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Back to the future

Back to the future

Jim Murphy learned about marketing to Chinese customers in bars.

When he first came to China in December of 2004, he didn't think that consumers here could afford or were interested in the relatively pricey Jack Daniel's whiskey that his company, Brown-Forman, produced.

But Murphy, Brown-Forman's global marketing director, soon noticed that every bar he visited in the major cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing were stocked with expensive imported liquor.

"The whole trip was an epiphany for me -- just to see how people are living," says Murphy, who is now fighting to change minds within his own company. Three week-long sessions of observing Chinese patrons in bars and stores made him one of Brown-Forman's biggest advocates for a significant spending increase in China to build awareness of the brand using on-premise marketing and other techniques.

Jack Daniel's is recruiting new customers with a guerrilla marketing approach that this year will expand to include 200,000 high-visibility, onsite promotions in the trendy nightspots in major Chinese cities -- a far cry from the hills of Tennessee where the whiskey is produced.

"Being in a techno-disco club doesn't really fit Jack Daniel's brand equity," says Murphy. But the new approach is working: Jack Daniel's sales have doubled in China during the past year. "This is our biggest mid to long-term opportunity," he adds.

Like other U.S. marketers, Murphy is learning some valuable lessons about building a brand in China. The marketing model is evolving as a curious mix of the new and the old. Chinese consumers who have access to the Internet and wireless technology are eagerly embracing these modern channels of communication. But because the consumer culture is new, and because quality control is still a challenge for many companies in China, Western companies are focusing their brand messages around the basics: quality, benefits and values. It's a page right out of the 1950s marketing handbook.

"The [current] focus in advertising [in China] is indeed what happened half a century ago in the United States," says Stephan Montigaud, a managing director for the Milan-based marketing consultancy FullSix.

The pipes for that messaging, however, are quite different from the post-World War II United States. China has almost 400 million cell phone users, tops of any country, according to research firm Computer Industry Almanac. Text messages are particularly popular here, given their low cost and convenience.

That's why companies such as Disney are investing more in mobile campaigns, promoting services such as downloadable ring tones and text messaging. Some companies combine these campaigns with TV programs such as the recent American Idol-style Super Girl contest, which built huge awareness for the sole 2005 sponsor, Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt. That awareness had a direct impact on the company's bottom line. "After the contest, our sales doubled," says Xianhong Sun, the Mongolian Cow Dairy's VP of marketing, "and the increase will be even bigger at the end of [2005]." Once China's third-largest dairy, the company is now the biggest.

Loyal subjects

As companies look for new ways to reach potential customers, they're also innovating in the ways they gather information about those consumers. Reliable demographic data about Chinese consumers is hard to come by (see, "Counting in Chinese," Page 20). What data there is about customer behavior comes from official ministries and is often unreliable, says Paul French, China analyst for Access Asia, a Shanghai-based market research firm. "And there's not a lot you can do about it since it comes from the government," he adds.

To address the lack of good customer data, loyalty programs are becoming more popular. One such program is offered by SmartClub Loyalty Management, which tracks the buying habits of some 13 million Chinese, most of them white-collar workers, says Henry Winter, SmartClub's CEO. Ninety percent of the members register at SmartClub's website, entering demographics information to participate in prize drawings and redeem loyalty points -- accumulated through purchases from partner companies -- for iPods or concert tickets.

McDonald's has partnered with SmartClub to tap into demographic information about loyalty club members who frequent its restaurants. The company has equipped its checkout counters with smart card readers to track the purchases of SmartClub members in some cities via the transportation cards the members use to ride buses and subways. McDonald's then uses the consumer data that SmartClub houses to e-mail coupons or special offers to frequent customers, track customer behavior and measure whether the offer created more sales.

Basic training

These types of mobile messaging campaigns are not unique to China. Nor are commercials playing on LCD screens mounted in elevators and behind supermarket checkouts. What sets them apart is the content, much of which is of the old-fashioned variety.

Western companies are taking advantage of their skills at selling aspirational values for their brands, says FullSix's Montigaud. Commercials educating consumers about how to use a product are also popular, as are expert testimonials -- even for basic products such as toothpaste. (The World Health Organization reports that the use of fluoride toothpaste is still not the norm in China, and the Chinese Preventive Medicine Society reports that half a billion citizens never brush their teeth -- an assertion that the China Dentists Association disputes.)

As they go back to the basics, some U.S. marketers will find the need to tweak their values-based messaging. In September, halfway into a three-city focus group tour, Brown-Forman's Murphy gained an insight: Jack Daniel's story about how its product is made in the sweet hills of the American South wasn't going to fly in China.

"Rural imagery in China doesn't convey premium," he said. In many cases, it's just the opposite: The Cultural Revolution, in which city residents were sent to perform forced labor on farms, has helped destroy any semblance of nostalgia about rural living.

Now, Jack Daniel's is positioned as a very American, masculine and self-confident whiskey -- even if Chinese consumers prefer it mixed with sweet green tea instead of served straight up.

-- Maria Trombly and Bill Marcus are freelance writers based in Shanghai.

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