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China Paradigm transcript #101: Managing cross-border e-commerce operations in China: Successes and failures

Find here China Paradigm episode 101. We interviewed Dr. Renata Thiébaut, one of the few experts in cross-border e-commerce in China as well as the head of business intelligence of an agency providing e-commerce operations in China. Read on to learn more about how the Alibaba Tmall partner agency helps foreign brands tackle the Chinese market

Full transcript below:

Matthieu David: Hello everyone, I’m Matthieu David, the founder of Daxue consulting and its China marketing podcast, China paradigms and today I am with someone I’m very impressed by when I looked at their resume, Dr. Renata Thiébaut. You are a partner and head of the business intelligence of Web2Asia since 2013. On the side, you’re a researcher at Harvard University and you have a Ph.D. from Jiao Tong University in Law. So that’s why I’m saying that I’ve been very impressed by your resume.

But we are here to talk about Web2Asia. Web2Asia is a TP – so Taobao partner or Alibaba TMall partner agency– you will tell me which formula we need to use, which is an official name for companies that are able to represent companies and sell on their behalf and manage marketing budget and media buying on Alibaba. So, you need to be accepted by Alibaba to get this name to be an Alibaba Tmall partner agency. Size of business, you started in 2006, it’s about 200 people now. You can work in eleven languages and you have worked for companies like Marks & Spencer, Esprit, Bausch, Swarovski, Intersport and one I’m very interested in – Metro, Aldi, and JellyCat which you won a reward for by Alibaba, and I hope that’s something we can talk about. Thanks, Renata, for being with us, and could you tell us more about Web2Asia?

Renata Thiebaut: Thank you Matthieu for welcoming me today. Web2Asia is a full e-commerce service provider in China, so we have three different core services. The first one is the market entry strategy for foreign brands that want to open an online shop in China. The second service is the e-commerce operations in China and sales. As you said, we have around 200 staff that take care of the design of the shop, also customer service and company preparations. So, we have the whole ecosystem to offer to our clients, especially foreign clients that want to come to China. And the last service, as an e-commerce service provider in China, is digital marketing, because it goes hand in hand with e-commerce to leverage the sales.

We’ve been in the market since 2005 and we were doing more marketing at that time. Around 8 years ago we switched to do more e-commerce operations in China and we were one of the first ones to do cross-border e-commerce in China. So, let’s say we have very deep expertise, especially in cross-border e-commerce in China, since the beginning that everything was manual – we need to collect ID cards manually. It was a bit complicated in the beginning but now we narrowed down the whole process. And we’ve been awarded a couple of prizes from Alibaba group. The latest one was with Aldi and we won the innovation prize from which is Alibaba’s food app, and most of our clients are from Europe, are from North America so we focus more on foreign clients that want to come to China.

Matthieu David: For all the revenues, could you share a bit an idea of number of clients, revenues, some idea of where you are now? 200 people is not small, so I believe you are a sizeable business now.

Renata Thiebaut: Yeah it is very interesting that when we started we had roughly 15 people right, so we had a very start-up mindset and a do it yourself – we had a lot of struggles in the past but because of our positioning as one of the few foreign owned TP’s in China – also our management is all done by foreigners, myself and other partners as well, so we could tackle better different foreign markets, especially Europe right. So, we have many German clients, many British clients because of our background. So, it was a matter of positioning, of having a clear strategy of how to position our business and define where we want to go to, and I think 5 years ago we started growing a lot. Now we have clients either for consulting or e-commerce operations in China and we have more than 30 fixed clients let’s say.

Matthieu David: About 30 clients now you manage operations for?

Renata Thiebaut: Yeah for operations only for TMall but we have other services as well.

Matthieu David: I see, that’s something I’d like to know more about is that you mention a lot TMall, you mention a lot TP – that’s something I’d like to understand if Pinduoduo or WeChat is part of your work as well, but let’s go back – let’s talk about this later. So, what you are doing is to mainly manage – you started in 2003 when Taobao just started. I think TMall was not existing, just to think about it – it was pre-iPhone – the iPhone is 2008. 2003 I think Taobao started, Alibaba was started in 1999 – it was a B2B marketplace and they had no C2C, and Taobao was C2C, then TMall appeared much later (read about setting up a Taobao shop). You seem to talk about the beginning as if you were at the beginning, but I think you joined later. So at the beginning what was the vision? Was it about selling on Taobao which like eBay or like the C2C platform? What was the vision initially?

Renata Thiebaut: Well the vision was purely C2C platform and I was working at that time with Taobao, so I have a Ph.D. in law and I was doing a lot of IT protection, so my role was to shut down all of the stores on Taobao that were selling fake products. So at that time, it was very interesting because there were no rules or regulations to tackle this issue and we had to do everything manually, we had to do mystery shopping and contacting the store to ask them to close. So, my first big client for this type of service was Swarovski. There was a very good finding actually that most of the products were actually not fake. They were original. So, there is a big problem with the supply chain that the factories leak the products. The products are original from the factory.

