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How U.S. Brands Are Breaking into China’s Massive Consumer Market

Todd Wasserman

China’s GDP increased 2.3% in 2020, making it the only major global economy to actually grow during a year that otherwise devastated the economic landscape. And while consumer spending saw a slight contraction (a trend that’s likely to reverse in 2021), online retail sales increased 14.8%.

 In order to break into the Chinese market, some U.S. brands are turning to agencies like InVizible, a New York-based creative agency that specializes in launching and growing brand presence in China. Its bi-cultural team is proficient in consumer behavior, trends and media. 

 “While marketing for different domestic audiences has historically remained segmented, consumers are increasingly open to global brands,” said Nicole Zhao, Managing Director at InVizible. “This trend has accelerated over the past year with nearly all brand interactions happening virtually and traditional country boundaries becoming less and less relevant in consumers’ perceptions of brands.” 

 Indeed, whether it’s TikTok (which is now ubiquitous in the U.S. but remains headquartered in China) or Apple (which is based in the U.S. but manufactures products in China) most major brands no longer have a clear cut domestic footprint. While this offers new opportunities for U.S. brands hoping to break into the Chinese market, brands with international ambitions still have to craft and execute marketing strategies that resonate with the nuances of local culture. 

Nicole Zhao, Managing Director at InVizible XX

Invizible has helped a diverse range of clients, including Olá Baby, Modern Vice, and Segway, extract their most impactful narratives to convey their message and value to the Chinese market. While many of the same kinds of universal stories and generalized messaging connect with global audiences, Zhao says brands have to find a message that truly resonates with local consumers. “It’s the really good stories that go beyond buzzwords and tap into the local culture that connect with consumers – whether they’re Chinese or American,” Zhao said. For example, in 2016, luxury skincare brand SK-II did a campaign addressing the familial pressure on single women to get married early in life. While this is a widely recognized social issue to Chinese audiences, Zhao pointed out that it doesn’t really translate to an American consumer. 

 Invizible helps U.S. brands identify the marketing strategy that best suits their brand and their target audience – whether it’s influencer marketing, events and experiential marketing, content marketing or strategic partnerships. Video-based content, for example, is becoming increasingly popular among Chinese consumers. “In the past 12 months, I have also seen shorter to mid-length content – about three to five minutes long – that’s well-produced really take off in China. It’s better quality than TikTok, but still not as long as most of the YouTube programming,” said Zhao.

 Overall, however, Zhao says most media formats can be easily adapted from a U.S. to a Chinese audience. “U.S. consumers have Twitter, Chinese consumers have Weibo; U.S. consumers have Amazon, Chinese consumers have Alibaba,” said Zhao. “The comparisons are endless.” Branding efforts can be a little more difficult to repurpose, she says; everything from celebrity endorsements to type design that has been crafted with the U.S. consumer in mind is not likely to perform as well with Chinese consumers. 

 For U.S. brands that may have been waiting for the right time to expand into the Chinese market, Zhao says the opportunity is ripe for those willing to spend the time to get their messaging and strategy right.

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