Global brands tap apps to woo Chinese millennials

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L'Oréal's "Makeup Genius" app.
L'Oréal's "Makeup Genius" app.

L'Oreal, Nike and other brands are finding new ways to communicate with a huge youth market

China’s young people watch videos online, shop online, make friends online and look for trusted advice online. Research from InMobi finds the country’s smart device users spend an average of 146 minutes a day engaged with the small screen.

And brands have started to notice. Reaching a generation of smartphone-addicted consumers through their displays might seem obvious. But when it comes to execution, the tactic demands more sophistication than launching a shopping app. Brands are finding community can drive commerce.

Branded apps as utility

Take L’Oréal for example. The Paris-based beauty giant recently launched an interactive app for Apple and Android phones called ‘Makeup Genius’—known in Chinese as ‘Qian Zhuang Mojing’, meaning ‘magic mirror of 1,000 looks’. Using front-facing cameras, the app turns smartphones into cosmetic mirrors and enables users to see how different makeup — including lipstick, eye shadow, foundation and eyebrow powder—would look on their own face. Each of the 81 digital products link back to L’Oréal’s online shop in China’s leading B2C platform, Tmall, for a convenient shopping experience.

The brand also included a share function in its app, so users can post their new virtual look to popular social networks such as Sina Weibo and WeChat. The much-utilized feature helps expand the app’s influence nationwide.

At its app-launch party in Shanghai last month, L’Oréal China vice-president Lan Zhenzhen said the app is part of the company’s "universalisation global strategy" aimed at winning a new generation of consumers worldwide. She explained that color cosmetics was still in its infancy in China, and the comany therefore saw infinite opportunity, especially with the help of fast-developing digital technologies.

Kevin Gentle, digital director at Shanghai-based consulting firm Labbrand, says an app should never be just a marketing tool; it needs to be a value-added service like L’Oréal’s Makeup Genius.

"Many brands actually still don’t really get that a mobile app is not the mobile version of its website. It has to be well-designed, often incorporated with phone features, such as accelerator, location service and camera, to provide a fresh interactive experience," he says, suggesting companies that don’t have resources to make a great app should consider mobile-optimized websites as an alternative.

"Brands should see apps as an innovative service product, not a simple marketing tool or something for vanity," he adds.

Even for companies producing relatively slow-moving consumer goods, approaching future Chinese clients digitally is still an important strategy. One example is Flügger, Scandinavia’s largest paint and wallpaper supplier, based in Copenhagen.

"We used to rely on on-site promotions and events to attract customers, but then we realized we were facing a new generation of customers—typically young couples in their late 20s—who are heavy smartphone users, so we have to approach them in a tech-savvy way," says Henrik Gert Larsen, CEO of Flügger China and Asia-Pacific.

Since February, Flügger China has been making some big moves. First it localized its app, ‘Flügger Färgguide’, for Chinese iPhone users. It helps them choose colors, virtually paint rooms and share the results on social networks.

The company also started a social marketing strategy. That means, while promotions and events are still important for quick sales growth, interacting with young people on social media networks is key for long-term business growth in the country, which Flügger entered a decade ago.

Larsen, who also holds a PhD from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, recognizes the value of empowering consumers and letting them make their own decisions.

"When people are happy, they tend to make positive decisions, and this can benefit brands," he says.

Flügger uses Sina Weibo and WeChat to give decoration tips, including how to choose the right paint or incorporate the latest color trends. It also provides news and stories about Denmark and Scandinavian culture. Since the brand opened an account on WeChat in late April, it has only attracted 355 followers, but more importantly, its enticed a lot of product-related inquiries.

"We just started to test the strategy, so there will be many other things we will have to do. But I’m confident we are on the right track," says Larsen.

Be social

Social marketing, instead of mobile marketing, is what Kestrel Lee, executive creative director of China operations at George P. Johnson (GPJ), suggests to his clients when talking about reaching young Chinese through smartphones.

"I once asked a client to take a cold shower to clear his head of all this media-first thinking because he said he is interested in mobile marketing," Lee jokes. A veteran in digital media targeting Chinese born after 1980, Lee has plenty to offer when it comes to marketing to the millennial generation.

"These young people want to be the decision-makers in their lives rather than being told what to do. They are young, capable of making money, and are the future of brands. But ironically, too many brands are driving them away by the very strategy the younger generation loathes," Lee said, referring to paid-media approaches such as banner or pop-up ads imposed onto smartphones, through browsers, apps or videos. The very generation that the tactic aims to attract considers the disruption unacceptably rude.