So, there are many situations like these that China has this problem with in the past, but it has improved a lot. So yeah – at that time Taobao was clearly C2C but now you can even have some brands opening on Taobao, a store on Taobao. Miranda Kerr – the Australian model for example, she opened her brand first on Taobao and then she migrated to TMall Global. So, this is a tendency actually from all of these platforms. They do not only adopt one business model; they try to follow consumers and see the tendencies to shift their business and it happens quite often.

Matthieu David: Initially, so Taobao is a C2C platform that’s maybe where some people would sell products, some Chinese companies would sell products, but at that time in 2003 I don’t believe there were many European and American companies which wanted someone to help to sell on Taobao, so initially when Web2Asia was started – what was the vision? Was it to be a TP? It could not be because it was not even existing. Once TMall was created the word TP emerged. So, what was the vision initially – it was to create websites? To be in the digital space? And then it evolved into a TP? Is this the story?

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, this is the story. At that time, we were doing more websites and more marketing on Baidu for example, and then we had to shift our business model because we saw e-commerce was booming and there would be many opportunities in this industry. So, we became Alibaba certified Tmall Partner agency when e-commerce started in China basically and now, we are one of the top three TP’s from Alibaba, so most of our clients are referred by Alibaba. We have a very close relationship with Alibaba, because they are the marketplace and we do the store operations. So, there is a lot of coordination we have to do on a daily basis.

Matthieu David: So let’s talk about some of the rewards you got from Alibaba – one of them is of course attracting the eyes of everyone, reading your presentation which is JellyCat.  Would you mind sharing a bit more about what you did for them as a case study for those who don’t know JellyCat, it’s a British toy, but in China it seems that what you have done is that you’ve found a different market in China. You a massive amount of the product on TMall, I read in your presentation double digit million USD if it’s correct, within a year I believe, and you have been rewarded by Alibaba for those campaigns’ management of this shop. Would you mind telling us some more about what you did and how it was successful?

Renata Thiebaut: I think JellyCat is our biggest store – biggest successful case actually, because it is a small brand out of the UK and when they started in China back in 2015, they had no awareness in China- yet their price point is a bit higher compared to other local products. So, we had to position ourselves very well to have a very strong storytelling to prove to consumers they should pay around 300 RMB for that instead of 50. So, we used a lot of UK related elements to show the product was premium and to create a storytelling, and the royal family was the theme that we used at that time. We could use also some pictures because some Hollywood actors or actresses, they give JellyCat to their kids, and also the royal family itself, they use JellyCat toys. So, we could use all of this materials to show to consumers that for foreign people and for famous people as well they all love JellyCat.

So, Alibaba created a video for us, we were featured in one of the best case studies of Alibaba group, and the video was very interesting because the story was all of the JellyCat were coming from the UK to visit shanghai. So again, content was the key for JellyCat to be successful here and they have cute products. Chinese culture is a cute culture – so the product is good. Sometimes of course we cannot make miracles if customers do not really like a product or if it’s not suitable for the Chinese market, but JellyCat we could adapt the content, we could create new content, we are very flexible about that. Also every year we launch the animal of the year, that is related to the Chinese zodiac and this is very important, this localisation to the Chinese market. So, within one year we became the top one plush toy in the Chinese market and we keep winning awards for JellyCat, expanding their business here in China, so now they sell on different platforms and also, we are going offline with them. So JellyCat I think for me is the best successful case because it’s a very small company. So, if you have limited budget and if you are not well-known, it’s much more difficult to develop your brand in China, which was the case – so that’s why I like sharing JellyCat’s story.

Matthieu David: And Alibaba like it too – they share it and they gave you a reward. May I summarise and see the key point is that the royal family is using JellyCat, was it the key point? I feel it is something when you have an endorsement from a very famous and very respected people, Chinese would tend to buy it. Second question you said in your presentation that it’s not used as a toy, would you mind sharing then what it’s used for?

Renata Thiebaut: So, we even had a Chinese artist using JellyCat. We never paid for any KOL for any artist to showcase the plush toy. It was purely because of its cuteness. So, we had for example Angelababy, the Chinese Kim Kardashian – she was holding a JellyCat in one of her TV shows, so of course it was a free PR for us.

Matthieu David: Incredible, it’s incredible. For people who are listening and may not know China very well, she’s one of the most famous person – KOL I would say – people would love to have, would give millions of USD to have her as a KOL.

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, so as soon as they like a product, they can do some free advertisement and we were not even aware of that and we got a lot of feedback from consumers and we were like – oh what’s going on! So, we found out that she was with a JellyCat in one of her shows. So, it happened quite often in China actually, not only with her, but even with some others. So, we could grab all of these materials and use as a marketing material to promote our brand, without having any extra cost.

Matthieu David: The thing which is surprising and in some way it’s something – it looks random. The way you talk about it, it looks that by chance you were successful, but I don’t think that’s the case, I think it requires a lot of work and a lot of thinking. So, what’s the strategy behind it and the tactics which were not costly, but made a big effect?

