Q&A: Wai Social's Olivia Plotnick on Brand Collaborations in China

    Jing Daily catches up with Olivia Plotnick of Wai Social to discuss the importance of brand collaborations in China, top trends, and risks to consider.
    Olivia Plotnick, Founder of Wai Social
      Published   in Technology

    Globally, collaboration has become a crucial way for designers, artists, brands, and retailers to broaden their reach, boost revenue and footfall, and attract highly coveted young consumers. But as collaborations — from the mass-market to luxury — saturate cutthroat markets like China, brands must think strategically, do their homework, and get creative in order to stand out.

    On the heels of our new market report, “Big in China: Brand Collaborations,” Jing Collabs & Drops recently caught up with Olivia Plotnick of Wai Social to discuss the importance of brand partnerships in China and some of the trends and risks to consider before diving headfirst into a collab.

    Do you think collaboration is key to entering the China market as a foreign brand?#

    It is important but not make-or-break at the beginning. The key is to be open to options but be patient with partner selection. When it comes to the execution level, any successful collaboration requires nuanced understanding, trust, communication, and efficient teamwork, which needs time to build up, especially as a foreign brand.

    What would you describe as the main aims of brand collaboration?#

    First, any collaboration should refresh and enhance the brand image and expand communication to more potential users. Second, generate immediate sales growth. Third, lay the foundation for future cooperation plans.

    Manner Coffee's 2021 collaboration with UCCA was a social media share-worthy success. Photo: Manner Weibo
    Manner Coffee's 2021 collaboration with UCCA was a social media share-worthy success. Photo: Manner Weibo

    What are some of the common trends and/or strategies that you have noticed among brands collaborating in China?#

    As long as the target groups of the collaborating brands can be characterized as homogeneous (similar age, preferences, place of residence, behavior patterns, etc.), neither category nor industry will limit the possibilities for collaboration — we see many brands in China take advantage of this to launch unexpected collaborations.

    Collaborations based on product innovation, such as launching novel co-branded items with creative concepts, are more attractive to younger consumers than traditional forms of collaboration (i.e., simply putting products from two brands into one gift box).

    Of course, cooperating with a popular brand is low-hanging fruit, but spending time and energy to find a partner with both brand reputation and cultural heritage can yield a surprisingly successful and impactful result.

    Brands can also consider influencers (KOLs) in China for brand collaborations as they built strong brands themselves which can be leveraged.

    How do you think retailers can benefit from brand collaborations in China?#

    If the collaboration activation includes offline elements, such as pop-up activities, public display, on-site visits from celebrities/influencers etc., it will inevitably attract traffic for a period of time in retail stores.

    But currently, the best strategy is to migrate offline consumers to online contacts, for example with an offline interactive mini program which can be used to follow up with that consumer later for product recommendations, sales staff communication and more.

    Saturnbird Coffee has collaborated with artists, brands and restaurants. Photo: Saturnbird
    Saturnbird Coffee has collaborated with artists, brands and restaurants. Photo: Saturnbird

    What would you consider the most popular collaborations of the past year in China?#

    As the largest trendy blind box toy brand in China, Pop Mart (泡泡玛特) has successfully expanded the brand's influence with a series of high-profile collaborations with the top cartoon characters, popular business districts, and young artists.

    In addition to the continuous optimization of products, the coffee brand Saturnbird Coffee (三顿半) has launched collaborations with artists, brands and restaurants in various places around the world to create themed publications, limited co-branded coffee sets, art derivatives, etc., attracting loyal users and conveying the brand’s "fresh" lifestyle.

    What do you think Chinese Gen Zers are looking for in a collaboration?#

    Gen Zers are characterized by their self-awareness and desire to express themselves. They don't want to be “lectured” by brands but are more interested in discovering and creating experiences together.

    When judging a brand collaboration they will first consider whether the two parties align with preconceived brand images. Second, they look to see “something creative and sincere." If the collaboration resonates, they will quickly complete the consumption process, moving from attraction to conversion.

    However, brands should be cautioned that the smoothness of this process will greatly affect the final evaluation of the entire collaboration.

    Do you believe KOL collaborations have long-lasting appeal in China or do they just offer a quick boost then a decline in engagement?#

    The influence that can be generated from a one-time collaboration with a KOL is indeed short-term and limited. However, if the cooperation is strategically executed over the long term, it can establish memorable touchpoints and impact consumers’ purchase decisions and well as contribute to brand building.

    At the same time, it should also be noted that extremes can be counterproductive, and a large number of KOL collaborations may lead to fatigue among consumers and lower their acceptance, resulting in resistance.

    Can you think of any examples where foreign brands have directly benefited from collaborating with a Chinese name?#

    McDonald's collaborated with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, a recognized establishment of traditional Chinese culture, for their Chinese New Year campaign in 2022. This campaign moved many Chinese consumers who may have the impression that McDonald’s, as an American fast-food brand, is not well versed in Chinese culture. However, the campaign seemed to prove otherwise. This seemingly non-flashy campaign is indeed a successful step in an in-depth expansion of the brand image.

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    On April 29, 2022, the "WE ARE THE MONSTERS" collaboration series was launched by Uniqlo and Pop Mart. UT (Uniqlo T-shirts) is the highlight of Uniqlo’s summer items every year. Many classic IPs are printed on UT. Most of them are foreign IPs or artists, such as Takashi Murakami, KAWS, Marvel, etc. This time, working with Pop Mart is the first time for Uniqlo to cooperate with the Chinese trendy brand to show the power of Chinese urban cultural and creative industries.

    What would you say are some of the risks of collaboration?#

    Because a collaboration typically spans a cycle of at least several months, during this period both parties can face many uncertainties, especially during the pandemic period. This risk is increased when working with celebrities — any negative news can have an impact on both brands.

    Second, the very real risk of expectation vs reality often plagues collaborations. Brands need to have a clear understanding of their respective brand image in China, carefully screen partners, and try not to simply copy what other brands have done.

    How can brands stand out with their collaborations in China?#

    1. Watch what your competitors are doing in China, learn from their success and failures, and develop unique ideas rooted in your brand DNA.
    2. Be sensitive to hot topics and trends in China's domestic market.
    3. Develop a deep understanding of your target consumer groups in China.
    4. Find the right trusted teams on the ground to operate.

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