Startup Lessons Learned Scaling a Brand and Community in China
It’s not easy growing a business internationally. Foreign markets and cultures add a lot of extra challenges. In the case of China, growing your business here requires even more of an iron fist. You have to actively protect your brand. In my opinion, control is THE key factor for foreign brand success in China.
Over the last year, my job at Techstars Community Programs (formerly UP Global) has been managing our regional development in Greater China. We have some programs to help accelerate and scale successful businesses and educate entrepreneurs, like Startup Weekend and Startup Next.
To survive (and thrive) in China, we’ve had to take steps to make sure things are under our management. These changes were hard startup lessons learned.
Gaining control (and understanding from that control) have helped us. Further, leveraging that control have multiplied our business development opportunities. In China, these partnerships are the true multipliers of business success.
In this four part series, we look at controlling your brand and operations in China helps you to grow and scale. In the first part, we looked at Controlling Where People Learn About Your Brand. The key takeaway there was that you need to manage the points where people learn about your business.
In this second part, we examine landing in the right place and marketing your way. Controlling your marketing and setting brand usage guidelines are the first steps. They will allow you to protect where you run your business and how it is presented in different places.
Being in the Right Place
It is important for first ask: Is this the right place for our business or brand?
Once the question is framed correctly, it is easy to know how you want to manage the growth of your product or service abroad.
In the case of our program Startup Weekend in China, this question guides us. It helps us to decide on the right cities and communities and to choose the right partners and people.
For any business, it is easy to be distracted by shiny opportunities. The size of China makes it tempting to follow any and all opportunities. This is a bad action plan since you need to start in the right places with the right people and expand from there.
For us, this has involved focusing on certain cities over others. It has meant certain groups over others. We focus first on our top priorities.
Starting in the wrong city can hinder how people perceive your brand. Targeting an ill-fitting demographic wastes resources. Getting the first place right can help you later.
Controlling Your Marketing, Setting Brand Guidelines
Once you are in the right place, you need to look at another side of control. You need to control how your marketing is done and set firm brand usage guidelines.
Am I uncomfortable with the current implementation of my branding in a local market? Is my brand and marketing positioned in a way that fits or breaks with our identity and traditions in other places?
In China, we ran into a considerable amount of trouble with event banners. Many conferences and events in China turn into promotional banner “heaven.” Yi-La-Bao (易拉宝) is a rolled up poster that is easily unrolled, stood up and mounted for display. It’s a common feature at Chinese events and can start to feel quite commercial when done in bulk.
For Startup Weekend, we try to keep community and people first. So while our sponsors are promoted, it is all within the context of entrepreneurs first. It’s hard to keep this focus first when you have everyone trying to get their brand on display like this.
In China for Startup Weekend we created a strict policy on displaying local banners. Only top level sponsors got their own banners. They pay for this privilege. For our global, national and local partners we used a simple 3-banner system. One banner is for global sponsors. One banner is for national sponsors. Another banner is for local sponsors.
This has improved our ability to respect our partners and sponsors. It’s easily communicated. And it helps us avoid a heavy commercial feel.
If a company is simply there to advertise, then they only want a banner. Otherwise the right partners are looking to get involved beyond just a poster. We focus on brands and companies that fit well with us, our community and our tech and innovation focus.
For any new brand in China, foreign or local, the temptation might be to follow what others have done. You try to force your brand onto the crowd in any and all ways. This aggressive, commercial, marketing tradition fails in the competitive marketing space.
This technique is not very effective. At best, you end up wasting marketing money. At worst, people perceive your brand as low quality. You end up grouped with low quality competitors all scrambling to grab the attention.
We’ve avoided many of the common techniques for marketing in China. We don’t buying fans or pay for view statistics. These shortcuts are short-lived solution.
Smart brands (and some of our best partners) look at marketing (and at our event) as a much deeper engagement. It’s a long-term approach to reach true Chinese consumers. Good marketing today in China is not just quantity and eyeballs. It’s about true product-market fit on a niche level.
These clear guidelines have made a huge difference. In fact, the control over our event’s promotional space have had other good effects. We created a context where our first national sponsors were able to trust our control over our community and event format. They trusted our control even to trust us with their financial support.
Knowing where we fit and how we wanted our partners to fit has been empowering. We discovered the freedom of doing things our way.
Control your brand and marketing, and your partners will respect you; fail to control and you risk losing out.