Renata Thiebaut: The first thing that I believe was the key milestone for JellyCat in China was data. We saw in the beginning that our approach was wrong. Our strategy was wrong. So, within 6 months we had to re-shift and to re-strategize the brand, because like you said – we thought it would be a toy for a kid, but in the end most of our consumers were 25 years old plus. Young women going to work and they had the need because they work so hard, they had the need to be with a JellyCat either inside of the bags, to bring their JellyCat around, to go to a coffee shop, or also go to work with a JellyCat. And this is so true because most of my colleagues they have a JellyCat on their desks and they work holding the JellyCat.

So, we positioned ourselves at that time – we had to change our mind-set and also our strategy to show that JellyCat is a fashionable accessory. So, you have these smaller ones that you can carry around, put inside of your bag. So, if you go to a coffee shop or if you go to work and also of course we cannot just eliminate the case that it’s a good gifting for new-borns. So, we had to differentiate different audience and to work in a different communication message to these different audiences to show that the product is 100% safe, you not have allergy with the product. So content was the second thing that we really, really worked hard on to position JellyCat at the top plush toy in China.

Matthieu David: How did you find out that you had to change the positioning, because you were targeting children and it seems that it was not working, so you found out that the few sales you had were actually more 25 year old and from that – with the few sales you had, because I believe it was not many – you tried to differentiate and started a campaign targeting them and that worked. And then you scaled that and you put even more investment into it because you saw there was a momentum – is that correct?

Renata Thiebaut: It is correct – so in the first 3 months sales were very low, but we saw this tendency that most of the buyers and the visitors of the shop for example – the ones who would put the product in the basket but not convert — were 25 year old plus. I think the most important factor that year in the first year was 11/11 – we were definitely not prepared for the campaign.

Matthieu David: Which year was it?

Renata Thiebaut: It was in 2015. So the first 11/11 we sold so much more than we expected, let’s say 10 times more, 15 times more and the warehouse of JellyCat in the UK they were shipping the products 24/7. So you know in Europe usually people do not work on weekends right, you have restrictions with even transportation, trucks are not allowed to transport during the weekend and especially on Sundays. So, it was very stressful but we managed to deliver all of the products we had and from that time on, the first 11/11 on, we became the top one plush toy brand in China. So, I want to say that – 11/11 was very helpful for us as well.

Matthieu David: As I’m listening to you I understand that the shop is managing the cross-border e-commerce in China, so it is TMall Global right – and the warehouse – for people listening to us who are maybe not very familiar with TMall and the ecosystem of e-commerce in China — you can sell in China when you have a warehouse outside of China, and this is called TMall Global, JD is doing the same, JD Global, and you don’t need to have the registered company in China – you ship from the warehouse which actually could be a free trade zone as well in Shanghai, maybe as what you do now, with the free trade zone in shanghai or in Hong Kong to ship, and at that time it was UK.

Renata Thiebaut: Yeah, so that time it was the UK – we are using Alibaba’s logistic network which is called Cainiao to ship the products out of the UK to the final Chinese consumers, but then we were only on TMall global at that time. So JellyCat started expanding. And this is what I tell all of my clients, I do not think it’s a good strategy for you to come to a new market like China and have many sales channels for example. Sometimes they want to open on JD, on TMall and on different platforms like Kaola, The Little Red Book – it’s always good for you to start slowly, to choose first the best platform and then you do a trial in the market – if the product is not good you can adjust or the communication because you need to select a hero product for you to push the brand in the Chinese market.

So, we started first with TMall global shipping out of the UK but as soon as we expanded our business and we opened a JD store, then we open on TMall domestic that business model was no longer valid. We needed to again re-strategize. So, this is the message I think with JellyCat we always needed to rethink your strategy and think fast actually because e-commerce is so dynamic in China.

Matthieu David: It took you about 3 months before changing – as the sales were not good, 3 or 6 months I don’t remember how many months. Initially when you have a new product –and let’s take JellyCat as an example, how do you get clients? It is said by many people that when you need to get a client and you’re not known – and JellyCat was not known at that time in China I believe, you have to spend a lot of money in marketing, and you said this was a small company that did not have a lot of money to spend, so how did you get your traffic on your TMall? Was it still on Baidu what you were doing initially? Was it purely on Alibaba platforms? Could you tell us more about how you drive traffic and the specifications of JellyCat?

Renata Thiebaut: The best way for you to drive traffic to your online shop when you have a limited budget is to focus on the marketplace. You have a banner display, you have keywords, you have many different ways of driving paid traffic to your store, plus all of the free traffic that you can also have if you join a campaign for example if you do corporation with other brands. So, there are many ways for you to drive traffic.

So, I do not think Baidu would be a good strategy in the beginning if you have a limited budget because you might not convert. So, the focus should be to do marketing within the platform. As a rule of thumb, we suggest a marketing budget of around 20% compared to your sales target to be invested within the platform. So, it is a bit high but as soon as you gain more free traffic, you can drop it to let’s say 15%.

