open rate, for me a good open rate will be 10-20%. So, it would be higher than this?
Thomas Nixon: No, I think for them they vary because of the volume and the number of subscribers they have. But yes, around the 10% mark.
Matthieu David: 10%, which is high?
Thomas Nixon: Yes, it’s good. It’s a good, solid open rate.
Matthieu David: Okay. Now, I understand better. The business model of a club is to actually make it possible for their sponsor to reach their targeted Chinese clients like we see Adidas, Chevrolet, which are sponsoring Manchester United, and for this, they have a strong CRM. Through your social media campaigns in China, through the games, through the quiz, they’re coming to you. You build to get more records on this targeted Chinese clients, opening a new market for the sponsors of Manchester United. Am I correct?
Thomas Nixon: Yes, that’s absolutely right.
Matthieu David: I understand. Very interesting. I think one of the first clients you had was Chinatown.
Thomas Nixon: In terms of digital marketing in the Chinese digital ecosystem, I think it was slightly different. I think we had other clients that really drove us forward in being our foundation for the work we did in the Chinese market. But what Chinatown did allow us to do– and they were a very supportive client, the company that owns a lot of the retail in Chinatown – was it allowed us to actually do Western marketing but from a Chinese perspective. That really helped us when it came to now working with these Chinese companies as they’re expanding internationally because it allowed us to do things in reverse to what we were typically doing then.
With Chinatown, we built them an English facing website and the Chinese facing website. We ran their Facebook, their Instagram, and Twitter, as well as their online platforms in China. When it came to creating that content, we were often creating it for two digital ecosystems. We had to create a marketing strategy in the Chinese digital ecosystem that basically bridged those two target clients.
You’ll notice as well as anybody, as a Westerner living in China, you know the real China, what China is actually like. For a Western person living in, let’s say, France, or in the UK, they don’t really know what China is like, or they don’t understand Chinese culture. They have a very stereotypical view, clichéd view of China. It’s all lanterns; it’s pagodas, arches, triads, and docks hanging up in windows.
Matthieu David: I don’t see that every day in China.
Thomas Nixon: Right. What we wanted to do is effectively rebrand Chinatown as a destination in London, to be somewhere that understanding Chinese culture really stands for understanding what China is becoming on the global stage, but also a place that Chinese people felt proud to bring their friends and their Western friends or colleagues that they’ll begin to meet. To build it as more of like a hub for “all things Chinese,” but ultimately, the client wanted it to be a food destination as well.
Luckily, we’re all very passionate about Chinese food and East Asian food as a whole. So, we began to create a branded approach that basically was about bringing that modernity aspect to Chinatown. So, we began to investigate the Chinese digital ecosystem that positioned it as being a little bit more innovative and modern than people had perceived it. We created new logos, which were very dynamic in the way they were created. We actually had a new name. We renamed it from an older Cantonese name to Zhōngguó Chéng, which was actually a more Mandarin name.
There are little things that might not have gone down that well with the community at that time, but we were looking towards the future as the Mainland Chinese began to become more influential, and they are now very much so in terms of the restaurant business in the UK. We have a Haidilao now in London, which is amazing, and Din Tai Fung recently opened as well. So we’re getting a lot of the big Chinese (brands).
Matthieu David: So it was also to attract businesses to establish social media campaigns within Chinatown, Chinese businesses.
Thomas Nixon: Yes. Ultimately, the targeted Chinese consumers make their money from rent, and so it was important to attract the high caliber of food and beverage offering, but it was also important to ensure I guess the right type of footfall. It was more about targeting Chinese consumers in London and local people to choose Chinatown as a food destination.
It did fantastic where we built an amazing website that blended those elements that for Western people to understand Chinese culture, which are the things that I personally fell in love with, all of the cultural elements and historical elements, and then mixing that with a lot of the young, vibrant modernity — so bringing in some elements of China’s rise in technology and fashion and things like that.
It has been hugely successful. If you go to Chinatown now, if you’re ever visiting in London, the place is completely transformed to what it was four years ago which is a testament to the hard work of both the targeted Chinese consumers and our marketing team in Chinese digital ecosystem.
