How to build a brand for the people

Today’s digital marketing world is all about the consumer, so how does one build a brand for the people? Using a metaphor for a concert, we examine how top brands in China achieve this.

There’s not a brand around that isn’t trying to go social, go viral, create buzz, engage consumers, build digital ecosystems, or develop a better strategy to drive e-commerce. Yet, regardless of how innovative or knowledgeable we may believe ourselves to be, when it comes to earning consumer engagement, marketers can still get things wrong. Think about how intrusive advertising and misguided retargeting can serve up useless, irrelevant content that drives consumers away.

All of this had me thinking about brands in China that have transitioned into becoming “people’s brands.” These are brands that make the wants and needs of its consumers its greatest priority. To really understand what qualities culminate into successful branded social media campaigns, we can use the metaphor of a beautiful concert.

1. The leitmotif: establishing emotional connections

For most successful social campaigns, there is always a single-minded, tangible, and controversial aspect that triggers human emotions, whether it be anger, grief, happiness, humor, love among others.

We can analyze the personal branding cases of two Chinese celebrities and how they dealt with allegations of plastic surgery, to better understand what emotions truly resonate with people. Angelababy, a celebrity famous for her artificial – yet attractive look – has been accused of enhancing her appearance with plastic surgery many times.

Here’s an image from her Instagram account.

A photo posted by Wing Yeung (@angelababyct) on

To discount these rumors, she invited one of China’s leading plastic surgeons to examine her and share his view. Here’s a YouTube video showing the medical examination.

The doctor found Angelababy’s looks were, in fact, completely natural. However, this didn’t help Angelababy’s case much at all, as many said they still didn’t believe the verdict. Chinese netizens were quick to turn to social media to challenge the authenticity of the hospital and the doctor’s credentials.

netizen definition

Several weeks later, another Chinese celebrity, Ada Liu Yan, openly admitted she had undergone plastic surgery. She claimed that the move had been a necessary, in order to enhance her career as an actor and singer. She strongly advised young girls not to follow suit. Unlike the public reaction to Angelababy, the response on social media was overwhelmingly supportive.

The primary motivator for Chinese netizen public opinion in both cases had little to do with the authenticity of the celebrities’ physical beauty. Rather, the public’s response was in reaction the women’s candid honesty. These circumstances exhibit the value of authenticity on social platforms, which is something all brands and marketers should take note of if they wish to successfully engage with their consumer base.

Here’s another example for the promotion of Universal Studios’ Minions film from last September in China. To generate some hype, the funny little yellow characters made their way across the country, meeting and greeting fans. This even included a visit to the Great Wall. Universal Studios also launched an online Silly Sunday Challenge campaign, which invited Chinese fans to dress and perform in minion-themed videos.


Minions_Bananas 2

These pictures posted and reposted on WeChat and Weibo show minions selling bananas in the street from a local vending cart. However, city management officers were unmoved, eventually driving them away.

This resonated with viewers because the banana-selling minions weren’t treated any differently to the thousands of other legitimate Chinese vendors trying to make a living, selling wares from their carts while continuously being harassed by people of authority. It cleverly tapped into the public’s feelings that Chinese city management officers are cold and rude to street vendors, despite the harmless nature of their work. In this case, these posts triggered sympathy from the public. People were willing to share and repost this content, despite it being a commercial event, which meant a boon for Universal Studios.

2. The musician: choosing the right ambassador

Who are the musicians that play these leitmotifs? The most beautiful parts of a concert are the different instrumental sections talking, mixing, and debating with each other.

It’s easy for brands to fall back on celebrities and key opinion leaders (KOL) as brand ambassadors. The problem with this is KOL social pages appear to be endorsed in a similar fashion to branded content. Today’s consumers have wised up to these paid endorsements, and can easily tell which posts are legitimate recommendations and which are not.

MARUBI, a Chinese skincare brand, took a different route when promoting its eye cream; a three-minute video that did not include any product placements, demonstrations, or benefit claims. It also featured a male actor, instead of going the conventional beauty brand path and using a woman to showcase the product.

The camera tightly focuses on Tony Leung’s face, as he goes into intimate detail about his appreciation of a woman’s eyes. Not just any woman’s eyes – but you – the viewer’s eyes. The video was originally shown in China on YouKu, but here is the YouTube version.

In Greater China, Tony Leung is a well known celebrity, with notoriously charming and expressive eyes that are able to tell a story. Despite being an unexpected choice for a MARUBI brand ambassador, cleverly capitalizing on Tony’s dreamy eyes and his status as a fantasy figure for millions of Chinese women within such a sensual context is simply brilliant. Though quite long for an ad, it was still a huge hit on social media.

To create a more viral effect on social media, MARUBI also launched a copycat satirical version of this ad, performed by a Chinese comedian.

In this case, there were two musicians: one played to the emotive theme, while the other played the scherzo to entertain the audience.

3. The audience: the consumer

If an audience is enjoying a concert, they may move with the rhythm of the music while experiencing feelings of happiness or sadness; they might smile or even be moved to tears. Whatever the case, at the conclusion of the performance, it is customary for audience members to recognize the effort of the orchestra by clapping their hands together in appreciation.

When it comes to digital or social campaigns, marketers like to talk about the consumer journey, the ecosystem, and the strategy. In a digital context, they expect the audience to do a lot in order to show us how much they love our concert of advertisements by voting, leaving comments, sharing, taking pictures, or making purchases.

The best campaigns I’ve seen that start conversations with consumers, often do not follow the traditional customer purchase journey. There was more emphasis on inviting audiences to experience the metaphorical concert/literal brand, rather than driving them immediately to a sale. This lets consumers feel like they are part of the story, just like an audience feels they are part of the musical experience while at concerts. So the key here to successful brand campaigns is how to make your target viewers feel less like a consumer and more like an audience.

Nike did this when it used infamous athlete, Michael Jordan, to narrate a story. Interestingly enough, the ad had nothing to do with his own personal rise to fame. In a voice over, Jordan delivers an inspiring speech that describes what it takes to experience athletic success as “the moment you commit to win.”

Not only does this ad tug at the heartstrings of all aspiring basketball players, it also hits home for anyone that feels committed to turning dreams of success into tangible realities.

With limited budgets and the standard use of stock styles for KOLs in China, it’s easy to put too many ingredients into a campaign. But, the more marketers add, the less room there is for consumers to really digest and contemplate why a brand really matters to them personally.

Just as music has the power to inspire introspection, quality campaigns tell a single-minded yet unexpected story that encourages audiences to reflect upon their own experiences in an organic way. Rather than focusing solely on the moving aspects of the brand’s story, ads need to communicate messages so that audiences will not only relate to the content, but they also have an opportunity to feel moved by their own personal stories.

In conclusion

By using similar ingredients to those that amount to an exquisite concert, marketers can expand a brand’s presence and grow its audience significantly, because this strategy is dictated by consumers’ feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs. It places the audience on a pedestal. When executed well, a great campaign will leave consumers feeling like their favorite brands actually belong to them.

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