A more competitive market in China means conservative marketing tactics do not always cut it. Clients must find ways be more creative to win over consumers. One tried and true method is storytelling – so how is China doing on the storytelling front? A few Shanghai-based creatives weigh in on how China’s ad industry is utilizing the world’s oldest tool to invigorate a new market.
Once upon a time | 很久很久以前
Storytelling is a universal tool. An innocent child to the most hardened soul understands a good story. It is what seals a couples’ love when we ask ‘how did you meet’ or solidifies a community’s purpose when they rally around a shared identity. Well told stories are like fibers that connect all of humanity, regardless of what language or culture you are part of.
It’s no surprise then that storytelling has become the prized tool of advertisers the world around as a way to win over the hearts and minds of consumers. In response to a pickier consumer base that needs to feel an emotional connection or a compelling reason to buy from one brand over another, Chinese marketeers are increasingly turning to storytelling tactics.
Nina Kong, a strategist from Ogilvy, Shanghai, shared with SHP+ in an interview, that she has been pleasantly surprised in the last year that local Chinese brands are coming to them referencing a John Lewis campaign, which many in the ad industry revere as one of the best pieces of branded storytelling in recent years. This doesn’t mean clients take all the suggestions of the creative agencies even if they come to the first meeting with John Lewis as their reference. “There is this aspiration” Nina says she sees but clients are still not willing to risk “making their content their brand”.
Nina Kong来自上海奥美，负责广告策划，她接受了SHP+的采访，她表示，去年甚至也有中国本土品牌找到奥美，想要打造John Lewis百货一样的广告，John Lewis是近年来广告界备受尊崇很擅长讲故事的品牌，这让Nina很惊讶，也很欣喜。但即使第一次跟客户开会时，讲了John Lewis广告作参考，也并不意味着客户会采纳广告公司提出的所有建议。Nina表示，客户“有这样的渴望”，但是她也注意到，客户还不愿意冒险，直接把“把广告内容和品牌混在一起”。
China still has a tendency to fall back on ad campaigns that only reveal the product or service as picture-perfect rather than connecting it to the customers’ reality. “Good storytelling is about being honest” Ng Tian It, currently the Chief Creative Officer at McCann Worldgroup China with over 25 years experience in advertising, shared with SHP+. It takes courage for a brand to put itself out there but in the end this last and most difficult step is perhaps why China’s ads are still not making many ripples outside its own market.
中国广告依然倾向于展示产品和服务的完美状态，还不是真实消费场景。“好的故事关键是要坦诚”，Ng Tian It如是告知SHP+，他是麦肯中国首席创意官，已有25多年的广告从业经验。品牌展现真实的自己还是需要一些勇气的，但勇气正是最艰难的决定，或许正因如此，中国广告依然没能在海外市场激起太多涟漪.
A spot put out this year by McCann with more emphasis on storytelling than simply pushing the product.
Client 客户: Jomoo 九牧; Agency 广告公司: McCann; Production 制片：Black & Cameron;
Director 导演: Tao Wright; Post 后期: White Pixel
The quest for authenticity | 追求纯真
One strategy Chinese brands have been open to testing as a sort of gateway to more authentic connections between the brand and customer is the use of KOLs. KOL’s can “fill the gap between business and consumers” Mark Kong, Executive Creative Director of Amber, explained in an interview, “Chinese customers tend to trust someone they view as a ‘real person’ which they get by following them on social media”. KOLs are useful so long as the individual fits with the brand’s identity but often a client is simply attracted to the KOLs high number of followers.
The goal of authenticity is somewhat lost when the KOL does not actually match with the brand’s message and KOLs become “an extension of celebrity endorsement” Nina reiterated. “There is a reason brands use celebrity endorsement and it can work really well, but with KOLs or celebrity endorsement it comes down to brands being smart and understanding exactly which market segment they are targeting and therefore which particular brand ambassador is appropriate for their brand”.
Angelababy, celebrity endorsement in recent adidas Originals winter jakcet campaign by Amber China
Authenticity by its definition cannot be faked or copied. It also cannot be rushed or forced and this is perhaps where China’s rapid pace of development does not help but actually hurts the blossoming of its creativity.