Matthieu David: Talking about Chinatown and talking about subculture, because you mentioned in some of your articles – I can’t remember in which publication – I saw you talking about tribes’ subculture, not talking about China. But I read an article recently talking about understanding Chinese culture, such as C-pop, China pop culture, with singers from China being recent in the West. It was kind of surprising to me as much as the surprise I got when I saw some online platforms in China, such as TikTok going worldwide. I did not imagine that China would have soft power, so quickly the other cultures like Korean or Japanese during the ‘90s or early 2000. Do you see that in the same way as Korea and Japan? Are you seeing the momentum now? Or is it just a little phenomenon that is talked about but is not really a wave? What’s your take on it?
Thomas Nixon: Yes. From a soft power point of view, I think it’s a lot subtler than I would say that Japan and Korea have done. Hong Kong cinema, for example, that really had its heyday in the ‘90s when a lot of Western people were watching the Jackie Chan films. I remember watching all of the series of Hong Kong Police triad movies through my teens, and I didn’t speak well in Chinese. I wasn’t really at that point that interested in understanding Chinese culture.
I think there has been a big shift in the last three or four years towards things that are coming out of China. I wouldn’t necessarily say where we’re listening like to C-pop, but soft power for China has been a lot more about owning the technology and the media channels for them.
Obviously, Huawei is at the center of the trade war at the moment. We’ve seen this wave of the Oppos, the Xiaomis, and now the ByteDance is coming into the European markets, South America, Africa. And with that, it’s becoming a kind of new perception of China. I think rather than China necessarily leading with all of the music and film and that element of soft power; they are very much leading from an innovation power point of view. I think that actually then ladders down or filters down to actually how people perceive Chinese brands by understanding Chinese culture, which is what’s really allowed companies like Xiaomi, and I would certainly say ByteDance is one. Lynk & Co is another one. People don’t even realize Lynk & Co, is a Chinese company. It’s allowed for a different perception of Chinese products.
What we actually see in European markets – we had a lot of interactions with the Alibaba Group in Europe. Their key markets are France, Spain, and the Netherlands because, in those markets, the younger people are really keen on buying Chinese products.
Matthieu David: AliExpress is what you are talking about, most specifically here?
Thomas Nixon: AliExpress, yes. They are providing the young Generation Z, the young people in the West. They have not grown up necessarily in seeing China as a backward country. It has been a strong superpower. Therefore, they don’t have the same preconceptions about Chinese products, and certainly, from a price perspective, that’s very important to you when you’re young. You can’t afford to spend £600 to £700 on an iPhone but when you can get the same features in a P90, then what are you going to choose? If the branding isn’t quite that important to you or the brand perception image, then you can do very well.
Matthieu David: I do really feel the same in the sense that Korea and Japan enter the West with more culture of Manga and games, whereas China is entering the West with technology, being hi-tech with the Xiaomi, with the Oppo, and with Huawei. Now, Chinese products are not seen as low-quality or middle-quality, but actually as more advanced technology. That’s what actually happened in the last two or five years. Very recent, right?
Thomas Nixon: Yes. There are a few challenges that do face Chinese companies on doing social media campaigns in China. A lot of the work that we do is about innovation within our business. When we approach China, we have to get our clients to work innovatively. Because as you know, the speed at which things move in China, the number of iterations that companies make and how quickly they get products to market, it is a highly, highly competitive environment.
So if you’re a Western brand, your only advantage is literally your brand heritage. It’s your brand story; it’s your brand heritage. A lot of the time, you have to really ensure that you are keeping up just up to speed on a service level, and that’s what China does really well. They create these innovative services for their marketing in the Chinese digital ecosystem. That innovative-led service approach has not necessarily worked that well in the West because we have such strong ingrained legacy ways of doing things.
They tried to bring in new retail or mobile commerce into Western markets. And we’re reluctant to change because it’s a big step for us, whereas China didn’t have those big steps. We’ll have bigger steps, so it’s easier to make them rather than making those smaller ones.
What we found is that for Western companies going to China, they have to be super innovative. What we found working with the Chinese companies coming internationally is they have to focus on their brand because they have the innovation; they have the technology. But often the struggle is the way that Chinese businesses are set up and structured. The staff that they have, and all the decisions are still being made in China is that they haven’t gone through those decades of being trained in how to necessarily run the social media campaigns in China. How to work with agencies, there is a very different relationship between us and our targeted Western clients, and targeted Chinese clients. I would say there’s a slave-master relationship in China, where they feel that you have to do everything that they tell you to do and you have to work 996, always available on WeChat.
