Word of mouth (WOM) recommendations of friends and family (F&F) have been consistently rated as the number one driver of purchase across countries. According to Nielsen’s 2011 Global Trust in Advertising study, 92% of people trust WOM recommendations from friends and family, while the same figure for TV is almost half at 47% and online video sits at 36%.
Chinese Consumers Trust WOM Even More
WOM of Friends and Family is far more powerful in China and other emerging markets, compared to developed markets. A 2010 McKinsey study on mobile phones purchase showed that WOM was the leading factor at all stages of the consumer decision journey in developing markets, while in mature markets it was No. 3 (refer figure below).
Source: “A new way to Measure Word of Mouth Marketing”, McKinsey Quarterly, April ‘2010
In another McKinsey study, 68% of Chinese consumers said they would consider F&F recommendations when choosing a moisturizer compared with just 38% of respondents in the US and UK.
There are three key reasons why WOM is more powerful in China, compared to other markets.
1. History of Information Control by Government
Most people in China under the age of 70 did not see any commercial advertising until the early 1980s. Even by the end of that decade, there was only one TV channel and very few magazines and newspapers. When more channels became available in the 90s, the content was controlled. Censorship of programming continues even now. Thus, Chinese consumers have long trusted the informal word of mouth within their social network more than any other means of communication. Over the last decade, the digital revolution has massively boosted the scale and speed of this social exchange of information and opinion. It is like Chinese whispers on steroids.
2. Product Proliferation, Contamination and Counterfeiting
Chinese consumers are faced with a huge amount of new products, some of which are in categories they have never tried before. Mouthwash for example is used by less than 10% of Chinese households. Additionally, counterfeiting and sub-standard manufacturing are not uncommon. Thus knowing that somebody trusted has had a positive experience with a new product is a huge reassurance.
3. A Culture of Fitting in
“A nail that sticks out gets hammered in” might be a Japanese proverb but it applies even in China. In general, people find comfort and security in group think and following (as opposed to leading). Individualism is not as prized as in the West. Taking cues from what others around you are consuming is the norm.
However, Most WOM Marketing in China is Currently Unauthentic
Marketers in China are well aware of the massive influence of WOM in their categories. However, most WOM marketing activity currently in China reflects the old broadcast model mentality. Brand managers are busy collecting fans and followers so that they can push messages at them in the hope that they will then retweet/share it further. Celebrity bloggers have a rate card and can be bought.
Encouragingly, there are Some Early Signs of Authentic Advocacy in China
As people in the WOMM community well know, Brand Advocacy can be unleashed for even mundane and low involvement products. The Fiskateers community created by Brains on Fire for FISKARS, the scissor brand, is a good example of this. Even in China, progressive marketers like Reckitt Benckiser are embracing Advocates led marketing and enjoying high ROI. On Dettol, one of its global power brands, Reckitt Benckiser China has built a community of over 30,000 moms over a period of 12 months. These moms are spreading the word about Dettol offline and online. Over 25,000 authentic consumer reviews, comments, and photos now exist online about Dettol, a low involvement antiseptic liquid. This authentic user content optimized for search engines is influencing and converting other consumers 24/7. Besides advocating Dettol within their social circle, these consumers have also helped the brand team create and validate new messaging and product ideas, in half the time and cost of the traditional approach. They are now pretty much like an extended marketing team on Dettol.
More importantly, the high ROI of the Dettol Advocates community has been conclusively proven by brand tracking. Over three waves of tracking, the geographies with the Advocates community far outperformed other geographies on all brand health indicators.
Key Takeway: WOM recommendations are a powerful purchase driver, more so in emerging markets with a high trust deficit like China. To efficiently and effectively generate such authentic recommendations, brands need to build a community of advocates and engage with them in a sustained and authentic manner. This requires a mindset change and new skills.
It is time we say goodbye to the 1950s model of brand marketing pioneered by P&G, which relies on brand content around a big idea. Community, Collaboration, and Conversation need to be the focus from now on. Authentic Advocacy that drives growth at a fraction of traditional media cost will be the prized outcome.