Jonathan Smith is CEO and founder at China marketing specialist Hot Pot China.
Hot Pot has worked with brands such as Ted Baker and Canada Goose, using their deep understanding of the Chinese market and consumer behaviour, combined with rigorous data-driven measurement and analysis.
Let’s hear more from Smith on strategy, planning and digital execution in China…
Please describe your job. What do you do?
Jonathan Smith: As founder and CEO, my role is to lead the commercial strategy across the entire business, as well as oversee the rollout of new commercial products which deliver value to our clients.
China is a rapidly changing market, so you need to have a razor-sharp focus on what technologies, campaigns and strategies are going to deliver value. It’s a crucial part of our business, and without it you can’t hope to charter the right course for your clients.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
Jonathan Smith: You need to be constantly aware of the changing needs and behaviour of the Chinese consumer so as to deliver valuable insight for clients.
When it comes to running the business, you need strong people management skills so that you can source, hire and motivate a high performing team.
To grow the business and to offer employees exciting opportunities, it’s vital to have a clear vision for where the business is heading. My main focus over the last 18 months has been to source the right senior talent who share in the vision and can deliver on it through their teams.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Jonathan Smith: It’s a terrible cliché, but there’s not really a typical working day in this job. Over the course of the past week, I have worked with the team on developing Fortnum & Mason’s WeChat strategy; supported one of the world’s largest sporting properties to bolster their presence in China, and started building a non-exec advisory board for Hot Pot.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
Jonathan Smith: I love the freedom, the flexibility and the rewards that come from building a business from the ground up as well as all the energy that comes with building and interacting with a team. It’s incredibly satisfying and is the reason I get out of bed every day.
People talk about the importance of boundaries between running a business and enjoying your family life. However, as the founder of a business, you need to prepare to be flexible and accept that work is an integral part of your life.
It’s not for everyone, but, as long as you love what you’re doing, it shouldn’t feel like it’s encroaching on your personal life – it should feel like the two parts of your life go hand in hand. Finding work-life harmony is crucial.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
Jonathan Smith: Like any business we have the classic performance metrics in place such as delivering on our revenue forecast, EBITDA, gross profit per head, all measured on a monthly and quarterly basis.
We also strive for Hot Pot to be the first choice for forward-thinking brands who are looking to drive value with China. That’s our vision, and all our goals/plans for the months and years ahead ladder up against this vision. The important part is connecting every team member’s daily work to deliver on the vision. When you have a clear focus, then you ensure the whole team are rowing in the same direction and decision making in the moment becomes much easier.
When it comes to our clients, success happens when we deliver meaningful engagement which goes beyond ‘reach’ and ‘impressions.’ This engagement could be through digital channels, through visiting a pop-up activation, or scanning a QR code in a physical retail environment – it all depends on what’s right for the brand.
We map out blueprints for our clients based on their position in the market. Some clients who are building a Chinese consumer base from the ground up need to have campaigns with a primary focus on driving awareness, whereas more seasoned brands, with existing audiences, may need a radical shake-up in their approach to ensure they remain relevant.
Ultimately, we want to offer a clear point of value for our clients by helping them engage in a meaningful way with their audiences.
What are your favourite tools to help you get the job done?
Jonathan Smith: Like many businesses we use G Suite – I love its efficiency and accountability and the fact that the whole system is linked. Trello is a Post-it style management tool which also offers a very useful visual representation and helps capture where actions stand within the business.
As a China specialist, it would be remiss of us not to use WeChat. However it’s a double edged sword as it can be a constant stream of noise and personally I tend to avoid instant messaging apps in a business context. However we have a company group chat on WeChat for all announcements and anything that needs to be shared internally. If one of the team is in China and they notice something new they can share it via the voice message function which acts like an internal mini-podcast. Because WeChat is such a key platform in China, we need to stay on top of any updates and innovation.
How did you end up starting Hot Pot, and where might you go from here?
Jonathan Smith: Getting your China marketing strategy right can deliver huge rewards, but there are myriad horror stories from brands, even global names, who get it wrong.
When I returned to the UK in 2013, after nine years living and working in China, there was a clear gap in the market for a China specialist who could advise brands on market entry strategies as well as consultancy around and execution of retail, marketing and social media initiatives.
Currently I’m working on finessing our 3-year plan for the business, looking to ramp up our product offerings as well as global presence. Increasingly, we’re working with clients who have reached maturity in China, but who are at risk of decline because the approach which has been working for them is no longer relevant because of the pace of change in China. Our vision and products are evolving to meet these needs.
Innovation happens in China faster than pretty much anywhere else in the world – it’s a brilliant sandbox and a place where global brands can (and must) try out new thinking. In the future, we see a role for Hot Pot to showcase that approach to innovation to brands here in the UK so that they can try to be equally as innovative in their home markets.
Which international brands have impressed you lately?
Jonathan Smith: The sophisticated Chinese consumer demands and expects frictionless purchase journeys. The brands that have impressed me most recently are those which have harnessed the latest innovations to provide seamless and intuitive shopper experiences.
For instance, Zara’s concept store in Shanghai offers a shopping experience that bridges the physical and digital worlds. Forget lugging around piles of clothes you want to try on. Instead, Chinese consumers can scan a WeChat QR code on each item which gets transported almost instantly to the changing room. Payment is via WeChat and you can even arrange for items to be delivered within 24 hours if you don’t feel like carrying purchases home.
Brands and retailers need to introduce this level of innovation if they want to capture the attention of their Chinese audiences.
Do you have any advice for marketers looking to break China?
Jonathan Smith: If I were to condense my advice into one word, it would be ‘humility.’ You need to know what you don’t know, and you need to have the humility to keep learning. Even if you know China, you need to constantly watch and listen as things change so quickly.
China is by far the most sophisticated digital market in the world, and it’s evolving at a breakneck pace. Brands who aren’t prepared to adapt their strategies in line with the ever-changing market will find themselves left behind.