Arnold Ma is the CEO of Qumin – a digital marketing agency that helps brands connect with Chinese-speaking consumers globally.
We caught up with Ma to discuss Western brand strategy in the Chinese market, the future of social commerce, and the power of Douyin.
Econsultancy: Tell me about your role… what does a typical day look like for you?
Arnold Ma: We are a UK company working in China, so I need to make myself available for teams and clients across the world. I’ll usually start around 8.30am to make sure I have overlap with China, and then work a typical UK day, before logging on back around 11pm for a couple of hours which aligns me to the Chinese morning. Splitting the day in this way, means I’m around at the right time for each market.
First thing I check in with emails and read thought leadership on Dao Insights and review any news, to see what’s going on and ensure I’m not missing any big updates we need to jump on. Mornings are typically full of meetings, but if I’m not careful that can take over, so Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons are blocked out for deep work. In China we use WeChat to collaborate, so that keeps me in touch with what’s on the ground.
One thing that is important to me is to empty my inbox by the end of the day – I never want anyone to be waiting for me. Despite my slightly disjointed days, I don’t expect people to respond immediately if it’s not their working day, however, in China people do work very long, twelve hour days, every day – it’s just the normal work ethic.
And around that I go to the gym three times a week, because it’s great for both physical and mental health which spins into my work. Plus of course food and Netflix play a big role.
E: How do Chinese consumers differ from their western counterparts? And how can brands resonate with this market?
AM: Consumers in China are used to a certain level of convenience and service. When I returned from Shanghai I almost had a reverse culture shock, because everything is so convenient, so clean, the tube has wifi and air conditioning, and robots are everywhere. They expect everything instantly, and everything cheap. There’s perhaps a different approach to sustainability and purpose-led brands than in the UK, and convenience and enjoyment win out.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to replicate the way Chinese brands communicate with Chinese customers. But it takes effort. It’s a combination of understanding the culture, especially that tension between a traditional way of life and a modern contemporary lifestyle which has occurred as a result of China accelerating so fast in the digital sphere.
They’ve changed so fast that they have an open approach to change and are less tied to legacy ways of doing things.
To succeed in China you have to actually go there. It’s no good to be a 50-year-old in a Soho office trying to speak to a Chinese millennial. Go to China, find authentic people, and build the content that will resonate. Rather than solely relying on British products, look at collaborations with Chinese brands, where people are often more open to outlandish ideas and offerings. They’ve changed so fast that they have an open approach to change and are less tied to legacy ways of doing things.
Can you give me an example of a brand or client that has generated success in China in the past few years? Why did they succeed?
AM: Last year, Marriott International tasked Qumin with creating a marketing campaign for the Shanghai opening of Moxy, a trendy, contemporary subsidiary of the hotel chain, tailored for a younger audience. They were struggling to capture the market of Chinese Gen Z and Millennials, who are often sceptical of foreign influences. They needed someone to come in and create a strategy that was resonant with these groups who seemed reticent to book with them.
So we did the things I’ve spoken about in theory, in practice. We looked at the subcultures we could tune in to, and chose gaming as it’s the gaming capital of China, and thus the world. We went out to China and collaborated with hundreds of gamers who created everything from tutorials, to streams and more, which was all then posted on our channel by Moxy. We became the facilitators of culture.
It felt Chinese, youthful, slightly subversive and authentic – essential to achieve in the market.
We also chose to push people out of their comfort zones and get them out of the house. We invited people who are in professions that are out of the norm in China such as digital, photography, gamers, DJs and gave them a platform to show off their passion that they could participate in. They painted the walls, hosted dance nights, and created an innate buzz. The “Make Moxy Yours” campaign went viral on Douyin, Chinese TikTok, generated a phenomenal 420 million views and 5.98 million likes on Chinese social media channels,and if you want real world tangible results they are clear – bookings went up from 30% to 90%.
This campaign succeeded because it was so localised and attuned to the culture rather than being an offshoot of a Western campaign. It also gave people a platform to share their lives and their passions, so they felt invested and bought in right from an early stage. It felt Chinese, youthful, slightly subversive and authentic – essential to achieve in the market.
