KFC and insect repellent. MAC lipsticks and Honor of Kings. Airbnb and Hey Tea. Why are these unconventional pairings so successful?
While these brands may seem mismatched, it’s precisely this strangeness that helps them stand out in China’s oversaturated market. The novelty and limited-time appeal of these partnerships lure young consumers not only into trying new products, but also posting about them on social media, helping companies further expand their reach.
On January 26, the Jing Group teamed up with cross-cultural agency TONG to discuss why these brand collaborations continue to resonate in China. The event, “Tracking the Trends for 2021: How Collaborations Are Redefining Experiences in China,” was moderated by Enrique Menendez, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily. Panelists included Adam Knight, co-founder of TONG; Sky Canaves, editorial director of Content Commerce Insider; Christina You, director of development at UCCA Center for Contemporary Arts in Beijing; Ian Lu, founder of Notitle Ltd. Co.; and Feng Chen Wang, founder of the eponymous London-based menswear label.
During the hour-long webinar, panelists pulled back the curtain on what creative crossovers entail, from the risks and rewards to what consumers really want. Below are five things brands should know before launching a collaboration in China.
Why China is a hotbed for collaborations
The talk began with the question of how brands, particularly those with years of heritage, can innovate while staying true to their identity. This is where China presents a great opportunity: because branding is a relatively recent concept there, brands have less of a fixed narrative. This means that “there’s a lot of fluidity in what brands can do and how they can reimagine themselves,” Sky Canaves said. As a result, brands can easily cross product categories, such as fashion’s increasing forays into gaming.
Weird things sell fast
While brands traditionally choose partners based on commonalities, many are now capitalizing on points of divergence. Some of the most creative (read: wacky) combinations, for example, have come from KFC, which has launched everything from insect repellent-scented coffee to finger-lickin’ good Crocs. Although the products received mixed reviews, KFC was successful in piquing consumer interests and creating internet notoriety. Weirdness aside, choosing collaborators essentially comes down to finding tastemakers and gatekeepers that will provide access to hard-to-reach demographics.
Think beyond the bottom line
While sales-driven activations may grab headlines and generate revenue, Adam Knight points out that their long-term value is debatable. “You get to the point where you’re essentially renting audiences from the brand partner and never really capturing them,” he explained. “The next phase of brand collaborations is tie-ups that look beyond purely sales-driven metrics to collaborations that are not just entertaining on the surface level but forge more of a connection with the audience for the longer term.”
This evolution of collaborations is already being seen in the art world. According to Christina You, brands that partner with museums or artists aren’t necessarily looking for a monetary return but rather a way to generate buzz, drive customer loyalty, and elevate their image to an artistic level.
Make it an experience
Another way brands can court consumers is to turn their products into physical and digital experiences. One notable example is Airbnb’s partnership with Hey Tea; launched last spring as China emerged from its coronavirus lockdowns, Airbnb worked with the trendy tea chain to promote staycations, creating a Shanghai getaway inspired by one of its mango beverages. Collaborations can also drive customers to brick-and-mortar stores, which KFC proved when it joined forces with League of Legends.
Collaborations aren’t without risk
The discussion ended on a note of caution. As collaborations become a go-to marketing tactic and consumers grow more scrutinizing, brands must continue to innovate or risk falling flat. To paraphrase Ian Lu, Gen Zers are picky, and simply putting two logos together isn’t going to cut it.
Ultimately, creating a China-focused collaboration comes down to doing the research, finding the right partner, and having both parties bring something to the table. And given how much work often goes into establishing these relationships in the first place, Feng Chen Wang advises brands to continue working with their partners in China rather than doing one-off activations.
Most importantly, as Jing stresses in every webinar, brands need to listen to their teams in China. “The reality is, if you’re doing a collaboration in China, make sure you have people on the ground that know what’s happening and that you’re listening to them,” Enrique Menendez said.