Matthieu David: I see, I think the next question for someone listening to us and who would like to have his shop on TMall is – yes, I’m spending 20% but then do I have the data, or is it owned by Alibaba, and can I retarget them? I believe you can retarget through Alibaba platforms and everything which is owned by Alibaba, including and so on, but I don’t believe you can really drive your traffic and convert them through WeChat or email because I believe it’s still the ownership of Alibaba. Would you mind sharing about this investment that companies do – 20% as you said of sales – it’s sizeable, and then do they own the data?

Renata Thiebaut: The company does have access to the data. If you have an online shop, you have access to the industry data and also to your shop’s data. So, you need to be able how to use this data for you to understand what is wrong and what is right in terms of strategy. So that’s why we are 100% data-driven and especially myself, I am in the business intelligence unit of Web2asia so my role is really to take data and strategize the business or re-strategize the business of our clients.

I can give you a very clear example of what I did with Aldi. We are selling milk – fresh milk and UHT milk of 1 liter in China. Sales were good but we noticed that we are not selling as well as other brands, especially European brands and I tracked all of the attributes of this type of product in the industry and also the top-selling brands or Chinese brands as well, and we saw a trend that Chinese consumers would prefer two different types of milk. One was 250ml instead of 1 liter, and the second one was milk with enhanced calcium for kids.

So, if you do not have this data, you are not able to understand the consumer’s behavior, right.

Matthieu David: I’m sorry to interrupt but you got this data through the fact that TMall or Alibaba is sharing with you industry data because you have a shop on TMall. When you have a shop on TMall you have access to data on the industry – but you cannot access all the industry but only your own industry. One thing I’d like to add about Aldi – people may be surprised by listening to us that Aldi is selling through a platform – a marketplace. Like Aldi is not selling on amazon or – but TMall is a place where you open a shop. It’s like a street. It’s like a department store and you open a shop. So, you find out the data on TMall which helps you to reallocate your effort and maybe redesign the product?

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, we needed to redesign the product, we needed to be able to follow all of these trends and see what the Chinese consumers want. We localize a lot of products as well. Aldi is a German supermarket so we are very, very strong in Europe, but European food consumption is very different from China. So, in China, we sell hotpot for example, that we do not sell back in Europe. So, we need to do this – whenever you go to a different market, you need to have a certain level of adaptation and localization of the product as well.

Matthieu David: My understanding is that the key advantage of Aldi is the ability to source European products which are more qualitative and maybe at a discount price because Aldi has a bit of image of discount in Europe if I’m correct, and the ability to actually bring in a hotpot – European vegetables, European products would be the asset – that’s what you concluded?

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, so we adopt a very different strategy in China, we wanted to be very competitive with lower prices just like in Europe, but also offer products that Chinese consumers are used to, like hotpot, or noodles. Chinese noodles. We ship from Australia because of the cost. It’s much cheaper to ship from Australia than Europe, but then our Aldi started procuring within the Chinese market as well, but with European standards. So, for the Chinese consumer, food trust is the key. So, you can manage to leverage what you do in Europe, cheap products but very high quality, and to adapt to the Chinese market as well. Because there were many food scandals recently in China, so this is very important. And Aldi like you said, they started with a TMall Global shop. I think this is their standard strategy so you can test the market first. Then you move to TMall domestic, then you start opening your own shops. So our first store was launched in June last year in Shanghai, and right now we have a few of them in shanghai, around 5 and we plan to expand to other cities as well, for a couple of thousand shops within the next 3 years.

Matthieu David: Yeah, for people not to be confused when you’re saying shop now – you’re saying offline shops.

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, simple shops.

Matthieu David: Yeah and it started with the TMall global and then they had a beautiful shop actually – very well designed – are you managing them at all?

Renata Thiebaut: We manage the shops and we integrated our system with the physical shops and the online shops as well on or on TMall, for example, because we also need to understand the consumers, if they were repeated buyers – how we could target these offline consumers to drive traffic to our online stores and vice versa. And, our key strategy for Aldi is O2O, online to offline (more on O2O in China here). With the integration of this data, from all of the sources that we have of the sales channel from physical stores, online stores to also social media on WeChat, Little Red Book – that’s what we use to strategize the business.

To give you a concrete example – we were expecting to grow around 23% this year, it was our very let’s say, simplistic way of thinking last year to take things slowly and really use data to grow the business more in China. But because of the corona virus I think our projections are off and they are going to expand much faster and much, much more than this. Only in February and in March we saw that the sales grew 20 times more than the average.

Matthieu David: So, the crisis was beneficial to Aldi because people were delivering home.

Renata Thiebaut: Extremely beneficial. For some industries we could see an impact of let’s say 40-50% in their sales. Fashion industry – perhaps a bit less, and shoes for hiking for example – we saw a drop of 40-50% in sales. As for other mummy and baby products and also food related products, there was a big increase. So, in Aldi’s case I can tell you, it was around 20 times more than our standard sales.

