The trick with the Chinese traveller

Welcome to the latest in a series of columns brought to you in association with experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist CircleSquare. This monthly column aims to inform, surprise and provoke. Here, CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley outlines the formula for brand engagement with the Chinese shopper.

Here’s a magic trick for you. With just the power of your mind you can find out exactly what everyone in the travel retail community is thinking right now. Simply clear your mind, focus and let the magic happen. Drum roll please. Everyone is thinking about how to target Chinese travellers using digital. Ta dah!

What do you mean that’s not magic? Every self-respecting travel retailer has been thinking exactly the same thing for months. Fair point, but you have to admit that when it comes to understanding the elusive Chinese traveller, we would all like to peel back the magician’s curtain to reveal the secrets.

Unsurprisingly, Covid has been the catalyst that has turned our heads towards digital and to our horror we have realised that China is light years ahead of the rest of us. Chinese ecommerce platforms have been popping up every few months, each one bigger and better than the last. It wasn’t that long ago we were all buzzing about Alibaba but then suddenly everyone started talking about Little Red Book, or Xiaohongshu as it is known in China. When Douyin emerged (yes, that’s what we call TikTok and yes, if you have kids they are almost certainly on it right this very minute) we all thought we had peaked. But then out of nowhere, Pinduoduo appeared as the latest pretender and blew everything wide open once more. It’s even plausible that by the time you are reading this, Pinduoduo is old news.

So how on earth do you even begin to start a conversation with the Chinese traveller? Well, rather than waste your time worrying about which platform will pop up next, our very own CircleSquare team, from the five offices we have in Greater China, have kindly revealed the three secret trends which make up the magic formula.

WeChat: A vast branding opportunity but a very different kind of advertising eco-system

Targeted Advertising

Remember the good old days of advertising? Sadly, targeting wasn’t taken remotely seriously back then and focus groups consisted mainly of hungry university students dragged off the street and given free food to sit behind a two-way mirror and say that they loved your advertising concept. Facebook and Google revolutionised the landscape and now we have hyper-targeting which at times feels somewhat awkward (tell me you haven’t experienced that eerie feeling when you realise Google knows you better than you know yourself). But it works. In fact it works terrifyingly well and converts about US$70 billion in revenue.

Oddly enough, China is completely different. For instance, where Facebook allows you to target literally any conceivable consumer interest, no matter how obscure, at any level you want, WeChat only has 18 categories and 122 sub-categories. Their ads are also hampered by the frequent need to gain government level approval and the cost is prohibitive when compared to the performance.

Success therefore is determined by how well your creative agency can blend creative digital planning, the use of influencers, livestreaming and product placement delivered in the most meaningful way across the entire shopper journey. Less of a magic trick and more a high-wire balancing act.


The space left by the lack of hyper-targeting has been taken up by influencers or Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) as they are known in China. But don’t be fooled, these are nothing like the influencers you may have experienced outside of China. Global influencers are ranked on the number of followers and engagement metrics, meaning ‘exposure’ is king and it is advertising which therefore drives revenue. The KOLs in China, however, are ranked on sale conversions since it is ecommerce which is the revenue driver.

You’d think Chinese consumers would be put off by KOLs directly and openly making money out of their infamy but you’d be wrong. KOLs are well regarded and widely seen as entrepreneurs.

Furthermore, it is just as important to balance your KOL activity with KOC activity, or Key Opinion Consumers. These are everyday consumers whose value is calculated on their ability to be relatable, personable and trustworthy so that their friend-like status helps to deliver the KOL’s message at a more realistic level that you have direct empathy with.

“Success is determined by how well your creative agency can blend creative digital planning, the use of influencers, livestreaming and product placement”

Wami Cheng, Client Services Director, CircleSquare Greater China

TripurX: An increasingly popular online pre-order and payment service

Understanding the consmer drive to purchase is key, says CircleSquare

The trick here is aligning the collaboration between KOLs and KOCs and having an integrated customer journey built around laser-focused brand content including digital advertising, livestream content and brand experiences.

“In China more than anywhere else, consumption has been rebranded into a content-driven experience”, says CircleSquare Asia Managing Partner Stéphane Zermatten.

Creativity captured: A KOL shooting the in-store experience at a Shiseido boutique

Branded Content

According to the informed folk at Smart Insights, “72% of consumers will now only engage with personalised marketing messages”. It looks like all our well-meaning efforts to create unique, personalised messaging have come back to bite us in the backside. However, all is not what it seems. Consumers have sped up the rate at which they scroll through their social feeds and are no longer responding to personalised messages like they used to, because it has all become wallpaper to them.

The brands who are trail-blazing here are the ones being creative with content, using video content, infographics and creative imagery to construct beautifully crafted stories which are proven to grab our attention, no more so than in China.

There are no smoke and mirrors here. Data-driven narratives which use a variety of content formats to deliver their immersive storytelling, such as those created by luxury brands like Gucci and Burberry, have cut through the white noise and won the hearts of their target consumers. A memorable and engaging story beats personalisation every time.

If you need someone to pull a rabbit out of a hat when it comes to targeting the Chinese traveller, Circlesquare, with five offices in Greater China alone, is uniquely placed to create a bespoke strategy for your brand to reach Chinese travellers and also to implement your content creation in both the digital and physical worlds.

Lancôme Brand Ambassadors Sdanny Lee and Mao Xiaotong shown hosting a hugely popular livestreaming session on CDFG’s Yizhibo platform

*About Circle Square

CircleSquare is an award-winning creative agency, the experts at seamlessly blending physical and digital to deliver evocative environments, boundless experiences and connected consumers. CircleSquare’s in-depth understanding of global travel retail has earned them an impressive client list, including Diageo, Mondelez, Luxottica, Lacoste and L’Oréal Luxe, alongside retailers like DFS, Dufry and Heinemann. CircleSquare has offices in nine global locations including London, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore covering every phase of the retail journey process from strategy and creative to design and delivery. You’ll find their work in retail stores, pop-up spaces and airports all over the world.

Contact: Executive Creative Director Philip Handley at

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The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 287 | 30 November 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 15 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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