Lessons Learned in China

How Ancient Chinese Culture is Driving Digital Marketing’s Future: Lessons learned from Volkswagen’s Successful Social Strategy in China

Writer William Gibson once said: “The future’s already here—it’s just not very distributed.” In other words, the future’s here now if you know where to look. And if you’re looking for the future of selling cars, look at China today.


China’s interesting not only because of the superlatives—biggest auto market, the most digital, the most mobile—but because it’s a case study in what happens when you don’t follow the Western dealership model. A consumer’s entire relationship with an automotive brand in China—besides test drive and pickup—could take place online. This allows marketers a level of engagement and analytics never seen in the West.


automotive CRM

Volkswagen’s recent digital marketing experience in China is an example not only of an automaker successfully connecting with consumers online to build brand reputation, but of a Western automaker’s adaption to a foreign market.


VW was an early mover in the Chinese market, having set up local operations in the 80s. But while the company enjoyed early successes, an enduring puzzle was how to sell foreign cars in a culture where more than 80% of purchase decisions are made by word-of-mouth. If brand reputation was the engine, how did you step on the gas? In 2012, VW formulated its ‘digital acceleration strategy.’ The goal: to be the most loved, most digitally-connected automotive brand in China. They would do this by meeting Chinese consumers where they live—online. And they would do this by learning how Chinese consumers behaved in the digital world, noticing when there was a change in that behavior, then calibrating communications accordingly. Fortunately, we were in the right position to help when VW sought an agency focused on digital CRM, and specifically, the outer limits of the segmentation spectrum: past awareness, past demographic, past psychographic, to the quantum realms of micro-segmentation. In the US and Europe we were well versed at being able to not only pinpoint consumer behavior, but predict it accurately. Conveniently, the Chinese are the original social networkers. Their massive social media engagement, high opt-in rates, and VW’s existing brand equity combined to create the perfect conditions for gathering rich, self-reported data.


Consumers that raised their hands and engaged with Volkswagen were invited to events, to learn more about VW’s work with environmental projects like Think Blue, or join crowd-sourced initiatives like the People’s Car Project, where they could design their dream VW of the future and see it come to life. This value exchange brought user profiles into the adaptive realm: through social channels, consumers continually and voluntarily refined their profiles with a trusted brand.


So what can VW’s experience teach Western marketers? In a nutshell: give up the idea that there’s a single, linear purchase funnel. The reality is profoundly more complex, but it is available for those ready to grasp it. Here’s how to start:


First, earn trust. Social-savvyChinese consumers are open to sharing data and content, and are very interested in recommendations from within their networks. A key to marketing success is to find a way for your brand to become part of that trusted network. VW did this by consistently offering value around lifestyle and social concerns it discovered were dear to its targeted consumers. They then adapted that value as consumers shifted focus. In other words:


Meet the consumer where they are and not where you want them to be. Part of the paradigm shift underway is that marketers need to pivot from content marketing to context marketing: get the right message to the right consumer, at the right time in their life stage, to generate the right action. A piece of content posted by VW might be read on a mobile device, then shared, then read again at home on a different device months later. Each of these actions contributes to a crisper consumer understanding, when it is understood what content is welcomed, when. Digital CRM makes this possible. With a catch:


Seek out dynamic, self-reported data. Traditionally compiled data is often stale. Gain insight into what people engage with on an ongoing basis, then adapt messaging in real time as people interact with your brand. For example, did an unmarried consumer suddenly start researching child safety seats yesterday? Today, the profile adjusts accordingly. And tomorrow, the profile will be further refined, as data from the consumer’s physical world—the coming internet of things—is linked with their online networks. 


Adapt, even faster.  Successful paradigm shifts require CMOs with nerve and vision. Social and technology adoption waves in China are 3x the speed of the US, so a channel may be useful for as little as a year before being disrupted by another. The corollary, of course, is that if you don’t keep up, you’re dead. Responsive design doesn’t just apply to content or devices anymore, but also to skills and processes within clients and agencies. Holistic, integrated solutions are required, but keep in mind—these are hard to pull off within siloed organizations.


Volkswagen’s experience in China is about more than selling cars. It’s a real-time preview of the future of digital marketing for the rest of us. Who’s up for the opportunity? Because what we choose to learn from this experience, and how we apply it to our own markets and organizations, may also determine our own futures.