In this series of articles, we try to pull together the meta-narratives that ran through ad:tech China from the 16-17th April. Ad:tech is a conference geared toward bringing together the best of the digital marketing industry for two days of talks, networking opportunities and exhibitions. Split United MD Archie Hamilton was invited to participate in a panel entitled “Content Creation Management – Building A New Process For Content Marketing Success”, which featured representatives from e&r Consulting, Golin, Ginzamarkets, Coca-Cola China and Sohu Video. The immediate takeaway from our participation in the event was that tech is no longer considered as existing in a sphere of extraneous activity; it is interwoven deeply within everything we – as people and marketers – do.


Building Brand in China and the Shift to Storytelling 

On day 1, Richard Cotton (Creative Excellence Director, Coca-Cola China) commented that he believed we are reaching a tipping point in China where businesses are realizing that they can’t depend on the demand of the market alone to drive future growth. Brand building is becoming a vital part of the equation. But there are two immediate challenges: 1) according to Gordon Domlija (Chief Strategy Officer, MediaCom China) the average person has an attention span of 8 seconds; 2) assuming brand building involves some element of content marketing, what actually defines good content? Can this be planned, or is it chance?

Many regional teams will naturally look to the wisdom of their global headquarters for a lead – an idea of the ‘party line’ so to speak. Leveraging global assets and localizing them – from a practical standpoint – actually makes a lot of sense as it saves time (intensive research and planning) and in some ways ensures the onus of responsibility remains with the ‘central think-tank’. But a panel moderated by Eric Thain (Managing Director, e&r Consulting) criticised this approach. The panelists suggested that rather than localising it’s more effective to draw on ‘universal truths’ – elements of the human story that touch every person. This may be particularly effective where reaching rural populations is concerned, as the comprehension of these sorts of narratives isn’t predicated on being looped in to global themes or trends.

Brands such as Nike appear from the outset to have succeeded at ‘localising’, but often what they’re appropriating is something that transcends any sense of place – such as hero archetypes. Coca-Cola recently tapped a truth that applies to many – our aversion toward daring to spend an extended period of time with our parents. Over Chinese Spring Festival 2015 a TVC played which asked parents and their grown-up kids what they would do if they had 45 days to spend together. While the youngsters were struck with horror, parents answered with anecdotes from their childrens’ childhoods that touched them. A disjoint between the two groups was apprehended, resulting in a truly touching piece of content. 


Bearing in mind Cotton believes Coca-Cola has room for a lot of growth in China, the key to realising this future growth lies in continuously innovating such stories (albeit Coca-Cola invests 10% of its annual marketing budget on brand new / innovative activities, which is a luxury many can’t afford). Looking at the other end of the spectrum, local businesses too will increasingly need to position themselves through story craft, and likely at a fraction of the cost. This leads on to the next point: the move away from branded content.

At least since 2013 brands in China have been crafting stories that don’t place the product middle and center (at the time we shared our thoughts on the Maserati x Cui Jian campaign). Maserati China was perhaps ahead of the curve, and global players are now adept at this. One such example is a video that promotes Unilever’s “Project Sunlight”. In the Why bring a child into this world? TVC, parents are shown a video that confronts the poverous conditions in which many children around the world are born into. Like Coca-Cola’s Spring Festival TVC, it’s a tearjerker that hits at an existential crisis – issues that go beyond any specific place. Everyone wants to raise healthy children; everyone wants to help better the lives of future generations. There is no mention of Unilever or any kind of product placement, bar logo placement at the end of the video. 


So what? This important question links in to the third theme we pulled from ad:tech – that of actually marketing content so it serves some sort of function, rather than going on Youku to die. Good storytelling has to serve a purpose, whether it be intended for a B2C or B2B audience. As a starting point, we have argued that 1) branding through compelling storytelling is essential to local and international brands that wish to remain competitive as organic market-driven demand levels off / new incumbents enter, and 2) originating content at the local level is preferable to adapting global content, however regional teams can leverage global creative where it addresses ‘universal’ truths that apply to all of us.