On the road | 在路上
“Insight and relevancy comes from a deep understanding of contemporary culture. In this way we have to be more selective and smart in our way of storytelling”. Kong from Amber continued, “it’s not just about telling a story it’s about telling the real stories of everyday people; it’s not searching for a particular story but letting the audience tell it authentically”.
Client 客户: Holiday Inn 假日酒店; Agency 广告公司: Ogilvy; ECD: Darren Crawforth;
Production 制片：Media Monks; Director 导演: Jason Wong ; Strategy 战略: Nina Kong, Alex Runne
This year Holiday Inn’s 4th installation of its “Moments of Joy” campaign created by Ogilvy, Shanghai is an example of authentic, customer-driven storytelling in China. The content is almost too good to be true for the brand. Nina, who is on the Holiday Inn account at Ogilvy, has taken family vacations at Holiday Inns her whole life. When strategizing for compelling content she realized her family story was the perfect fit for the brand’s message. The campaign brought in offline elements as well, adding a 3D ‘Smile Sofa’ at select Holiday Inn’s and Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, where consumers could take pictures and sit on the sofa to ‘create their own moments of joy’.
To find more real stories the team spent time talking with Holiday Inn staff to gather more insights and stories that were used to create content which was coming from actual Holiday Inn guests and employees. This is precisely what Erik Ingvoldstad, the founder of Acoustic Group in Singapore calls “story listening” .Clients and agencies must find a way to “humanize a very common relationship or dynamic in society that sparks people’s inner emotions, making them laugh or cry” Nina put it succinctly.
为了搜集更多真实的故事，创意团队也找到了假日酒店员工，聆听他们的看法和故事，创作内容融入了酒店宾客和员工的故事。这正是新加坡Acoustic Group创始人Erik Ingvoldstad所谓的“聆听故事”的概念，” 客户和广告公司都必须找到一种方式，“把非常常见的人际关系和社会动态变得人性化，激发人们的内在情感，让人们有哭有笑”，Nina把这种方式简单概括为此。
This Holiday Inn example, however, is just the tip of the iceberg for more 360, multidimensional campaigns. A whole other level of data storytelling, such as the campaign Uber launched with RGA Singapore this year, which China’s ad market has barely begun to entertain in its storytelling efforts.
Can storytelling break cultural walls? | 讲故事会打破文化障碍吗？
How does culture factor into all of this? And do cultural differences mean that some campaigns will only be successful in certain markets? Li San Shui, the founder of Shanghai creative agency W, on the topic of culture’s role in advertising said, “Culture is what creates a community’s value system, and storytelling is the medium through which a culture is portrayed to others. Traditional Chinese culture stems from an agricultural and farming background, valuing family ties and kinship, whereas western culture prizes individualism, exploration and reflection on social issues. These stereotypical traditions and cultural preferences we then see reflected in the media landscape, and are actually becoming more important and more pronounced”.
A spot released this year which received a lot of commentary from Chinese netizen for the story’s message.
A spot released in early November this year for China Merchant’s Bank, entitled ”The world is not bigger than a fried tomato omelette“ tells a timely story for Chinese families whose kids study abroad. The over four minutes spot was widely watched and commented on in Chinese social media. While many viewers admitted to tearing up, others were highly critical of the portrayal of this young Chinese boy studying abroad who doesn’t know how to cook a simple tomato omelette and selfishly calls his parents in the middle of the night. Whether the viewer agrees with the message, the spot is certainly a step in the direction of creating more engaging content. It has sparked a dialogue among viewers by pinpointing a relevant issue in Chinese society. All this to promote a credit card.
Arguably, the sign of the best stories are those that all cultures can comprehend and relate to, even if it’s not about your own culture and even if you disagree with the message. This is why spots from other markets and cultures can be used as references in vastly different markets so long as the spot tells a convincing tale.
The ultimate marker for China’s ad industry will be when a Chinese spot becomes a known reference for another market’s advertising campaign. In terms of production quality, this goal may not be far off. Mark Kong from Amber tells SHP+ “it’s an exciting time to be in China because you can experiment more than in other markets”. It is precisely this laboratory environment, where outside ideas are brought in and mixed with ancient and contemporary Chinese culture, that create stories which we can all be proud to be a part of.