Using Tmall and Staying on Brand
What is Tmall?
Any brand looking to sell on Chinese e-commerce platforms should think about opening a Tmall store. Owned by Alibaba, Tmall.com is a Chinese language website for B2C retail. Combined with Alibaba’s other platform, Taobao, the two sites have over 750 million mobile MAU and Tmall is the world’s third most popular website. The concept is in the name: brands have their own page on the platform that act as their own store within the wider “mall”.
In 2014, Tmall launched a new branch of the site, Tmall Global. Tmall Global allows retailers without a legal presence in China to tap into the Chinese market through cross-border e-commerce. Its raison d’être is to help foreign brands gain access to China.
Whether non-Chinese brands opt for Tmall Classic, Tmall Global, or both, they have to seek support from a Tmall partner (TP). A TP is an agency that offers a range of services that allow a non-Chinese brand to sell and compete on Tmall’s platforms. This includes setting up a Tmall page; management; customer service; in-platform advertising; even creative. Different TPs may offer more comprehensive services than others and each deal with each client varies in size and scope. TPs are not to be confused with more comprehensive marketing agencies, their expertise tend to lie only in Tmall. When thinking about choosing a TP, there are a few things that should be considered carefully.
What do you specifically want out of a TP?
Transparency: A lot of Western brands tend to put China operations in something of a “black box”. They want to profit from the massive consumer base there but find the prospect of engaging with such a challenging market daunting. Consequently, companies often outsource work that they should be watching over with more scrutiny. Make sure your TP is open about what they are doing and how things are going. Brands should maintain ownership of the store data and insist on clear, regular reporting on the store’s activities.
Good relations with Alibaba: While every TP exists because they have been given permission to support foreign brands on Tmall, the closer their relationship with Alibaba, the better. While business across every culture relies on networks, the importance of personal contacts in China is often articulated through the much-used word guanxi 关系 (connections; relations). Good relations with Alibaba help to bring unpaid traffic to Tmall pages that are run by the TP.
A good customer service team: Chinese online consumers expect prompt responses from merchants and are likely to move onto alternative choices if their needs are not met quickly enough. Unlike in the West, the overwhelming majority of online purchases in China involve some kind of interaction between the merchant and buyer through direct messaging. Consequently TPs really need to be on top of customer service.
An understanding of your brand: When working with a TP, brands should make sure they know what they want before letting an agent run their page. Seeking consultancy from China marketing experts in the West is a good way to begin. This point ties in with the need for transparency too.
What type of brands does the TP already support?
You are more likely to get the best out of a TP if they already have experience helping brands that have something in common with your own. It’s always good to gain a good understanding of all the potential TPs out there before homing in on one that is the best fit.
What is a TP not for?
A TP specialises in the day to day management of a Tmall page, hence the importance of customer service and good relations with Alibaba. However, TPs are not all-encompassing agencies for marketing in China across different platforms. Digital agencies with expertise in wider China strategy can help companies to keep on brand across platforms and maintain a consistent identity in China.
One thing to consider is the layout of a Tmall page – especially for luxury brands. Tmall pages can be customised to fit a brand aesthetic and if marketing managers aren’t overlooking their presence on Chinese e-commerce, it’s easy to let a TP display the brand in a way that isn’t consistent with the rest of the world, or even consistent with other channels in China. An off-brand channel can risk alienating consumers, or worse.
In short, TPs provide a great and necessary service for selling on China’s largest e-commerce platform. However, they are only one part of the wider puzzle in marketing your brand across the Chinese digital eco-system.