Matthieu David: Yes. Just for people to understand what you’re talking about, 996 was a name popularized by Alibaba. You know Jack Ma. He’d say people have to work from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week in tech companies, specifically, Alibaba.
Thomas Nixon: Yes. There is this environment in China where everybody is always, always working, always-on, which we also have in London, to be honest. However, I think people do respect certain boundaries, and sometimes that’s difficult to understand Chinese working culture. It’s difficult for our Chinese staff as well as our Western staff.
I often think that the fundamental changes that often need to take place within Chinese businesses are more organizational structural stuff. I’ve heard stories of people within some of the really big tech companies, one of which we’ve worked with, of line managing one person, line managing 34 people. I’m not sure how anybody can line manage 34 people. I think he’d struggle to do three or four.
That sort of volume of structure and direct reports is something that I think there’s still a lot there to learn. I think once Chinese companies can get over that barrier and integrate more international structural systems, hopefully, ones that don’t slow them down as business, retain the innovation.
But I think when it comes to the marketing process and branding, it’s not about rushing in and trying to do too much too quickly. I think that’s where we do bring a lot of value, a lot of time to our targeted Chinese clients such as making sure that they understand that. This is about building a long-term brand equity and brand reputation. Things can just go awry at the click of a finger, similar to how we’ve seen Western companies not succeed in China. Ultimately, Chinese companies have to be aware that when they go internationally, there are certain things that they have to be careful of in terms of their marketing imagery in the Chinese digital ecosystem.
Matthieu David: That’s a good transition for me to talk about your targeted Chinese clients, that you served actually type of clients I want you to talk about. One was foreign companies going to China like Manchester United, which is in the UK, Chinatown targeting the overseas and the Chinese expats, and the third type I see within your clients are Chinese clans. To name a few, TikTok called Douyin in Chinese, China Mobile. You also work for Geely, which is the automaker with auto Volvo and other brands actually, not only Volvo. What did you do for them to target the West market, especially for China Mobile and TikTok?
Thomas Nixon: I’ll start with Geely then. With Geely, they are one of the largest car companies on the planet. I don’t think people often realize that, but they own brands like Volvo. They own the London Taxi Company, they own half of Proton which owns Lotus, and as well as having their own Geely branded vehicles. They’ve also invested in creating an electric car, which is it’s going to be challenging Tesla’s around the world, which is Lynk & Co, which is already out in China, but it is going to be launching into Europe.
One of the things that really fascinated me when we first started working with Geely is in 1987, Geely made refrigerators, and now they are challenging some of the world’s most innovative car companies. One of the things that we’ve been working with them is actually more of at the corporate level because they don’t sell the Geely car into many Western markets. In fact, the markets that they sell into are often very developing countries around Central Asia.
For them, it was more about – when they were going to acquire companies, the staff of those companies or the people that worked in those companies had no idea who Geely was, and so there was a lot of fear. There was a fear of, “Are we are going to lose our jobs? Are they going to take all the manufacturing back to China?” In fact, to create a Geely, they’ve never really done that in terms of the companies that they’ve acquired.
So it was about building a corporate reputation for them in the Western and Chinese digital ecosystem. It was an SEO-based largely. It was ensuring that people understood the difference between Geely, the car company in China, and Geely Holding, the commercial group that was actually acquiring these companies and turning them into very strong businesses.
Matthieu David: You said SEO really built their reputation and saw in their own name.
Thomas Nixon: Yes. There are two types of SEO, on-site and off-site. We did a lot of off-site work to make sure that when people were searching for them on Google in the Western markets that there was the right information coming up about Geely and Geely Zhejiang Holding, the holding group. Ensuring that across all of the different touchpoints where people were talking about Geely, we were making sure that those pieces of information were accurate because there was a lot of misinformation on the Internet. A lot of link building, a lot of outreach center. It has been a very successful one for them. They’re really a company that I admire a lot, and I think they’re going to have a lot of success globally.
