Selling to China? Do something different

Selling to china
SAURABH SHARMA on 19 June, 2014 at 06:06


Opportunities abound for both small, hungry entrepreneurs and large, growing big businesses.

If I gave you all the money and approvals you needed to start on your own, what business would you want to do in China today?

Take my advice – think about small-scale organic farming near Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guangzhou. Think small, think pure and think premium. It will sell.

Don’t like farming? Try luxury. Think about buying rights to market obscure luxury brands from anywhere in the world. Remember, you do not need a big stores; you do not need big advertising budget. What you really need is great service and outstanding storytellers. Scalable? Maybe not. Will it be profitable? Most certainly, yes.

Tech-inclined and do not like farms or luxury? OK, think about application of technology in everyday life. Think convenience, think efficiency. Stuff that helps people save time and money or helps people add more value to themselves in the form of skills and abilities.

The market does not always tell you about these opportunities. This is because you likely are researching existing products and services in existing categories. But the speed of change brought about by technology and entrepreneurship is opening new opportunities beyond existing products and categories. Today, real opportunities are arising either between existing categories or in the shape of entirely new categories. Let me explain with a few examples the kind of opportunities that exist.

Take the example of an obscure and yet successful business like VCLEANSE (vcleanse.com). It is a brand of natural healthy juice and food products made in small batches. Yet, the brand does not sell juice – instead it sells a healthy lifestyle. All juices that Vcleanse makes are a part of a health regimen. And unlike others, it does not try to target everyone. Vcleanse is focused on upper middle-class women who care for their health and fitness. The brand sources its raw material from local farms around Shanghai to ensure that what they sell is consistent in quality. So, what makes Vcleanse stand out? Well, the sourcing is “no compromise” – as small-scale farming ensures they can control the quality of produce. The target consumer is sharply defined, and the offer is not a product, it is a lifestyle, a system of health.

There are also opportunities in marketing niche luxury brands. While the market for big name luxury products and services still exists and is growing, there are many buyers who have just made their first luxury purchase. This includes bags, premium whiskey, exclusive tea, resort hotels and more.

People are now looking for something more exclusive. Something that very few know of. This calls for creating or introducing lesser-known luxury brands in China and market them through small and exclusive channels – almost to the point at which people have to make an effort to find the products. “Members only” and “tell your own story before you qualify to book a item” are some of the ways to ensure that people add value to the brand and its fraternity and not just buy it as a label to carry and display.

Another opportunity is technology for life. No, I am not talking about household durables and appliances. I am not talking about things at all. I am talking about applications and software that can help people do things more efficiently, more conveniently. It may be monitoring the air quality in the living room or watching your child play with grandparents or the nanny through an app on your mobile phone, 24×7. There are opportunities in “useful for work and life” applications and wearable technology.

For instance, an app or device that can measure and visualize how stressed you are at a given point in time and correlate it with your eating habits, exercise regime and sleep cycle and thus map your lifespan on a daily basis could be a big hit among busy urban dwellers.

Imagine a mobile dashboard of electricity consumption of your various domestic appliances. Also, watch it correlated to your monthly and annual household utility expenses. And on top of it, watch all of this mapped to the number of trees that you cause to be cut in a day and your per capita fossil fuel consumption – suddenly you see that you have important data than can really change your behavior toward saving and conservation. And if all of this could be linked with your level of happiness, you could actually see the relationship between consumption and happiness.

Such quantification, correlation and visualization of everyday activities that we do in the physical and virtual world are fertile territory for technology. Individual-level application of software that makes life in the real world convenient is a powerful new frontier. Developing ideas that are software (and not hardware) dependent can also ensure that we keep overhead down. Such an opportunity is free of inventory hassles, too. Didi Dache (famous location-based app to find taxis) is an example of utility in everyday life.

Another area of opportunity is online platforms. That’s especially so if you have expertise in an area – be it Persian carpets or travel destinations, or if you are passionate about something that people understand and value – like wine appreciation, social etiquette, or cross cultural understanding. Or even if you are a great connector of ideas – linking technology with society and philosophy or travel and apparel and history – then you are sitting on a potential online platform idea. The cost of creating a platform in the online space is virtually zero. Yes, you sure need server space etc, but if your idea is great, you will find partners who will help you do it for free. So, if you have an idea that can help people, go ahead and create an online platform for it. It could be about “how to learn new technology for free”, or “how to get vital travel tips for cultural destinations”, or “how to learn social media marketing for free” – as long as you can teach something that is useful for others, things can even be free. The bottom line is that if the platform is based on a real need, it will not only get traffic but sponsors and collaborators, too.

So what can a marketer do?

These are not just opportunities for start-ups. These are as much marketing opportunities for brands as they are business ideas for entrepreneurs.

For marketers of luxury products, this is the time when they can start to think of their value beyond being a product. They now need to create and curate stories and experiences that can live far beyond the product. For example, a luxury hotel can become the source of interesting stories about how sophisticated taste has been shaping cultures and personalities since time immemorial.

For marketers of food and beverage brands, there are opportunities in telling sourcing stories. And there are opportunities in engaging customers with their sourcing stories. These brands can also help users with tools and assist in choosing the right product.

For large commercial brands and businesses, it is difficult to “‘compete with free”. But if they think about it differently, it is not impossible, either. In fact free opens a new dimension in the marketing system. This new dimension is “information”. This information goes beyond commercial communication (advertising). Brands can become free in a way that they create useful and unbiased information offerings.

And finally, to leverage commonsense uses of mobile technology, marketers can create applications that help solve people’s problems. An English training course can create a location-based application that aggregates English speakers in the vicinity, pretty much the same way that Didi Dache aggregates taxis in the near vicinity.

There are more than enough opportunities for both small and hungry entrepreneurs and large and growing big businesses. The key is to find the right people to staff your marketing and branding teams. Only talent that has a deep understanding of possibilities that digital offers and understands companies’ marketing and brand challenges, can actually realize these opportunities.

The author is planning partner, Ogilvy & Mather, Beijing. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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