"Many companies don’t understand why they invested so much but had little gain in return. I tell them forced impression has no love for brands among young people. After all, why would anyone want to spend his private time to look at your advertising?" Lee explains. He adds that socialising—creating emotional occasions or events to interact with young people and let them share with friends on social media—is the most effective way to win them over.

After all, social networking is one of the most downloaded apps among China’s over 700 million smart-device users, according to research from the Beijing-based firm, Umeng.

Labbrand’s Gentle cannot agree more.

"There is no such thing [as] mobile marketing. The imposed ads on smart devices are just too terrible to look at," he says.

However, both Gentle and Lee caution against using mobile games as a marketing tool, because it usually takes a lot of resources to make an interesting, appealing game. "No game is better than a crappy game," Gentle points out.

Some brands, however, get it just right. Porsche, for example, created an occasion called VIP customer day. Any customer having a car serviced on the day could then use WeChat to book a luxury treat, such as a spa visit or yoga class, for free.

"The idea is to combine the brand with a high-end lifestyle. Porsche told us the feedback is very positive, " says Lee, who oversaw the project.

Lee also cites Burberry — not one of his clients — as another company that knows how to create brand occasions and offer a great interactive experience. For example, in a sleek online video promoting its 2014 A/W men’s business suits, the brand highlights travel; in a WeChat game to promote its new line of Bloomsbury handbags, users can explore the whole collection, virtually "peeling off" each pattern with their fingers.

Apt apps

Some popular third-party apps also enact the same strategy well. For example, Shanghai-based Woniu is an app focused on apartment-renovation solutions, mainly for married couples — typically aged between 27 and 35—remodelling their first apartment together.

Users can look through design cases, communicate with designers and contact construction companies directly, as well as buy recommended items through in-app purchase links that direct users to Ikea’s website or Tmall. Since its launch in May, the app has seen about 1 million downloads.

"Right now we are not making any money, because we want to focus on user experience first. But no matter what our future business plan is, we are not going to impose ads on our users because it will only drive them away," says Woniu’s marketing director Jack Dong. Instead, the service emphasizes community over commercials.

Shenzhen-based beauty app Meila is another example. It not only offers beauty tips and recommends products to women between 18 and 25, it also creates an online community to let registered users socialize with one another, as well as celebrity stylists and grass-roots opinion leaders.

"Young girls prefer information from trusted sources, such as friends and opinion leaders, rather than companies, therefore the traditional branding-to-product route doesn’t work well," said Zhang Bo, CEO of Pinhui, the company behind Meila, which has had about 40 million downloads since its launch in July 2013.

Zhang explains that this is why young Chinese women usually lack loyalty to one brand, instead, they prefer trying the most praised products from trusted sources.

"For example, Chanel is known for its color cosmetics, but no one is going to fill her makeup case with only Chanel products. More likely, it is a rich portfolio: Chanel’s perfume; eye shadow from the British brand Sleek; Dior’s lipstick; and Shu Uemura’s blush—because these are what their friends are using, or recommended in the community," Zhang points out.

GPJ’s Lee agrees that community building is key to success. "No matter if it’s social marketing or social media, ‘social’ is the first word," he says.


Case study: Nike+ inspires Chinese youth to run

Background and aim: In 2012, AKQA helped Nike launch the campaign ‘Game on, world’ in China to promote the Nike+ platform, which allows people to share workout performances with friends through Nike gears and Nike apps. To make sure people stick to the platform, AKQA started two other campaigns in 2013: ‘Nike+ Run Club’ and ‘Nike Free ID’, in which WeChat played a key role in keeping young Chinese people engaged.

Execution: Under the ‘Free ID’ campaign, Nike followers on WeChat shared a photo of their favorite colors and received a photo of the Nike Free running shoe in matching colors. A unique Free ID also allowed them to order the customized Free shoe online.

Nike+ Run Club is a WeChat account that serves as a personal running partner. As well as chatting, the app suggests running routes based on the phone’s location and forms run crews with runners nearby. It also integrates with the user’s Nike+ data to give personalized coaching and suggest suitable Nike products.

Results: In the first month, Free ID received over 33,000 submissions as users were passionate about designing their own running shoes. Within two months, Nike+ Run Club attracted over 100,000 users and created more than 3,000 run crews.

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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