China Mobile has a very interesting product, a very interesting proposition. Effectively, CMLink is a SIM card which you can use, when you’re in the UK, as a UK phone number, but it connects to your Chinese phone number in China. When you’re in the UK, you can use it, and you can call UK numbers and text UK people. It’s for the cost of what it would be in the UK and then you use the same phone number, you go about to China, and it costs you the local rate.
Matthieu David: Interesting.
Thomas Nixon: International people or students or tourists, they can use their phone number when they’re in the UK and China. It’s basically the same cost and the same cost of data, which is often the biggest problem when I go to China, I have no data, and so I have to rely on Wi-Fi.
One of the things that we’ve done for them is to help them acquire customers largely. From a creative point of view, we’re doing a lot of video work, and then it will be paid media to ensure that the videos get in front of the right targeted Chinese consumers to just explain what that product is for them.
Matthieu David: If I understand, there are two kinds of users of mobile here. There are students in the UK, and there may be foreign students who will go to China or even foreign business people who will go to China.
Thomas Nixon: Yes, absolutely. Again, it’s creating content that can be used for both Chinese and Western people. I think that really is becoming a lot more common for us, where there are multiple targeted Chinese consumers. It’s not just the targeted Chinese consumers, and it’s not just the target Western audiences.
We often try to keep the same creative from a cost point of view to minimize the amount of video shooting. But then as soon as we start splitting out the channels that we need to distribute on, we have to have slightly different edits, slightly different messages, and a paid media planning. It’s become quite common for us, to digital marketing strategy in Western markets and UK, and Chinese digital ecosystem at the same time.
TikTok is fun. I love the product. I think that the biggest challenge for them is that obviously in China, when you are on Douyin, the Chinese name for TikTok, is the types of content that you get on Douyin, for me, it’s kind of very interest-based almost. There’s a lot of food content on there. There are a lot of weird DIYs. I saw one these guys making and fixing things of instant noodles. There are obviously singing and dancing sort of things, but there are also sports and magic videos. There’s just a lot of creativity on the online platforms in China.
Now when Douyin became TikTok and expanded internationally, they acquired a platform called Musical.ly. Musical.ly was effectively a platform largely used by teenagers – largely females – that had a lot of content, which was like lip-synching or dancing kind of videos. They wanted to create effectively, get more people on the online platforms in China to create better content. The problem was people were going onto the online platforms in China and seeing all of the Musical.ly content and then coming straight off it.
In terms of generating user growth, they had to have people that were almost, I wouldn’t say incentivized, but had a reason that they feel that if they were creating content on these online platforms in China, people would see it, it would grow, and the online platforms in China as a whole would mature. So very similar to what YouTube does with having YouTube creators where they incubate a lot of people to help them create content on YouTube.
We began to come up with social media campaigns in China ideas for TikTok, how they can activate more in the UK, to effectively get young creative people, whether it’s football freestylers, graffiti artists, rappers, onto the online platforms in China to create content. So we did a university social media campaigns in China for them to go right to the heart of young creatives in the UK, looking at all of the arts and drama and music universities around the country.
Then we ran a big competition, tapping into – I think not necessarily young people’s hunger to be famous or Internet-famous as you might call it, but more into the fact that any young creative, what they largely want is people to see their work and to recognize their work on online platforms in China. The competition was all-around driving this idea of a million people would see your content if you win this particular competition.
Matthieu David: Which online platforms in China did you use to interact with them to get more audience? Did you use Facebook? Did you use billboards?
Thomas Nixon: The irony of this is they spend a huge amount on Facebook and Instagram.
Matthieu David: They are competitors, right?
Thomas Nixon: Yes. They do a lot of social media advertising. Instagram was probably the number one channel. It’s a similar format but extremely different format at the same time. That was the one where they put a lot of their media spend behind. They did a lot of YouTube ads as well, pre-roll. We actually did physical, on-the-ground executions on campus at universities. Part of the whole journey is really getting people to learn how the online platforms in China work. It’s one thing to get them to download it. The download KPI is actually quite easy. It’s never difficult; it’s actually how do you get people to continuously –
Matthieu David: Retention.
Thomas Nixon: Yes. And they spent a lot of money previously on some of the world’s biggest YouTubers. They’d used the online platforms in China, but they’re not really engaged with it long term. Now, it’s really about working alongside agencies, as well as young creators to get more targeted Chinese consumers as well, more businesses to understand the power of that short video format with online platforms in China that you can get reach them.
