With almost 400m active users and a growing global audience, Tencent’s WeChat app is the new king of Chinese social media.

Often touted as the Chinese alternative to WhatsApp, WeChat actually offers a far broader range of features and tools.

Alongside text, video and voice messaging, users in China can make mobile payments, browse ecommerce stores, play games, or book a taxi. It even offers access to an online investment fund.

All this, coupled with the fact that the messaging app offers a veil of privacy cherished by young Chinese, makes it easy to see why WeChat has become central to its users’ lives.

Which in turn made it inevitable that marketers would seek to get in on the act, with official brand accounts first being made available around September 2012.

How WeChat’s number of active monthly users has grown over time

WeChat has now been embraced by a huge number of Western brands, including the likes of Nike, Adidas, Coach, the NBA and British department store Harrods.

The app allows brands to communicate with consumers on a one-to-one basis, which can have a huge impact on brand loyalty if handled with care.

A common tactic is to offer users exclusive content or access to special offers, which also helps to create a bond between them and the brand.

However, there are limitations to what brands can achieve. For instance, WeChat imposes a daily limit on the number of messages that brands can send to their followers.

Also, the app has a really poor search function, so it’s difficult to find brands unless you know their specific username (for example, Burberry is ‘burberry_official’).

Therefore marketers are forced to make use of WeChat’s QR code function which allows users to quickly and easily follow their favourite brands.

I’ll investigate the full range of options available to marketers in a future post, but in the meantime here’s a quick look at how several western brands are making use of WeChat.

And for more on this topic, read my posts rounding up all the facts and figures you need to know about Tencent and Alibaba.

Burberry

Burberry has been an eager user of WeChat as it seeks to expand its presence in the Chinese market.

It joined in autumn 2013 and used the app to promote an event celebrating its ‘Art of the Trench’ campaign.

That was followed by a virtual runway show at the beginning of this year, which allowed fans to receive updates from celebrities attending the show or request a personalised image.

Then in April Burberry ran a ‘parallel social event’ on WeChat to promote the opening of its new flagship store in Shanghai. 

Before the event the fashion brand ran a five-day competition to giveaway tickets to the store launch, while followers were also able to interact with images of London and Shanghai skylines by shaking, swiping or tapping their devices.

After the event users were able to browse interactive 360-degree panoramas of the London and Shanghai set within the new store.

As with all of Burberry’s marketing, WeChat was just one part of a wider multichannel marketing campaign for these events.

                  

Mulberry

Mulberry joined WeChat in July and has used it to allow consumers to browse its collection of leather products and digital content, some of which was exclusive to the app.

Users could also get a behind-the-scenes look at Mulberry’s Autumn/Winter 2014 ad campaign featuring Cara Delevingne.

Anne-Marie Verdin, brand director at Mulberry, said at the time:

WeChat’s advanced functionality and prominence in the daily lives of consumers means this will be a central tool to communicate with our audience in China and continue to amplify our brand storytelling.

I started following Mulberry on WeChat and received this message. Alas, I have no idea what it means…

             

Starbucks

Starbucks was a WeChat pioneer, creating an account on the app shortly after it opened up to brands back in 2012.

To drum up interest when it first joined the coffee chain sent songs to users who had got in touch using an emoticon.

The songs were supposed to reflect the mood of the emoticons it had received.

By the end of the month-long campaign Starbucks had attracted 62,000 fans and received an average of 22,000 messages per day.

Image taken from Brand Karma’s blog

Pepsi

Pepsi launched a ‘Bring Happiness Home’ campaign to coincide with the lunar new year, when it’s traditional in China to send greetings to family and friends.

WeChat users could customise a Pepsi theme song called ‘Bring Happiness Home’ with a personal message plus sound effects such as a train or a galloping horse (it was the Chinese year of the horse).

According to AdAge, voice messages are particularly popular on WeChat as it’s quicker than typing in Chinese characters.