The London 2012 Olympic Games is over, but not quite the aftermath.
Despite near-universal agreement that it was a great success and a spectacle hugely enjoyed by most of the world, only China seems to have emerged a little disgruntled.
After gaining top spot in the medals table on their home turf in Beijing four years ago, China feels the pain of coming second in London to its arch-rival, the USA.
There were other dramas along the way that niggled China where it had a right to feel aggrieved – like the farcical badminton ‘racket’ and less acceptably, the doping innuendo thrown at 15-year old Ye Shiwen. Worst of all is conceding Olympian bragging rights to Uncle Sam.
That is akin to a thousand daggers puncturing the red balloon of national pride: “We have lost what was ours to the imperialist power that is trying to contain China everywhere, but China will rise regardless!!!” wrote an excitable netizen in terminology that echoes the 1960s. If this seems old-fashioned patriotism blood-red in tooth-and-claw, well, it is – and it reaches far and deep within China’s national psyche.
Yili advertising campaign
Take the Yili advertising campaign in London, for example. Londoners can be forgiven if they found themselves totally mystified at seeing 400 of London’s red (it’s difficult not to evade the symbolism of the colour) Routemaster buses sporting ads in a Chinese script – and occasionally in English – featuring smiley Chinese people. Who wouldn’t do a double-take of the double-deckers when catching a glimpse of what was presumably Chinese advertising on the No.13 bus trundling up Oxford Street or past Croydon’s railway station? Few of London’s denizens would know that Yili is actually a Mongolian milk brand with substantial consumer awareness in China, for both good and bad reasons.
But then, we assume that Yili’s London campaign wasn’t really aimed at building brand awareness among Londoners. It was targeted at Chinese consumers over 5,000 miles away and affluent Chinese tourists visiting London, propagating a message of healthy living on the back of Olympic sports.
The two elderly, kind Chinese faces smiling from the London bus ads are part of the brand’s protracted storytelling: they’re a retired couple backpacking around the world to fulfil their own personal Olympic challenge, a journey they started during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The London bus ads themselves are an extension of a clever integrated brand marketing campaign of print ads, microfilms, TVCs and digital engagement created by Ogilvy & Mather China, using the slogan ‘Let’s Olympic Together’ (not that many Londoners would notice it on Chinese language ads). Within a week of launching the ‘Happy Backpackers’ microfilm last April on Youku (China’s answer to YouTube, which is banned there) it had attracted more than one million views.
Why should the Yili campaign be thought of as ‘clever’ when it is so self-evidently bizarre and incomprehensible for UK citizens?
Clever brand positioning
It’s all about Ries and Trout brand positioning, is it not? A brilliant book I first read while working in Bangkok in the early 1980s and which is now received wisdom for marketers world-wide.
First of all, Yili’s campaign cashed in on the patriotic fervour which the Olympics aroused in China. You could say that Yili milk flows naturally (in both senses of the word) into the national spirit. All of China’s eyes were on London 2012 this year, investing peoples’ hopes and aspirations in the performance of its athletes. Yili associated itself with this patriotic fervour by becoming a standard bearer of national pride on the streets of a European capital city, not just in the sports arena.
Secondly, Yili has had a lot of brand reputation rebuilding to do after it featured in two major health scandals. One of them was in 2008 when its ice-cream and yogurt products were found to be contaminated with melamine (to be fair, Yili was not the only dairy company implicated in the scandal). The other health scare erupted as recently as June 2012 (rather inconveniently as it was during the brand’s build-up to the Games) when ‘unusual’ concentrations of mercury were detected in its Quan You baby formula brand. Yili immediately recalled its product from supermarket shelves, employing Johnson & Johnson’s slam dunk best practice in rescuing a brand reputation.
The third reason why the London bus campaign has a smart brand cleverness about it is because Yili found a way to establish a local presence when in reality it had absolutely none. Its products aren’t sold in British supermarkets. It has no awareness in the UK market.
Yili occupies a psychological place
Yet the brand managed to occupy what Professor John Quelch of the China Europe Business School calls (in his book All Business is Local ) ‘psychological place’, lending Yili an internationalism and geographical presence that in reality doesn’t exist, yet seemed to in the minds of the Chinese consumer: it’s just the “longing for the excitement and allure of the ‘there’. Here may be familiar and safe, but the foreign and exotic has its own appeal.”
The Chinese consumer is becoming “international and modern, but not Western”, says China ad guru Tom Doctoroff, who has more than 20 years’ experience in China dissecting its consumer and marketing anthropology. Yili played on that while positioning the brand in a far-away psychological place that hosted an event appealing to Chinese patriotism.
It seems to me that the Yili London red bus campaign is an extension of these branding insights and that O&M China has been masterful in crafting a campaign incorporating them, working to help rehabilitate a brand that’s sustained reputational damage in its home market.
And though China’s nationalistic citizens might feel miffed at coming second to the USA in the medals table, Yili has done itself many favours by simply ‘being there’ – in London – for them, the Chinese people, curdling milk with red-blooded patriotism. All conveyed by London’s buses.