Global brands have been looking east for some time, trying to capture the Chinese market and create brand loyalty. But despite huge marketing budgets and all singing and dancing campaigns, some of the biggest brands have failed spectacularly – not only to appeal to this lucrative market but, even worse, by offending them at the same time.

Dolce & Gabbana (D&G) is a good case in point. Its recent D&G Loves China campaign was supposed to promote the brand’s debut fashion show in Beijing and featured models posing in D&G outfits among locals and tourists in Chinese hotspots including The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and at historic hutongs. It was immediately met with a backlash amongst the very audience it was trying to attract – the young Chinese millennials – who deemed the campaign as being out of touch with Chinese consumers and presenting a stereotyped image of China that was a far cry from how they saw themselves.

The new generation Chinese have grown up in modern, vibrant cities that are often more advanced than those in the West, yet Western brands insist on focusing instead on an outdated, romantic view of the country. These millennial consumers are actually becoming more sensitive to any issue that may challenge China’s nationalistic pride.

It is therefore very easy for Western brands to miss the mark and talk to Chinese audiences in an old rhetoric – and in the case of some brands, in a seemingly patronising way. Cultural differences and the language barrier have been a huge stumbling block for Western brands looking to break into China.

Airbnb also showed a lack of understanding of its target audience recently when it launched a major marketing effort in China. When the brand unveiled a new Chinese name, Àibǐyíng, which it said meant “To Welcome Each Other With Love”, Chinese consumers ridiculed the name on social media claiming the name sounded unpleasant.

The three Chinese language characters they selected, when put together and said out loud, sound old, traditional and not very tasteful as a brand (a bit like using ‘Old English’). Airbnb had positioned itself in the west as the pioneer of the sharing economy, a brand that was heralding a new era, but the new Chinese name didn’t capture that same image.

This gulf in understanding on what matters to the new Chinese consumer means brands are always in danger of falling back on traditional stereotypes and traditional views of the country without trying to get under the skin of what makes the new consumer tick. And until recently there hasn’t been the level of tools and resources available for English marketers to understand China.

But this landscape changed recently when Tencent, the owner of WeChat (China’s biggest social media platform) added an analysis feature called WeChat Index. This new tool can give global brands a unique insight into the mindset of the new generation Chinese consumer by using information gathered from WeChat’s 898 million users.

WeChat Index can identify and track which keywords are trending on the platform in seven, 30 and 90-day segments. Tapping into this type of information is a no-brainer for brands as it can give them direct insight into what their target market is thinking, buying, talking about and interested it. Western brands can now monitor the discussion of their own brands and the sentiment in China, particularly in the target market they are trying to reach. By seeing how they are responding to issues they can get a sense of what is important to them.

But how can brands take full advantage of the intelligence offered by WeChat Index? Keeping things simple is a good start – by sticking to simple keywords like brand names, locations and products rather than complex phrases will yield better results while the functionality of the tool is still limited.

Secondly, brands would do well to benchmark themselves against competitors or the leading brand in the sector. For example, British Airways would most likely index themselves against Virgin Airways. It’s also worth drilling into the content produced on specific days by considering the context it is coming from – using Chinese search engine Sogou to search WeChat content would be one way to do this.

As searches can only go back 90 days, it's wise to keep an offline record of your WeChat search results so that you can analyse it further later on.

Finally, it pays to make sure you have the right expertise. It might sound obvious but the feature is only available in Chinese so if you’re not already trading in China and want to have a firmer grasp of the market it would be a good idea to consider partnering with a specialist agency who can make sense of the data for you.

However brands decide to use WeChat Index, one thing’s for sure, to ignore this crucial window into how the new Chinese consumer is thinking, could lead to marketing efforts being wasted or, worse still, ridiculed by those they are trying to attract.


By Arnold Ma, CEO of Qumin

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