Matthieu David: There is one thing I want you to talk about. It is about China 2025 and the transition Chinese companies may face overseas. What did you analyze and what did you assume within the plan “Made in China 2025” that makes sense for you? How do you interpret what’s going on?
Thomas Nixon: For us, Made in China 2025 is kind of one of these government policies that I think is going to bring a lot of benefit to Chinese digital ecosystem, especially the digital marketing industry which we’re in, largely because what the main focus is obviously bringing that manufacturing and innovation and containing it within China. It’s very similar to the issues that they’re currently having, let’s say, with Huawei and on the chip manufacturer for Huawei wanting to pull their chips from Huawei. If China has its own chip manufacturers, then they wouldn’t have this particular issue.
That is what Made in China 2025 ads core is focusing on. But that investment and development are going to spend a huge amount of technological innovation, which is going to be spreading across the whole globe. What we see that in changing is what we were talking about earlier in terms of soft power, is that we believe that those technology companies are going to really transform further the way that Western people to understand Chinese culture.
There is still very much a stigma attached to China. It has not completely gone away. Let’s say the mobile phone industry or the drone industry, probably they’re the ones that people go, “Yeah, China’s the best at doing those.” What we believe we will see is that once China begins to spread into artificial intelligence more on a global level into augmented reality, virtual reality, all of these areas, that it’s going to drive sort of new media.
New media here is where the marketing happens. It’s where digital marketing happens. So when we see online platforms in China like ByteDance actually succeeding on an international level, it makes us really excited because, in fact, it’s shaking up the entire format of the traditional digital marketing strategy in some certain industries. For us, it’s a way to activate in new ways, in new approaches to how to build customer interaction.
If we look at the innovations that have come out of China, people have been talking for five years about how WeChat is so much better than WhatsApp. Now, WhatsApp is experimenting with WhatsApp pay in India and trying to build out the service offering they have for brands to do customer service for WhatsApp. For a long time, we’ve been talking about these trends and how I wish I could do this on these online platforms in China and the West. Now, because those things are starting to happen, it’s changing the way that people or Western consumers can be serviced through online platforms in China, which traditionally today, we haven’t been able to do because the online platforms in China haven’t allowed us to.
I’m really excited about the prospect of being able to do the types of social CRM work that we do on WeChat in Western markets because I do see how powerful it is to have these formats where you can have those better interactions with the customers. You can better provide services for the targeted Chinese consumers, it can happen more quickly, and it’s more integrated.
So I see Made in China 2025 is spearheading those developments to Chinese companies. I think that’s really going to benefit personally, us as a business. For anybody that has that experience of running social media campaigns in China, I think it will begin to become relevant for running social media campaigns in China and Western markets.
Matthieu David: Thank you very much. I’m looking at your logo behind you. Those who are listening to us and not watching us may not see, but basically, if I describe it, your logo for Qumin. Did you do that on purpose? How did you make that? It’s very, very interesting.
Thomas Nixon: It largely got some of the elements in there of what we’re talking about the chat messenger apps. I’m just trying to explain how we’re doing a lot of communications type of work with the speech bubbles, but yes, I never actually noticed it looks like that.
The actual name Qumin in Chinese means “interesting people,” but how it really came about before we had the Chinese name, it’s named after the spice cumin or chuan in Chinese, which is the spice that you also have on your lamb kebabs on some street markets in China. Because Arnold is from Xi’an in China, when he grew up, the smell of cumin is something that whenever he smells cumin, it reminds him of home. So that’s where the name originally came from. For SEO purposes, we changed it to a Q. For a long time, people struggled to pronounce the name, but it’s always pronounced correctly in Chinese.
Matthieu David: Thank you very much, Thomas, for the time, for waking up so early in London. It was very, very interesting, very specific. I loved when you were talking about the cases to understand better, why just companies have your services and why they entered China, where they develop a relationship with China, and all the way around to advertise in the West. Thank you very much again, and I hope our listeners enjoyed the talk.
Thomas Nixon: Yes. Thank you. Have a good weekend.
Matthieu David: Have a good day.
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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