- Viral Video Advertising & Convergence Culture
Insights for Foreign Marketers on Maximizing Chinese Consumers' Engagement
Research Project | International Practicum at the Communication University of China (CUC)
- As part of the final requirements for my master’s program in Global Marketing Communication and Advertising (GMCA) at Emerson College, I recently participated in an international marketing practicum at the Communication University of China (CUC) in Beijing.Through a combination of lectures, field trips, and interactive sessions at various advertising, marketing and media companies in both Beijing and Shanghai, this cultural immersion helped familiarize me with the business, cultural and media environment of China.
The international marketing practicum culminated in a collaborative research project with another GMCA student and two graduate students from CUC’s School of Advertising. For this research project, we were tasked with developing a study providing insights to foreign marketers interested in maximizing Chinese consumers’ engagement through viral video advertising and convergence culture.
The study begins by exploring the evolution of advertising in China, particularly within the last century. Next we examine the concepts of viral video advertising and convergence culture, illustrated by examples within and outside China. Ultimately, observations made throughout the practicum and the trends identified through this research project fuel the insights provided at the end of study.
Although this study focuses on viral video advertising and convergence culture, the insights uncovered can be leveraged to maximize Chinese consumers’ engagement through other forms of marketing.
- Advertising is hardly a new concept in China as banners and pictorial ads have been in use since as far back as the Song Dynasty (960 - 1260). However, in an attempt to give more focus to our study, we examined the evolution of advertising in China over the last century.
- Evolution of Advertising in China: 1920s - 1940s
- These vintage Chinese print ads combining the calendar girl style and picture-writing technique are typical of advertising poster art during this period. Although these ads are promoting products across very different categories (beer, milk powder, and tobacco), there appear to be overarching themes of beauty, elegance and simplicity. Furthermore, there is less focus here on the brand or product being advertised. Instead, more emphasis is placed on the ad’s imagery.
- Evolution of Advertising in China: 1950s - 1970s
- During this period, the government imposed a ban on commercial advertising following the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As Dr. Luding Tong, Director of Asian Studies at Marietta College, explains in her essay on advertising and its censorship in contemporary China, "advertising was criticized as a perversion of public communication for decadent commercial purposes (Tong 2007)." Consequently, most of the ads during this period were state-sponsored and in the form of propaganda posters infused with political ideology, as can be seen in the examples above.
- Evolution of Advertising in China: 1980s - 2000s
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjQ0NDc0ODQ=.html
- Mass media was completely under government control until the 1980s, and commercial advertising resurfaced as China began opening up to foreign commerce in the wake of economic reform.Dr. Xin Zhao, Assistant Professor of International Marketing at the University of Hawaii recalls the changes during this period in an article featured in the university’s magazine: "Although nationalism was still prominent in Chinese advertising, advertisers no longer felt compelled to strike political chords and instead played to China’s rising consumerist culture."
This classic Nescafe TV ad, which helped the brand gain huge success among Chinese consumers, is one of the many ads that aired in the 80s during the restoration of advertising in China.
- Evolution of Advertising in China: 2000s - Present
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzY1OTQyMjAw.html
- Today China is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing advertising industries. In recognition of the vast opportunities this emerging market offers, multinational advertising agencies have set up shop across the country to help both local and foreign brands engage effectively with Chinese consumers.
Advertising has also evolved to address the changes in Chinese consumers’ needs, desires and buying behavior. This contemporary Nescafe TV ad starring famous Chinese novelist and racecar driver Han Han (韩寒) exemplifies the marked change in how foreign brands are engaging with Chinese consumers. In comparison to the 80s Nescafe TV ad, this one boasts a richer narrative that infuses the brand’s values with Chinese consumers’ current attitudes and beliefs.Towards the end of the ad, the text Han is shown writing is translated as follows: "Even if you ride a motorbike wildly and are unsure about which direction you are going, there is a light that will always lead you in the right direction." The ad then ends with the tagline, "Live out your boldness."
- The emergence of social media networks and other digital technologies within the last decade has given rise to viral videos, and marketers have been quick to turn this phenomenon into a new form of advertising, aptly referred to as viral video advertising.In an article in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, Hennig-Thurau et al. (2004) define viral video advertising as when "a company uses consumer communication as a means of multiplying a brand's popularity through customers spreading the message to their contacts."
- Viral video advertising takes advantage of the fact that people like to talk by giving them something to talk about (Sormunen 2009). As a result, the most successful viral videos are those that generate conversation. A recent example can be seen with KONY 2012, an international viral marketing campaign which the Invisible Children successfully used to further their cause.
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzQxNTE1Njg4.html
- This viral video for LG by Y&R Amsterdam is another example of viral video advertising. The video gained widespread popularity earlier this year for cleverly showcasing one of the key features of the LG TV being advertised. Most notably, it does not become apparent that the video is actually a brand-driven viral ad until the final shot.
- Within the last two years, viral video advertising in China has taken the niche form of online microfilms. In particular, this emerging genre has become a cultural phenomenon following the widespread popularity of the Chopsticks Brothers’ 2010 microfilm, Old Boy.
