TUESDAY 28 APR 2015 10:55 AM


China is a land of superlatives. It is the home of 649m internet users, 1.3bn mobile users – 60% of which own smartphones – and has at least 1,100 smartphone models on the market. WPP China’s CEO Bessie Lee says these features make for one of the most mature, agile and interesting markets for e-commerce, digital penetration and brand building via social media in the world.

E-commerce, headlined by Alibaba, is only 12 years old, yet if Jack Ma’s site is any indication of the overall market, that makes for 12 long, valuable years. “They have the money to buy,” says Lee of China’s middle classes. “But what they don’t have is the patience to wait for the brands [to communicate]. They will go to online for solutions.”

The internet then, is the primary portal for consuming brand content and ultimately, making purchasing decisions. Showrooming, she says, is standard practice in China, particularly in the luxury sector. People will go to luxury brands for the experience of shopping, but will make all their transactions online. Thus, the integration needs to be seamless and needs to “leverage the advanced e-commerce infrastructure.”

For brand communications and public relations, this tableau requires a deep understanding of the mindset of the Chinese consumer and the way in which brand awareness builds in China – largely through word of mouth. “Word of mouth brings brands and products to the Chinese consumer...Word of mouth, for the first time, secures a mainstream channel in China,” Lee says, as it is the most trusted form of PR. Companies seeking to enter the Chinese market have to be able to leverage brand ambassadors well-placed on WeChat and in other digital networks to develop trust among communities on a grassroots level.

The most important thing, however, is to ensure that any communications follow government regulations and are aware of what the government is doing. “For any business to be successful, you also have to understand what the government is thinking. If you don’t, you still have risk,” she adds.

Lee’s talk took place at the House of Lords last week as this year’s Maggie Nally Memorial Lecture, run by the CIPR International group. Nally was a notable member of the IPR and advanced the ability of women to work in areas beyond the domestic sphere. The memorial lecture is held every year featuring prominent female speakers from around the world.