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Through time, brands have continually sought new ways to connect with consumers. Each new concept quickly becomes normalized — from shopping malls that brought multiple stores under one roof and turned consumerism into a social activity for young people, to mail-order catalogues that enabled buyers to shop from the comfort of home, to the online shopping that has transformed the marketplace in still-emerging ways.
Today in China, we are able to see this more due to it unique social commerce platforms as consumers are taking control and driving the way brands are perceived, and even the success of the brand itself.
Commerce in China is no longer simply about the transaction between company and consumer. Instead, it has become a multi-way conversation as social media, digital apps, and the online marketplace have given consumers a stronger voice.
Just a few years ago, if a consumer was displeased with their experience, only a few friends and relatives might know.
In today’s digital landscape, consumers wield enormous power over how brands are seen, even by strangers. As consumers share their brand experiences via social media and bond over these experiences, they create a community with a sense of belonging. If strong enough, this community can quickly turn consumers into brand evangelists, not only reflecting the brand ethos, but shaping it.
Ironically, this idea of community is not new; it’s as old as society itself and will always be stronger than any marketing tactic can ever be. However, that’s not to say marketing has no influence on community.
In the 1930s, serialized radio dramas were sponsored by soap manufacturers. As “soap operas” transitioned from radio to television, the fan base grew. Viewers refused to miss an episode, even hosting viewing parties and pulling together in a tight-knit fandom.
The principle behind a market-based community is the same, although the level of immersion has increased dramatically.
Now, a typical young consumer will perform a search, see ads, engage with content, engage with other buyers via social media or online reviews, follow influencers, visit a shopping platform, start a conversation with a vendor … all before ever making a purchase. But in China, this can happen in one e-commerce platform. Alibaba’s T-Mall and Tencent’s JD have integrated social and community groups built directly inside the shopper’s ecosystem.
As that consumer engages with that marketplace, the style, attitudes, and opinions of the consumer’s peers become an inextricable factor in how the consumer views the brand. There was a time when Apple was the only innovator in capturing their customers’ hearts through its brand values linked with a live ecosystem, bonding over its products and reinforcing Apple’s brand image as modern, sleek quality.
As we move deeper into the world of the modern digital world, we have corporations that have built their brands around a community that is linked both online and offline. Companies like Ubisoft and Lego have aligned with their communities to built games, toys, movies, and even theme parks.
What brands don’t want to do is ignore their community. If the company branding says one thing but the brand’s community says something different, consumers will experience a disconnect and may feel the brand doesn’t value them.
Instead, understand that the interconnectedness of our online world has created communities for everything. Every brand has an online network of customers — so the task for brands is to find these networks and let them know their voice matters through offline experiences that can seamlessly connect with the digital network.
This makes it imperative for brands to consider their entire consumer experience, both online and off.
Everything should flow together in one cohesive brand story so that the physical experience complements the online experience and vice versa.
To take this further, brands can extend brand immersion by creating a live ecosystem. This can be done with three key elements:
Cinematic crossovers – Tap into the power of video, whether created by the brand or home-grown YouTube videos created by brand ambassadors.
Social, commerce, and gaming – Integrate social, commerce platforms, and gamification into a comprehensive brand strategy that provides multiple touch points for interaction.
Experiential branding – Leverage live events, whether online or (preferably) in-person, to get consumers excited about the culture of a brand and grow the community by leaps and bounds.
What does this look like in practice? For our new ICONIQ client in Shanghai, we created an O2O experience with a theme of mobility of tomorrow today. Working with a Google Tilt Brush artist, we created an innovative VR experience from an online artwork to on-site VR experience with robotic and WeChat engagement. The results?
As the consumer landscape continues to evolve, how consumers interact with brands will evolve as well. To ensure brands keep their loyal customers on board while gaining new devotees, it’s critical to think about the entire consumer experience and how to best nurture a thriving, living, and supportive culture.
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