How China CMOs and marketers make the difference.

This post is by Vineet Arora, Managing Director at Arena China, and Herman Cheng, Marketing & PR Manager at Havas Media China.

The jury is in: Brands have run into a metaphorical wall in China in terms of what they can do to make further gains in the hearts and imaginations of the consumer. After years of accelerated growth in spending, advertisers are no longer growing media investments in China at their previous speeds, and the law of diminishing returns is clearly coming into play.

Instead of throwing money at the problem, brands have had to pragmatically adapt their strategies – by region, medium and phasing. Advertisers are looking into the media consumption habits of each region and moving accordingly. For example, they're using comparatively more digital and print advertising in first tier cities, and more digital and radio in the third tier, a reflection of local on-the-ground situations.

These are but incremental adaptations of traditional strategies in China, and some innovative brands are doing more. They are stepping back and examining the way they look at their integrated marketing strategies, seeing how they achieve results that are both sustainable and represent the best decision for their dollar. This also goes beyond looking at marketing results as a function of a series of campaigns, but rather as the outcome of an always on marketing movement that informs and drives the entire organization, from the bottom all the way to CEO level. And at the centre of it all is digital integration.

Integrated marketing now is more crucial than ever before. To achieve effective frequency over a shorter period of time, advertisers have traditionally sought to multiply their touch points with their target audience. For that, they had to deploy a range of different media, and to 'integrate' them into a coherent whole. But integration takes many forms. Things were much simpler in the past; an integrated marketing campaign meant a television commercial, an outdoor ad and a print ad. Messages only had to be consistent across a small range of media: television, radio, print and out-of-home. Rolling out two to three campaigns per year was the norm – relying on short, sporadic blitzes to maximize results.

But with the advent of digital, a plethora of channels have opened up, which meant several things: effective frequency can be reached over an even shorter period of time, but the potential to go 'off message,' with the sheer bulk and variety of communication, has increased exponentially. Digital has effectively compressed the time and distance between consumers and the heart of the brand.

It may be even more compressed in the China digital environment, where consumers have become much more plugged in. For instance, 60% of Chinese consumers claim to shop online each week, compared with 21% globally, according to PwC's 2014 Achieving Total Retail report1. "Our research shows that social media is more important in China's buying, recommendation and review processes than anywhere else in the world," says Colin Light, PwC's Mainland China and Hong Kong Digital Consulting Leader. "And yet, many businesses relegate this role to a niche within a marketing department."

Essentially, digital has completely changed the way the game is played, and China is where this change has had the greatest impact. Marketing now is always on, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Our 24/7 media consumption environment now means making sure that a brand's marketing efforts are designed and executed to meet business objectives: combining brand promise, message and channel sensibly to deliver results that are greater than the sum of its individual parts.

This becomes even more important in an environment characterized by high media inflation such as that of China's. Messaging could be linear, sequential or simultaneous. But more importantly, channel selection and phasing need to be arranged so that no contradictory messages are communicated that may confuse consumers or leave the impression that a company does not know what it's doing. Consumers are cleverer than many marketers think they are.

Contradictory messages cause what the Harvard Business Review terms as "brand confusion2". This arises when marketers rely too heavily on individual promotional activities and focus too much on playing to each individual medium. That's why digital itself cannot be looked at as an entity separate from traditional marketing – going digital is not a strategy in itself, at least not anymore.

Digital empowerment starts from the top

With so many disciplines that have arisen from digital (such as search, social, mobile, display, programmatic buying, real-time bidding and e-commerce), there's a need to integrate digital planning and communication as well. For example, brands need to make sure that activities on its social media and PR feeds are internally consistent with its messages in the mobile space and choices on a real-time bidding platform.

So our definition of integration is not just about aligning offline with online activities. It is about integrating first within digital, and then integrating digital efforts with the traditional side (direct marketing, events, offline media). And ultimately, it is the CEO who is responsible for ensuring that true integration is adopted throughout the organization to ensure there is no dilution of the overall brand message.

This particular version of integration will not be a simple, short-term change initiative. Its many internal stakeholders will be in play and it will have a host of moving parts. But if the CEO is to take responsibility for brand messaging, the CMO or marketing director's first duty is to weave one key notion into their conversations with senior management: digital is and must be the engine that drives the organization. This needs to be in the company's DNA. Many CEOs already understand the impact that digital infrastructure can have on every aspect of their business, so we believe that they would likely embrace a digital movement in the organization. Ultimately, this would be the greatest empowerment exercise for marketers – digitally empowering leadership that in turn digitally empower the entire organization.

One practical first step is to create the role of a digital advocate – from the mere functional 'digital manager' role that exists now in many organizations to a strategic, executive level partner that advises and guides the company's direction. The advocate in charge of the company's digital strategy should be the CMO, or another senior officer, if you can cultivate or source talent with adequate experience and seniority.

Jeffrey Cohen of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud3 goes as far as to suggest a new CxO title such as a "Chief Digital Officer," who reports to the CEO and COO and works alongside the Chief Marketing Officer. Only by increasing the executive powers of a digital manager will they have the authority to boost the impact and message consistency of marketing strategies, while ensuring proper integration of all functions.

With an empowered, competent digital officer at this level, we argue that brands can gain a wide-angle lens of their integrating marketing efforts and relative impact, look beyond short-term campaign results and tackle the bigger picture of winning with the Chinese consumer. After all, marketing is the link between brands and consumers and as we know, digital is the fastest link between marketers and consumers.


  1. PwC. "Achieving total retail: Consumer expectations driving the next retail business model." 2014.
  2. Clancy, Kevin J, and Jack Trout. "Brand confusion." Harvard Business Review, March 2002.
  3. Cohen, L Jeffrey. Sales Force Marketing Cloud. May 30, 2012. (accessed March 28, 2014).