Lessons from China on marketing through a recovery

Execs from McCann's Asia outposts suggest brands may shift from reassurances to rallying cries.

Chinese Recovery

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of strategy.

Just as China had begun to reawaken its economy in late March, Canada was entering its own pandemic-induced coma. The country is weeks behind China on the COVID curve and many are looking to the recovery-stage market for clues on what to expect next. Indeed, the countries’ culture, politics, societies and economies are different – but the human experience of living through a pandemic is universally the same.

Uncertainty during a crisis breeds panic and fear. In response, we saw brands in Canada and China communicate with empathy and support during the outbreak phase. Companies reassured people that this, too, shall pass. Retailers shared the measures they were taking to keep people safe and supply chains moving.

Soon, when Canadians start to emerge from their homes, brand messaging could shift from reassurances to rallying cries as companies try to kickstart the economy, Jessica Davey, CMO of McCann Worldgroup Asia Pacific tells strategy on a call in April.

Based in Singapore, Davey had just presented case studies from her Chinese clients to the Canadian arm of the global network. In them, brands were shown taking a pull-up-our-sleeves approach, encouraging citizens to rebuild the economy by simply living their lives.

China recoveryCommercials from payment platform Alipay, for example, applauded people for returning to their daily lives in reawakened cities, while celebrating “City Life Week” and partnering with businesses to encourage shopping by offering discounts through Alipay’s platform.

Suzanne Zhang, CSO for McCann in China also pointed to Baidu, one of the world’s largest tech companies that’s based in Beijing, as a brand that’s offering “utility and practical ways” to help people get back to “normal life.” Baidu created the #CitiesAreAwakening campaign, with updates on restaurants and stores as they gradually opened. “We’re also seeing a trend in brands playing a more supportive role in enabling people to feel more emotionally positive in the long-term,” she says.

Canada’s brands, however, may have a harder time driving consumer spending. A McKinsey report from April shows that 55% of Chinese consumers were optimistic about an economic recovery post-pandemic – versus just 20% of Canadians. Nielsen also reports that, because of wage and income support being slow to take effect, consumer confidence in Canada may be lower than in other parts of the world.

However, Davey and Zhang suggest brands drive purchase behaviour by celebrating the new rituals that were picked up while sheltering-in-place, from better hygiene and online shopping to reading and exercising.

“A lot of the brands that are resonating with consumers are being quite open about the fact that this is a journey,” says Davey. “They’re getting back to work, and getting products back on the shelves, but they’re not saying ‘It’s business as usual.’… Things shifted in society that won’t shift back. And those that are winning are saying, ‘Different things matter to you now that didn’t matter three months ago, and we’re listening.’”