Matthieu David: Interesting. What about now, the post coronavirus because – people who may listen to us who are in Europe or in the US may not know, but in Shanghai now we are going out, bars are open, even night clubs are open, everybody’s wearing masks but everything is working. Is it back to normal or people keep their habits?

Renata Thiebaut: Right now, we’re still very, very up because not being the whole of China is normal. So big cities like Shanghai are slowly going back to normal. Even though it’s not 20 times more than the usual sales, it’s going to be much higher because you gain awareness, so people who did not shop from Aldi before now know Aldi, and they’ll probably keep shopping from Aldi. That’s why it was also beneficial in the sense that the brand will gain awareness and also more buyers. Our delivery is very fast, it’s up to 30 minutes in Shanghai for example if you’re nearby. Since we are going to expand to other cities in China, this will spread all over the country. So, we’ll keep these 30 minutes – our consumers should be comfortable. If they either want to shop online and receive their products in their office or at home or if they want to pick up offline.

Matthieu David: How did TMall react to the fact that you opened offline shops? Because in some way you are driving traffic out of their shop, I mean you are getting your independence which is something that I think Alibaba tries to avoid, even working with JD, they may try to avoid that their brands work with JD.

Renata Thiebaut: Now I do not think that the market places are as concerned as before for two reasons. One is we are facing a new era of new retail. So, this is the trend, even Alibaba is doing the same with Hema for example. So, we needed to change the mentality that offline compete with online. It really goes hand to hand, because the more people know your brand, they can also go and shop online, so you can leverage also the data you have from offline to convert to online. So there are many ways to do this, if you offer QR codes with coupon discounts for example or when you do an online campaign you can have offline events to drive traffic to your online shops so you really need to be creative when you do O2O when you have different sales channels instead of thinking that it will hurt your online business, but actually it will create more awareness to drive more traffic and business to your online shop.

Matthieu David: How do you organize your team? That’s one thing I’m curious about – you seem to expand in very different directions and to do a lot of different things. Managing a TMall shop is not only setting up technically speaking the TMall shop – it’s creating banners, it’s about managing PPC, managing media buying, it’s about also doing brand reputation on Baidu and it’s listed on your presentation, for instance, social media, and now offline shops! How do you organize your team to have the talents? Could you help us understand do you have designers’ insight or do you actually partner with other company’s?

Renata Thiebaut: We do mostly in-house, and actually we did a change management implementation in the company. Before it would be a very up-down model that we had in the company and let’s say you had a director – an account director, then you had the manager and you had different people like a designer, customer service representative to do different tasks and nobody would be aware of what the other ones are doing, which is not too good for e-commerce because we all need to speak the same language and to be 100% aligned to grow the sales and avoid returns or problems that may arise with e-commerce.

So, two years ago we changed our management structure to be more project-based and it is called flat management. We divide the teams by different projects and they only take care of projects that are in similar categories, so they can have more expertise. For example, if you have a food client, all of the team members will take care of food-related clients, or mum and baby, or fashion, because if you do food and fashion at the same time, you cannot really focus and have a concise strategy because it’s completely different. So that’s how we work. Even though we have people to do different tasks, all of them need to be aware of what they are doing.

Matthieu David: In terms of talents and functions, how is a campaign organized? You have a creative person, who is going to design the campaign, then you have some people who activate the campaign? Would you mind describing a little bit the different steps of a campaign and the different people involved in it? It seems to be a lot of different talents and resources.

Renata Thiebaut: Yeah it requires a lot of resources. I’ll just say between 7 – 10 people per project because customer service is so important in China to not only upsell the product but for crisis management as well if the product is broken to avoid bad reviews. So, we start with customer service and you need to train them, they really need to understand the brand and all of the characteristics of the product. Because they are the face of the brand – they really represent the brand.

Then it goes to design, you cannot write the wrong price on a design for example to set up the wrong price within the shop. So, you always need a double to triple layers of double-checking, because the campaign period is so stressful that you need to have everything in place before midnight. Right. If the campaign starts at midnight. So, you need to allocate one project manager who will coordinate with all of these different people in the team.

So we divided the campaigns to give you a concrete example into stock first, we do the stock preparations and also the pricing strategy. And then you have the pre-warming campaign, so only a few selected products will be part of this pre-warming campaign. Consumers pay a deposit and they get extra discount or they get a special gift, limited editions, and things like that, and then you have the campaign day which might have another set of discounts, another set of gifting. So, you need to prepare the campaign through different phases and to be ready before the campaign starts.

It was very funny actually – well, of course, it was interesting, very stressful, but thinking back at the beginning, especially cross-border e-commerce in China, or even e-commerce in China, the campaigns they were so stressful, when a lot of manual work that we had to do and the system – like the marketplace system would freeze for a couple of minutes and you would not be able to buy the product and then by the time the product was online, it was sold out. So, these were the type of issues we would have before with the campaigns but every year it becomes much better. I would say around 6-7 years ago, the system would freeze for about 30 minutes, so each year it was less and less. 20 minutes, I remember 2 years ago it was only 3 to 5 minutes. So, this 11/11 in 2019 it was nearly perfect.

