‘Business is Boring’ is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.
In just a few years since the groundbreaking Free Trade Agreement in 2008, China has become one of our biggest and most important trading partners. Chinese migration, culture and market tastes really matter for the country. But how many people doing business here have really put the effort into understanding the market? One person that saw this wave and got on early is Simon Young, an online and social media marketing and communications expert who is on an amazing journey learning Mandarin, getting to grips with a very different social media landscape, and helping local businesses connect through his company SyEngage and his professional network the Red Circle.
What’s the role of influencers in social media? In the western world, especially across Instagram, influencers are so important in social media. What’s it like in China?
The influence economy is big in China. You’ve got the people with huge followings on Weibo. Yao Chen is an actress in China who was New Zealand’s brand ambassador. She happened to get married in New Zealand as well which I don’t think was part of the deal but good on her. When I mentioned that to a friend who worked in marketing in China, she said ‘oh yeah she’s also a brand ambassador for our instant noodles brand and, like, 47 other brands.’ So there’s a certain amount of dilution that happens when people know that. People are taking on too many sponsorships and endorsements and people are also very much aware that posts are for sale. There’s a commercial aspect to it and people tend to devalue what they say.
Just as in the west, there’s a sweet spot. Real influencers are the ones with maybe thousands and not millions of fans. But they really engage with them, they really care. As we’ve been trying to build our own channel, what we call in English, My New Zealand, we’ve been really trying to emphasise that these are real people. And when they comment to us, we comment back. So they know they’re actually interacting with a real person, it’s not just a brand.
In terms of scale, if you look at a brand going into China. Let’s say that they get an influencer to talk about them through the wechat platform and people are excited about the product, they expect to be able to buy the product within the platform. Kind of like joining your Amazon and Facebook together. What’s the scale? One of the things that always blows my mind when I talk to people about China is they say ‘we thought we had a success, and then we couldn’t keep up with it.’
That is a big problem for almost every New Zealand brand. By nature, we’re a niche producer. We don’t have huge capacity, and often the minimum capacity that Chinese distributors are looking for is beyond our wildest dreams if we could have that many orders. It’s a tough one for New Zealand. It’s a tough one for branding, actually. Because of that very scarcity, New Zealand needs to become very premium and sometimes ultra premium, but we’re not used to that as a country.
This is the other question that people ask: what is New Zealand culture? And I say it’s laid back and it’s be yourself and it’s bare bones and it’s improvised. But that doesn’t really fit in with this super ultra luxurious where people will be benchmarking against France and Italy. And we don’t do France and Italy. We do good quality stuff but we don’t have the prestige that’s been built up over hundreds of years that those countries do.