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What brands can learn from China: the world’s leading experience accelerator

When it comes to connecting offline with online, the ecosystem in China is the most advanced in the world. As a result, brands are increasing their business growth through strategically designed experiences, making China the world’s leading accelerator when it comes to experience.

The connected data ‘ecosystems’ that have been created by companies like Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu in China have a higher user base and a wider range of features than their US counterparts.

Take Tencent’s platform WeChat for example. Its true success lies in the integration of offline to online behaviour that’s achieved through driving the full adoption of QR codes. With a low barrier to entry, QR codes are used by almost everyone in China in the offline (or physical) world to connect to new users and collect information in physical spaces. The other key feature is WeChat pay, which enables to brand to collect data on who the person is, what purchases they made and where they made them. This gives them the opportunity to link the data to the other behaviours including QR scanning in physical spaces, online social sharing, online browsing and content views.

Seen from a Western perspective, there are some contextual factors to understand this culture of data sharing. In China the technology platforms started out by flooding the market with incentives, to encourage wide customer adoption. This rapidly created a large user base, used to providing personal data and location data in exchange for rewards.

Chinese customers have shared their data to enjoy the benefits of incentives alongside integrated and convenient services, leading to near-universal adoption rates. But how does the ecosystem in China allows the true power of experience to be realised and accelerate business and brand growth?

1. Offline on demand

The fully connected online system, driven by vast amounts of behavioural data, is vital when it comes to fuelling physical brand experiences. Luckin’ Coffee is a Chinese brand having great success competing against Starbucks in China.

Luckin’ Coffee has created an on-demand service where the premium coffee is delivered directly to a customer’s location. This means Luckin’ Coffee enjoys a far greater ‘share of mind’ by being visible on smartphones or in customers hands, rather than only being visible when customers see a physical store.

Even their physical store strategy is driven by data, with a range of different formats. From micro pop-ups to larger, immersive brand formats. The location and format of these are defined by the rich data from the Chinese digital system, which is based on actual audience behaviour, not by surveys or estimates.

2. Socially connected pop-ups

Brands in China are creating unique moments at pop-up experiences that are designed to be captured. These moments become fully personalised user generated content which can be instantly shared via scanning a QR code using WeChat. WeChat followers can see the content too, leading to increased social advocacy and ultimately more click-throughs to, and sales from, the brand space in WeChat.

We worked with Ford to amplify the traditional car show environment with the Connected Innovation Studio. It features digital experiences and content accessed via QR codes and amplified via WeChat.

The experience pushes the boundaries of VR by combining the latest technology with an advanced articulated seating platform. Guests are transported into a virtual driving seat, taking a ride in the full range of Ford SUVs, tackling a series of scenarios designed to test each vehicle. The experience is enhanced by the articulated platform — enabling guests to both see and feel every detail. Guests can then scan a QR code to retrieve a personalised film of the experience.

By utilising the latest in immersive technology, Ford has been able to build a deeper bond with its customers. The average dwell time at the experience was 45 minutes, with 66% of visitors planning to follow Ford’s WeChat and 51% planning a post-show visit to a Ford dealer.

3. Multi-purpose spaces

Alibaba coined the term ‘new retail’ to describe the seamless blend from online to offline efficiency, with a focus on experience centres, logistics centres and retail spaces. This helped to transform retail design by turning stores into multi-purpose spaces that combine brand home, product demonstrations and experience.

The Nike House of Innovation in Shanghai is a leading example of ‘new retail’ in action. The store artfully blends product demonstrations, expert hosting, spatial design and a seamless journey that’s personalised around a customer’s data. For example, the ‘Nike By You’ customisation stations where a designer can personalise a visitor’s footwear, which is integrated with the dedicated NikePlus App. Visitors can also take part in digitally led training sessions in the Centre Court space. The entire space has over 40 content moments triggered by customers as they approach proximity sensors.

Seamless conversion to sales is provided via the Instant Checkout space that allows items that are reserved via the app to be collected from lockers and the results speak for themselves. By the end of 2018, the venue was attracting over 30,000 visitors per day and had gathered 85 million WeChat impressions, this is truly a testament to ‘new retail’ in action.

In the world of technology, the all-new VIVO experience in Shenzhen epitomises the next generation of multi-purpose spaces offering more than product specification stories, while tapping into a deeper, more connected level of communication. VIVO understands the value in allowing consumers to share and express their individuality and creates incredible products, which not only facilitate self-expression but actively improve and enrich the experience of photography.

Working with VIVO, Imagination designed an immersive photography journey that takes visitors on a four-stage journey to build personal change through exploration, knowledge, creativity and connection. This voyage unfolds inside the VIVO lab through 10 immersive experiences that emotionally connect visitors to the VIVO world and allows them to create, share and craft their own photo moments through colour and light.

4. Offline Sensory luxury

In China, luxury brands are taking full advantage of the online ecosystem to drive engagement and sales. However, there’s also a counter-culture to go fully offline and disconnect, plus the desire for live entertainment is unabated in China. Experiences are becoming a powerful way for HNW consumers and millennials to connect on an emotional and physical level, while also embracing the ‘friction’ of real life in all its forms.

Take luxury alcohol for example. Investors in China are prepared to spend in excess of £100,000 on a bottle of vintage Scottish Whisky. Their expectations for experiences have led to the creation of ultra-exclusive members clubs and experience centres which are based around sensory pleasure, craftsmanship and authentic brand immersion. In these spaces, customers are demanding an enhanced form of human interaction that will never be met by automated drinks servers, or staff who are not subject experts.

The insatiable demand for authentic, offline experiences means that it’s becoming a luxury, not a commodity, where consumers are continuing to pay for ever-advancing immersive experiences which will inspire them. Of course, this can also serve to increase their appetite to purchase products and services. Therefore, an integrated retail offer is essential, but it must be sensitively designed to maintain the magic of the moment.

The new wave of Chinese brands expanding their businesses outside China will no doubt harness their expertise in the blended offline/online experience, and brands in other APAC countries, and around the world, should take heed, or risk being left behind.

Sam McMorran is group creative director, China and Christophe Castagnera is head of connected experience at Imagination Group.

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