Matthieu David: Yeah, you’re talking specifically about Double 11 campaigns which are nationwide campaigns (learn more about the online record-breaking sales “Singles Day”).

Renata Thiebaut: Well 11/11 is the world’s largest campaign. So, we are talking about trillions that are sold within these one-month long campaigns. But it is not the main campaign. For some industries, you sell much more in other campaigns than 11/11 itself.

Matthieu David: Which one would you emphasise, there is 9/9 for one, there is 12/12 – which one do you think is interesting and not well understood?

Renata Thiebaut: The main campaigns in China are mainly for the Queens Day which is March 8th, then you have 6/18 – then you have 11/11 and Chinese New Year, but Chinese new year campaign is very good for food and beverage, for example, it’s not too good for other industries, so we see sales really down in that month for different industries, and very high for food and beverage. So, these are the main campaigns, and then you have the smaller ones, like Black Friday type of campaign, 12/12 and then you have Chinese Valentine’s Day. Back to School is a very good campaign for kids for example, not only for backpacks or products that you usually buy for your kid to go to school, but also shoes and clothing for kids. So you need to think also that your campaign is not only 11/11 driven – so there are many campaigns, let’s say once a month or even more, that you need to consider, and Flash Sales as well that you can be a part of, it drives a lot of traffic for your brand. So, when I talk about preparing for a campaign, it’s not only 11/11 – it’s pretty much every month you need to have everything ready before a campaign starts.

Matthieu David: Does it mean that it isn’t worth making a campaign on your own, does it mean that you have to target those moments? Doesn’t exist some independent campaign – you want to celebrate? Maybe the brand is from the UK and they want to celebrate the UK’s day and then you do a campaign on your own. Is that something which is existing or it’s something you don’t even have to care about, you have to focus on those big days organised by Alibaba?

Renata Thiebaut: No it really exists, you can do your own internal campaign. Especially if you have a CRM system in place, you can target your silver, gold, platinum members and you can offer different discounts but it is not as big as being part of an official campaign because you are going to get all of the traffic from a bigger campaign. So, this is the difference – traffic-wise, and being part of an official campaign will give you much more visibility within the marketplace than just doing on your own.

Matthieu David: To share one data on Metro, one of your clients, and again the same as Aldi. People will be surprised that Metro has a shop on TMall. That’s very common, so you go through another distributor to sell and within one day in your presentation, it was 11/11, Metro sold 17 million renminbi, if I understand the graph correctly, because next week you put TMall, which is 91 billion and we were thinking, you made 91 billion! And then I saw it was TMall. So Metro did like 2 -3 million USD within one day, for 11/11.

Renata Thiebaut: I think it was within one hour, because usually what shops do for 11/11 are much more than these, let’s say 50 million or 20 million, depending on shops like Zara, Uniqlo, it’s nearly 1 billion renminbi.

Matthieu David: Yeah, I don’t understand then the graph correctly, it should be more you say – or maybe it’s in USD I don’t know.

Renata Thiebaut: Yeah it should be in USD because the campaign starts one month before, so it is not a one-day campaign. So the way that TMall does is, you need to have the pre-warming part. Let’s say 11/11 starts around October 20, so people start putting products in the basket, or they pay the deposit, and then before the campaign starts you have another round of the pre-campaign phase, and the official campaign starts at midnight of 11/11 and it will last 24 hours. So, from midnight to 1 AM, we have a huge peak of sales, and then it goes down a lot so around 1 AM, who paid the deposit will have to pay the remaining one at 1 AM. So, this will be much less – we’ll have fewer sales at 1 AM than at midnight and then again – sales will slow down and in the morning around 10 AM, you’ll have another peak and before the campaign starts around 8 PM or 9 PM, we’ll have another peak. So, we’ll have let’s say different peaks of sales throughout the campaign, but the main one that you have most of the sales, most of the traffic is at midnight.

Matthieu David: We talked a lot about TMall, we talked a lot about Alibaba, but now JD has emerged, I think it’s been already 8-9 years that JD was created. WeChat is selling; you have also Pinduoduo; you may have Douyin preparing something to sell online. What’s your take on those other platforms? JD is very similar to TMall, but what about WeChat, Pinduoduo and other platforms?

Renata Thiebaut: The best platforms in China are the ones that are more relevant but you need to consider also your type of product. So, if you compare TMall global and JD worldwide in terms of let’s say health supplements, for example, TMall global is much stronger than JD worldwide. So then when a brand wants to select a platform, they would prefer TMall global because there you have more exposure.

So, you need to see that JD is very good with electronics, I actually think they can be better than TMall for this, even though TMall is trying to catch up, JD is very good I think with logistics, first of all, and also with electronics and house appliance. There are other platforms that are doing super well in China, one of them is Kaola, especially for cross-border e-commerce in China.