E: Social commerce and live streaming has yet to generate the level of value in western markets that it does for brands in China. What needs to happen for this space to truly evolve?
AM: It’s less about the platform and technology, and more about legacy and habits. And I don’t think Western cultures will ever be at the place Chinese consumers are when it comes to their voracious appetites for social commerce.
In Western cultures we’re so used to shopping on Web 2.0 and it’s so convenient that there’s no need to change what we do. Whereas China doesn’t have that legacy of brand.com – they went straight from offline shops to social commerce and short form video. Everything was so well established in the UK and West, we didn’t need to adapt to social commerce.
I don’t think Western cultures will ever be at the place Chinese consumers are when it comes to their voracious appetites for social commerce.
The way things work is already convenient enough that there’s no need for a change in the Western world. Convenience also means something a bit different for the West compared to China. It’s not just speed. In the context of social commerce and live streaming it’s about the ease of doing something, and in China that jump was so big from where they were that they almost missed the ways of shopping we are used to. And it might not matter if Western markets don’t get to that level of social commerce – but if there does start to be a slowdown on the apps and websites we’re used to, brands will have to evolve, and could learn something from China here.
E: Should brands have a presence on Douyin? How does it differ from TikTok?
AM: If a brand is looking to succeed in China they need to be on Douyin or they’ll miss out. And despite how popular it is, we’re still at the tip of the iceberg in terms of hitting critical mass. One of our clients is Vuori competing with some of the biggest athleisure brands in the world – brands who didn’t use Douyin. We did and managed to catch up in a quarter of the time by creating meaningful and authentic content centred around culture.
Douyin is unique, and you need to have a different social media strategy. For a start the algorithm is different. Every piece of content goes out to a global audience, rather than just your followers. On Douyin it ripples out to an audience, and if they like it, it goes on to the next ripple of viewers, so you can reach millions of people with no followers. So there’s nothing better for brand awareness.
But you can’t use it as a billboard. People on Douyin are looking for like-minded people through entertainment. That’s why what we do is so successful – authentic people, who live and breathe a lifestyle, share content that gets syndicated. The platform and brand is merely a facilitator, rather than a dictator.
This is the first quarter that Temu, China’s largest ecommerce platform, is not growing, and that’s due to social commerce.
Compared to TikTok, Douyin is more mature. TikTok is where Douyin was three or four years ago. The content is more educational and cultural, but the biggest difference is social commerce and live streaming. This is the first quarter that Temu, China’s largest ecommerce platform, is not growing, and that’s due to social commerce. For some people live streaming is contributing more revenue than social commerce, so smart brands know they need to invest in live streaming capabilities. And you need to stream at night, which is when people are more susceptible to buy stuff, as they are switched off and relaxed.
E: What trends or innovations do you predict will come to the forefront of your industry in the next 12 months?
AM: There will be a bigger focus on creating authentic short-form content. Because as we become more automated and focused on AI, we will be able to syndicate content and generate views very quickly. But that doesn’t mean you can just relax and put out anything. In the end, great content is what succeeds and scales quickest. In fact the shift to AI and automation will facilitate a need to generate better, entertaining and high quality content manually. The focus on creativity will be what wins out in a world where scaling and syndication is so easy.
To succeed in China, you have to build your in-house live streaming capability.
To succeed in China, you have to build your in-house live streaming capability. You have to be able to trust the person creating your content, so in-house directed content is essential. Live streaming is so important, but so is the human input and authenticity. Once you have the technology and capability you can move on to creating those networks of brand ambassadors that live and breathe your values and support you.
E: What are your ambitions for Qumin? Where do you want to be in two years’ time?
AM: We love creating content and run the biggest fashion channel on Douyin with a billion views a year, alongside a food channel and a YouTube channel for Asian diasporas. So that basic element of creating fantastic media and content that works will always be central to Qumin.
We’ve also learned a lot over the last decade, so will be scaling up our consultancy services, from business strategy to marketing communications and product development. We’ll help brands communicate authentically and create products and services that will match Chinese trends, consumers and desires.
Qumin is in London and Shanghai and we’re looking to expand in Europe, Middle East, Australia and the US. There’s a real global focus and energy to Qumin right now and it’s great to be part of it.