As Raymond Zhou points out in his May 21 cover story for China Daily, "what distinguishes microfilms from traditional shorts, as they are known by professionals, is the distribution platform. These films are not meant for theatrical release. Instead they are made with the desktop or mobile screen in mind."
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzM1MDgwMzM2.html
- Commercial sponsors have now become involved in the production of microfilms through product placement. Zhou’s China Daily article also reveals that the increasing regulation of TV commercials, coupled with the migration of TV viewers to the internet, has contributed to the proliferation of this niche form of advertising.
This microfilm by PepsiCo titled "Bring Happiness Home" is one of the most popular brand-driven microfilms on the internet in China. It tells the story of an estranged family spread out across the country, who end up reuniting to celebrate Chinese New Year. The microfilm also cleverly integrates PepsiCo’s leading brands; Pepsi-Cola, Lay's and Tropicana.
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzA3OTAzMjU2.html
- This microfilm by online payment service provider Alipay is yet another example of the niche form of advertising currently in use in China. In an attempt to convey Alipay’s commitment and promise to Chinese consumers, the microfilm tells the story of an honest, hardworking porter who gets separated from his employer while on a job, but works hard to return the cargo to its owner despite facing several challenges. Similar to the LG viral ad discussed earlier, it does not become apparent to viewers that this is a brand-driven microfilm until the very end.
- In addition to the viral video phenomenon, convergence culture is fast becoming a new driving force of pop culture… But what exactly is convergence culture?
- Author and media scholar Henry Jenkins delves into this phenomenon in depth in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. In the book, he defines convergence culture as "the relationship between three concepts – media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence" (Jenkins 2007).
- These additional excerpts from Jenkins’ book provide more details about the three concepts that make up convergence culture.Advertisers have been quick to leverage the opportunities offered by convergence culture to deliver content across multiple media platforms in order to increase consumer engagement and expand market reach for brands.
- The Harry Potter franchise is a perfect example of the convergence culture phenomenon. What started out as a best-selling fantasy novel has turned into a series of blockbuster films, even as fans continue writing their own Hogwarts tales.The Harry Potter experience has also been brought to life in a themed area within the Islands of Adventure theme park at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Most recently, the Harry Potter experience is being delivered in the form of Pottermore; a unique and free-to-use website which builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books.
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTg2MzExMDg4.html
- Traces of the convergence culture phenomenon can also be seen in the execution of "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" campaign by Wieden+Kennedy for Old Spice, starring Isaiah Mustafa.
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjExODg4NDc2.html
- Capitalizing on the TV ad’s popularity, a plethora of online videos featuring Mustafa in-character were produced in response to numerous Twitter posts directed to Old Spice's Twitter account, including several videos directed at celebrities.
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjQyNTczMDg4.html
- As Dan Wieden, Co-Founder and CEO of Wieden+Kennedy, explains in the second episode of ThinkTV’s "The New TV Landscape" documentary series, "The interactive relationship is critically important… With Old Spice, we started with television and gained attention, then [we] took that campaign and ran it digitally [by] responding online to tweets. But there are other times where we’ll start in reverse, and do stuff online [to] get a sense of where people are, do a lot of experimentation, and then take [we] what was hot and blow it up and finish [the conversation] up on television."
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzQ1MjE3NTA4.html
- The convergence culture phenomenon is also quickly making its way into China as several foreign brands seek to capture more business opportunities in this emerging market, including the popular game Angry Birds. In the last few years, China has become the second-largest market for Rovio Entertainment Ltd, the maker of Angry Birds. As such, Rovio is making strong efforts to engage with Chinese consumers across a variety of platforms.In January, to celebrate the start of the Year of the Dragon, Rovio developed comics and an Angry Birds animated short video (featured above), both of which included various elements of Chinese culture. The video and comics were also made available for free download to Chinese consumers in cooperation with popular Chinese micro-blogging service Sina Weibo.
- Rovio is not stopping at just developing comics and animated videos for Chinese consumers. The Finland-based company plans to build activity parks around China in the next few years. However, in an effort to maximize engagement with consumers, the theme parks will be different from traditional theme parks.In a May 21 China Daily article, Peter Vesterbacka, Co-Founder of Rovio said, "the activity parks are not like theme parks where people stand for two hoursand ride for 10 minutes. We want our fans to be part of the game."
- View on Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMzAxNTIwNTMy.html
- Old Boy, the popular Chopsticks Brothers’ microfilm mentioned earlier, is yet another example of the convergence culture phenomenon taking place in China. The video featured above contains some clips from the microfilm.
Raymond Zhou’s China Daily cover story indicates that a stage version of Old Boy came to Beijing in June, and a TV series based on the microfilm is currently in the works.
- Viral video advertising and convergence culture offer vast opportunities for brands to convey their marketing message, but exactly how can foreign marketers make the best use of these phenomena to maximize Chinese consumers’ engagement?