Matthieu David: Owned by Alibaba now. I didn’t mention it because it has been bought by Alibaba at the end of the day, I wanted to talk about other platforms, but let’s talk about Kaola because it has been recently bought by Alibaba.

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, so Kaola is a very good example, they are out of the Tencent, JD, Alibaba ecosystem, and they are from NetEase which is their traditional business model is to have the search engine and online games. So Kaola adopted a direct import business model to sell foreign products, especially beauty products and supplements, and they started growing a lot. So that’s why they got acquired by Alibaba, but only their cross-border business branch got acquired by Alibaba, especially because they were doing very well.

And the same happened to The Little Red Book, it is a social media app, or it was a social media app, but now its social commerce. You can also open your e-commerce website within The Little Red Book, but it’s very good only right now for beauty products or health supplements. It’s not good for house appliances or other products. So, you need to see these categorizations (find the ultimate guide to leading digital platforms in China). Some platforms are better for some types of products and others are not. So, Alibaba also acquired Little Red Book

Matthieu David: Oh really? I didn’t know that. Very, recently right?

Renata Thiebaut: Yes.

Matthieu David: So, what you are saying is that platforms are segmented now. The maturity of the internet in China makes it possible to segment with JD, with its origin in electronics, to keep this identity into electronics, maybe male-oriented. TMall is a lot of fashion and so on and there is a platform for health supplements. Is it what you’re saying?

Renata Thiebaut: This is what happens in the industry, especially because of JD’s background, they were purely an electronics platform before, but this is not what they intend to do. JD really wants to grow their business to fashion and to cosmetics, to beauty. They are doing a big push also to expand their categorization, so people do not think that JD is very electronic-driven and it is happening very often with many marketplaces in China. Suning was also very electronic-driven with home appliances, then you have Yihaodian, which was very food-related before, a top food seller marketplace in China, but now they sell everything as well. So they really want to adapt and move very fast to cover different categories.

Matthieu David: It’s evolving fast. We are at the end of the interview and I’d like to ask you more personal questions. My team found out that at Harvard you published some papers, how do you find the time to cover topics like an analysis of the US-China trade war, how the section 301 China intellectual property case may impact new directives to promote the Made in China 2025. Seems so technical, how do you find the time? How do you organize your days?

Renata Thiebaut: I know that e-commerce customers are a lot of work and also energy from my side, but I am at that stage of my life let’s say that I really want to pass the knowledge I acquired as being one of the first ones to do, especially cross-border e-commerce in China. And I do believe that this is very helpful for business in other regions as well. So, whenever I publish something, either a book – I have published a book with them and I just finished the second book, our second series and I really try to be very practical.

Matthieu David: What’s the name of the book?

Renata Thiebaut: The book is about the digital supermarket, One Belt One Road, how we can bring cross-border e-commerce in China show to this area. So everything is related to my work, which makes it very easy because I want to write about something very practical, like how governments and how companies can learn from China and what we have done in terms of cross-border e-commerce in China strategies, for them to also grow their domestic business to disrupt technology in their countries. So, this is for me more of a contribution to the students and governments to learn from China and apply these strategies or business models back home.

Matthieu David: It’s interesting and I do the same. You are saying, we are Chinese, and I do the same with Chinese people living overseas and they say, why do you say “we”? Do you consider yourself as Chinese?

Renata Thiebaut: Well, I’ve been in China for 14 years, so I am very proud of being half Chinese, let’s say, I do not look Chinese but I really consider myself as a local and I am very proud of being able to represent China somehow in my own way.

Matthieu David: I have a few last questions. You have been contacted within my team and we sent you the usual questions that I ask interviewees, what books inspired you the most in your China journey and entrepreneur journey?

Renata Thiebaut: I like a lot of philosophical books, for example, Sun Tzu was the very first book I read about China.

Matthieu David: Art of the War?

Renata Thiebaut: Yeah. So, I really try to take the main meanings and the main teachings to my career, so this is a very good book, The Art of the War, to how you strategize your business and also your career plans, your goals.

Matthieu David: What would you like to share, what did you learn from The Art of the War?

Renata Thiebaut: You should not compare yourself to your competitors, for example. So, I think this is very good learning, even at Alibaba, Jack Ma repeats this, I do not want to be like Amazon, right. So we need not copy each other’s business model, but also try to innovate and to bring different perspectives, different offerings to consumers. Everything is about the consumers, right. If you are stuck at being like your competitors, you’re not going to provide the best you can to your consumers. So, I think this is the meaning I got from the book, that even though he does not directly say like this, but this is how I translated this into my business and into my career. I keep pushing hard in terms of data, for example, to really innovate what we currently do.

Matthieu David: I remember a conference I attended where the founder of 360 was saying — I kept looking at Baidu because at that time 360 was also a search engine and it failed, it was actually just an anti-virus software at the end because it was too much focusing on the competitor. We have this actual feedback from Chinese entrepreneurs as well. What do you read to stay up to date about China?

