A Look Back on Alibaba Single’s Day 2019 and Beyond

On Wednesday 20th November, we at Verb China went down to Alibaba’s London office to attend their event “Alibaba Single’s Day 2019 and Beyond”. It was a series of talks and Q&A sessions with some of Alibaba’s team, introducing what they do, as well as a few insights into some British brands’ experiences selling in China.

The morning kicked off with a presentation by David Lloyd, UK managing director of Alibaba Group. He took us through what the Alibaba Group encompasses and what it has to offer, all in order to meet their group mission: “to make it easy to do business anywhere”. Alibaba is much more than its main e-commerce platforms, Taobao and Tmall. The group provides financial services through Ant Financial, including the world’s leading mobile payment service Alipay; logistics services with Cai Niao; a growing number of bricks and mortar food stores with Freshippo; and powerful data services with the Alibaba Cloud.

Moving on to Single’s Day, Lloyd gave a rundown of what Single’s Day (or Double Eleven for its November 11th date) is, its development as a major date for e-commerce since its launch in 2008, and the stats from this year – namely the staggering $38.4bn GMV moved this year. We talk about what Single’s Day means for luxury brands in particular in another post here.

Following Lloyd’s introduction, the first of two “Tmall case studies” was given, which consisted of an in-conversation interview with Ntola Obazee, trading director at the quintessentially British pottery brand Emma Bridgewater. Emma Bridgewater make 80% of their sales online, which may come as a surprise until you realise that aside from a few stores in London, Bicester village, and their factory in Stoke, their pretty pottery isn’t stocked in many stores across the UK. 

Obazee spoke about how establishing your brand in the Chinese market is a tough but rewarding process and needs commitment. She reminded brands in the room that they cannot expect to pop up in China and start moving products overnight – brands, especially smaller ones, need to cultivate their image and plan strategy anew like it’s day one again. Obazee also stressed the importance of finding and securing a reliable Tmall partner (TP) – agents who help foreign brands market and distribute on Tmall. With the introduction of Tmall Global in 2014, Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms have become a lot more accessible for foreign brands and they can, in theory, sell in China without any assistance. However, a TP can always help with more localised issues such as returns and also just running the page – an overwhelming majority of purchases over Tmall include an exchange in direct messages between the consumer and a representative from the merchant.

Next up was a presentation and another in-conversation interview with Darren Goode, president of corporate & commercial at Elvie, the rapidly growing women’s health brand. Goode again stressed the importance of building up brand identity to adjust to the Chinese market. That’s not to say that brands should totally reinvent themselves, they just need to be cognisant that changes will need to be made and to listen to their colleagues advising on local marketing. After Goode showed us a promotional video for Elvie’s breast pump, an audience member asked if they had considered changing the model in the video to a woman of East Asian descent. Goode said that it was one of the first considerations they made but that their marketing advisors didn’t feel it was necessary. It just goes to show that brands need to be prepared for localisation changes but that there is no need to go overboard either. Ultimately, Elvie are enjoying impressive growth in the Chinese market thanks to their progressive women’s biotech products.

Things to take away for luxury brands:

Of course the need to spend time carefully cultivating an identity in China is important for any brand but for luxury brands this is particularly crucial. Maintaining an air of distinction only comes from carefully moulding your brand long term, treating customers with extra care, and providing innovative marketing and consumer experiences. This might simply begin with the curation of a Tmall store – while the layout is rather formulaic, tasteful product images and colour schemes can still stand out. 

Finding a reliable TP and other channels of China-focused support, such as digital marketing, will only help to improve localisation adjustments and crack the necessary tone of voice for a new market. 

Alibaba’s services are useful to anyone wishing to sell in China but luxury brands should think twice before diving into everything within the Alisphere. Sure, Single’s Day is a massive opportunity to move goods but slashing prices doesn’t do much for maintaining an element of distinction – luxury names don’t want to get trapped in a “race to the bottom”. They need to let consumers know that they’re not cheap and it’s going to stay that way, accumulating a long-term loyal customer base.