- It is of utmost importance for foreign marketers to tie the marketing message to Chinese culture and values. Amanda Mooney, Senior Manager, Shanghai Digital Practice for Edelman China, alluded to this in her presentation during the practicum, "Global strategies don’t work in China… The experience in China has to be China-centric (Mooney 2012)." However, "China-centric" means more than just translating an ad into Chinese or using a high-context approach (Hofstede 1980) when communicating with Chinese consumers.
As we saw in the cases of the Nescafe TV ad starring Han Han and the PepsiCo microfilm, making use of a narrative that Chinese consumers can relate to adds cultural relevancy to the brand experience, and engages with consumers on a higher level of intimacy. Ultimately, foreign marketers must fully understand all aspects of Chinese culture and consumer behavior in order to completely transform marketing communication to correspond with the cultural context of the local environment.
- Foreign marketers are more likely to engage effectively with Chinese consumers when they embed subtle marketing messages into brand-driven viral ads and microfilms. Global market opportunities in China have resulted in intense competition between both local and foreign brands for Chinese consumer’s attention and Yuan. This highly competitive business environment requires foreign marketers to be careful not to oversell in their communication, as this can easily be off-putting to Chinese consumers.
In an interactive session during the practicum at DDB China Group in Shanghai, Barry Colman, Regional Group Business Director, pointed out that brands have traditionally made use of functional appeals and hard sell tactics in their communication with Chinese consumers, but due to the increasing need for differentiation in China requires subtlety in message development and delivery (Colman 2012).
Furthermore, Raymond Zhou’s China Daily cover story reveals that when using microfilms, "many advertisers insist on prominent product placement [and this] intrusive commercialism has upset Chinese viewers." As we saw in the cases of the LG viral video and AliPay microfilm, the subtlety of the marketing message added greatly to the both videos’ popularity and success.
- Foreign marketers also need to integrate viral video campaigns with other relevant marketing activities and efforts. In her Master's Thesis in International Business on international viral marketing campaign planning and evaluation, Vilja Sormunen (2009) notes that "viral marketing should not be a stand-alone tactic. In most cases, the campaign should support other marketing activities and they should support the campaign."
Although viral videos can spark the conversation among consumers, as well as between brands and consumers, making use of additional integrated marketing communications (IMC) tools and tactics will further enhance consumer engagement. In the case of the “Bring Happiness Home” microfilm highlighted earlier, PepsiCo was able to refresh the role of the traditional 30-second TV commercial to act as a movie teaser.
Furthermore, the KONY 2012 phenomenon was supported heavily by grassroots marketing efforts, while the success of the Old Spice viral ads relied on the attention garnered by TV ads.
- Foreign marketers need to ensure that viral videos and microfilms are versatile. They need to be compatible on a variety of digital and mobile platforms. With over 500 million Chinese consumers online and over 900 million consumers with mobile devices (Peixi 2012), digital media consumption habits vary substantially and foreign marketers need to make viral video content accessible to consumers on as many platforms as possible.
In their essay, If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead: Creating Value in a Spreadable Marketplace, Jenkins et al. (2008) allude to this insight: "The idea is to be available for your users in whichever way and every way they deem appropriate, be it through a web site, widget, RSS feed or embeddable video, making the process of finding and communicating with you as easy and enjoyable as possible… [The job of foreign marketers] is to make [content] available to them in a form where they can deploy it and often to provide them with the tools or widgets required to make it accessible to others within their communities."
- Foreign marketers should also invite and encourage Chinese consumers to actively participate in the development of viral video content and brand experiences. Knowing that they had a hand in building brand-driven content and experience, this collaborative relationship between brands and Chinese consumers will create a strong sense of brand affinity, ownership and loyalty.
As we saw in the case of Old Spice, the interactive relationship between the brand and consumers was crucial to the popularity and success of the viral video campaign.
Furthermore, this strong sense of brand affinity among Chinese consumers also translates into higher brand value as Sacha Cody, Head of Client Solutions at Millward Brown, points out in his recent article on brand differentiation within the Chinese market:
“Across over 1,000 brands in China, both local and international, being considered meaningfully different by target consumers enabled a 37 percent higher contribution from the brand to overall brand valuation in dollar terms. That is to say, b
y enjoying a closer bond with consumers, the value in which intangible brand assets add in dollar terms to business value is significantly higher(Cody 2012)."
- Finally, foreign marketers need to develop brand experiences based on viral video content. Several brands are yet to fully leverage experiential marketing in China, and as a result they are missing out on key engagement opportunities with Chinese consumers.
As Shaun Rein, Founder and MD of the China Market Research Group, alluded to in an article for Bloomberg Businessweek in April, Chinese consumers today are more interested in brand experiences, as opposed to simply product experiences (Rein 2012).Thus, foreign marketers who build relevant brand experiences based on the narratives of already popular microfilms will certainly succeed at maximizing Chinese consumer’s engagement.
- This study has been modified from its original version and formatted to fit the Behance Network platform. Special thanks to Alison Davis, Wang Jiapei and Yang Jianling for their contributions to this research project during the International Marketing Practicum at the Communication University of China (CUC) in Beijing.