James Buchan: No parachutes required. How fast, smart, digitally aware companies can break into the lucrative Eastern markets

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James Buchan
James Buchan

When James Bond wanted to get into Asia, albeit North Korea, he dived out of a high- altitude stealth plane, parachuted into the sea and surfed ashore under the guns of watchful guards.

There are many markets in Asia, the greatest of which, of course, is China, but many UK businesses appear to feel that the perils and obstacles of trying to get into them would challenge even MI6’s gung-ho agent.

Certainly, Scottish companies appeared to be shying away from the boundless opportunities available when our specialist digital agency successfully exhibited last month at the region’s biggest trade show, the massive Food and Hotel China, which attracted 91,000 trade buyers and 2,450 exhibiting companies from 69 countries.

And it is fair to say that there are reasons for reticence among companies considering taking the plunge into a very foreign marketplace. There is the language, of course, but even seemingly simple things like digital communication methods or business etiquette can prove problematic. The challenges carry through to employment, legal, regulatory and tax structures.

Many of these issues can be overcome by finding a trusted Chinese partner who shares their vision and has similar values. But when successfully established enterprises turn their concentration to marketing, there are still more surprises in store.

Travelling around China last month – a process which was significantly less stressful than in the UK – it was impossible not to be impressed by the huge strides China has taken towards a very efficient, digital and, in many cases, cashless economy.

For instance, KFC has made huge inroads into the fast food market by selling China-specific menus, majoring on rice, and carefully listening to the demands of a high-demanding consumer market. Of course, all the menus have QR codes and payment is linked to AliPay and WeChat Pay. In many restaurants you can scan a QR code, pay and order to your table without having to leave your seat.

Similarly, on the Bullet Train, food can be ordered from the QR code on the seat armrest. It is linked to a WeChat mini app and food is delivered to the customer’s seat from delivery drivers who will arrive at each station.

If the train is a bit pacy, travellers can download an app and rent a bike by scanning the QR code to unlock one of the hundreds of rental cycles on city street corners. Even street beggars are tech enabled, with QR codes which allow you to donate to them without rummaging around for change.

The same simplicity of transaction applies to mobile phone chargers, restaurant wifi, paying the bus fare, exploring tourist attractions or even making a donation at one of the many temples. The mobile centric population has developed in ways which outclass methods in the west. Supermarkets such as the HiTun has revolutionised shopping, letting customers shop in store and have everything delivered to their door within minutes.

These kinds of opportunities are ripe for the picking for fast, sharp, digitally aware UK companies who are ready to make transactions smooth and user friendly for a market in the hundreds of millions of customers.

WeChat’s app had 902 million daily logged in users by November 2017 and that will only have increased by now. The platform is more than just social media, it is a way of life for many Chinese. No more procrastinating over lengthy business emails, no more cash transactions and no more credit cards. Paying bills, ordering subscriptions, buying groceries and conducting business deals can all be done on WeChat, made even easier for international communication through an instant digital message translation.

WeChat and other Chinese digital platforms can be used by UK companies to promote products or services, engage with the audience and create complex mini-programs (think an app within an app) to improve process and create a better customer experience.

As became very clear to us on our travels in China the needs and interests of the Chinese are changing and it is vital for companies who want to trade there to keep up with new marketing trends and practices.

So, what’s the take-away for Scottish businesses who fancy the prospect of entering the Chinese market but are unsure of how to do so? It’s simple, speak to someone who knows how it works.

James Buchan is Managing Director of specialist digital marketing agency Zudu.

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