Renata Thiebaut: We need to read daily, right, all of the news about e-commerce, regulations. Well, I have a lot of background, I really need to actually know all of the new regulations, the new laws regarding e-commerce and cross-border e-commerce in China, advertisement law. So there are some good sources. Some good websites like TechNode, even your reports from Daxue Consulting – I read them a lot with consumer trends. So, I would suggest your reports, for example, McKinsey, PwC like the ones that we can trust. Because you see so many things online, sometimes they are not necessarily a good source for you to be inspired by. You need to be very careful when you read things and the things you can really trust and take that as learning as well.

Matthieu David: What book on China you would recommend to someone who wants to know more about China? Maybe it’s not a book, maybe it’s a movie or something else, but what would you recommend to read, to watch, to do, to learn more about China?

Renata Thiebaut: There is one very good book about AI and China in the US – so I would suggest this book because it is about the future.

Matthieu David: AI Superpower by Lee Kai Fu?

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, AI Superpower, it is a very good book for you to understand the future and how to adapt your business to the future as well, because many businesses – you know, you need to go tech. you need to implement AI for you too – let’s say, survive in the business. You cannot just keep˙ having the same traditional type of business as before.

Matthieu David: Yeah, I was speaking to someone on the podcast mentioning this book and it has been really a very best – it’s a bestseller right, has been very successful.

The two last questions I would be very interested in your answer because you have been in China for 14 years and you have been in a spot where you could witness a lot of things and see a lot of evolutions. What unexpected success and unexpected failure have you witnessed in China which was a surprise to you? As an example, I always use Carrefour. When I arrived in China it was successful, they were all over the place,˙ and then they left. They sold to Suning and I was crossing Carrefour there were two logos, that was so surprising to see the two logos.

Renata Thiebaut: I think failures can inspire us more because we have to avoid committing the same mistake, and mostly it’s the same mistake that they do. They do not understand the Chinese market, so most of these foreign companies, especially the big ones, when they come to China, they adopt the same business model as in Europe or in other countries or in the US. Marks and Spencer, they had a very wrong strategy for China. We worked with Marks and Spencer before with the social media, for their content, but the thing is, if you are not willing to adapt to Chinese consumers, you are prone to fail and that’s what happened – they had to leave China.

Matthieu David: Yeah, they had an offline shop as well close to People’s Square in Shanghai right? And, what’s surprising you actually is that even though big companies who are making so much efforts to succeed don’t make the efforts to actually really understand the Chinese market.

Renata Thiebaut: Yes, this is true, plus the competition. So, you are competing for price with other Chinese brands as well. If you do not want to change your style because Chinese consumers, they do not exactly dress the same as British consumers. So, they were very classic, everything was black or grey or white, so nothing different that they could buy from Taobao for a cheaper price or nothing that it would strike the eyes for the Chinese consumers to buy. So that’s why they didn’t adapt, plus price point – that’s why they failed in China.

Matthieu David: And the opposite, what success has been surprising to you in China? I’m asking this question because the thinker and consultant Peter Drucker was looking at unexpected success, unexpected failure, to assess innovation. I think your perspective is very interesting to that concern, to see what success you have not seen coming and which came?

Renata Thiebaut: I will say Intersport is a very good example, because they resell other brands, like Nike and Adidas, and this is a very difficult thing for you to be a reseller in China, especially if the brands you are reselling, they have established business in the market. Nike, Adidas is very well established in the Chinese market. So, what Intersport did to be the first one sports brand in China or retail in China was to focus on limited editions for example, or products that Nike and Adidas official stores would not have. Also, they did a partnership with Alibaba to implement technology and to give a better consumer experience to the buyers. For example, in Beijing, they have a big screen that is automated, so whenever you pass by, let’s say it’s a woman that is passing, they offer women related products and you can see the products. Then you enter the store, in which everything is touch base, you can try on the products, you can shop online, you scan the QR code; so this is very AR driven. They use a lot of technology to leverage their business in China to be more competitive and to be more well known. So usually consumers could buy from Intersport instead of the brand itself.

Matthieu David: Intersport was a success you were not expecting initially to be as big as it is?

Renata Thiebaut: I would not expect because they resell other brands. That’s the reason. So, I worked with them for this consulting strategy on O2O and how to leverage their brand. We had to do product selection, push different products, and then they signed this agreement with Alibaba to do special technology to leverage their brand in China. I think they are doing very well, it’s a very cool brand, a very cool case, let’s say, that we could learn from.

Matthieu David: Thank you very much, was very, very instructive, was very interesting. I have to say – I was a bit nervous before interviewing you because of everything you did and you do and you are doctor, you have time to write papers, you are a researcher at Harvard and you work on e-commerce in China, managing a business. That’s very, very impressive. Thank you for spending time with us and I hope that you enjoyed it and I hope everyone listening to us also enjoyed it.

Renata Thiebaut: Thank you very much, it was my pleasure.

Matthieu David: Bye – bye everyone.

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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