Francis Bea, the head of global marketing at Zero Zero Robotics, knows a few things about what it takes for Chinese startups to gain traction abroad. Zero Zero Robotics (best known for its Hover Camera, an autonomous drone camera capable of following a user) is one of a very few Chinese tech companies to have made a successful entry into the US. And as was recently reported by The Information, Snap is already in talks to buy the company for a possible $200 million.
Bea has worked in China for a number of years at a variety of local startups, and has earned plenty of direct experience with how China’s homegrown tech companies are attempting to make the leap onto the global stage, as well as the pitfalls they face in doing so.
One of the main problems for Chinese companies going abroad has been not just in translating their brand for unfamiliar audiences, but even simply defining a brand in the first place. In the past, and to some extent even now, marketing departments in many Chinese companies haven’t always worked with very clear or coherent objectives. Companies might build up a marketing department and “just use it to answer questions [from people online] or pump videos out just for the sake of doing it … There was no strategy,” Bea said.
Yet that has been changing:
"For me personally, I think it’s been pretty interesting to see the evolution of how Chinese companies have been going global. My experience started with gaming, and they attempted to localize their game for the US market. It was a sanguo [“Three Kingdoms”] style RPG with very “Chinese characteristics.” Not surprisingly, this type of game wasn’t going to resonate as well."
That, he said, was followed by a wave of app startups, especially utility and productivity apps, looking to expand abroad, some of which did see a degree of success, at least in emerging markets.
But as more and more Chinese companies have sought to expand internationally, their collective experience—some successful, some not—has led to a new appreciation for the value of branding.
"If you want to go overseas, you need to build a brand. I’m seeing a lot of Chinese companies emerging, on the hardware space especially, and starting to realize that value. They’re starting to hire the right candidates to help deliver the right message. You can do media buying, you can throw ads as much as you want at people, but if they’ve never heard of you, or if they don’t really see why I should use you at this price point versus a competitor, they’re not going to give you a second thought.
"The logic for a lot of Chinese companies before was, “I’ll throw an ad out there and people will download [our app].” Which to some degree was true, but there ends up being no loyalty to that product.
"More and more companies … are internally structured in a way that helps their employees succeed on the marketing front—we’re starting to see those companies pop up, like musical.ly … I think they’ve done a pretty good job with branding themselves, and it’s a globally recognized app now, but people don’t realize it’s actually a Chinese app, either.
"We’re definitely seeing more examples of this, and I’m sure a lot of these startups, they’ve tried to do performance and brand marketing, but they’re not seeing results, and they’re asking themselves, “Where am I falling short?”
One of the most common errors, Bea noted, is companies underestimating what it takes to establish themselves in even a single market. “If you’re a company with a couple hundred people or more, and you have the resources to dedicate to multiple markets, that’s great. But what I’ve seen is that a lot of companies will try to do too much at once, and by doing too much at once they end up doing nothing.”
Francis Bea, head of global marketing at Zero Zero Robotics
For Chinese companies looking to expand abroad, the first question is therefore one of direction, and although many hope to ultimately reach the US, most feel they have to look elsewhere before taking on that challenge. Xiaomi, for example, has made a strong push into India and dabbled in other markets, but has so far tiptoed around the edge of the US market, making only very limited and indirect offerings of some of its products. Zero Zero Robotics, on the other hand, was determined to be more direct. And while that did carry some risk, Bea explained the benefits for the company’s already widening reach.
"For Hover Camera, our primary market was the US. It is the most difficult of markets, but at the same time, one of the great things about the US is that if you’re able to succeed in the US, the knowledge of your product trickles down to the rest of the world. For instance, even though we didn’t target Japan directly, we have a significant audience in Japan, the UK, and Korea. We didn’t run direct marketing campaigns in those regions, but they got know us because thought leaders in those regions look at the US.
"China on the other hand, unfortunately, due to the language barrier, doesn’t have that luxury, although it is a powerhouse. The US really is a thought leader and [a] voice, to a degree, for the rest of the world. But we couldn’t have achieved these results if we scattered our attention onto too many markets at once.
"For smaller companies or even one with up to a hundred people, it would be really, really difficult. If you don’t succeed in the US, making a name for yourself by trying to allocate five people to five different countries is not going to work."
For Chinese companies looking to move internationally, Bea emphasized the need for trust and flexibility between Chinese executives and their overseas hires:
"For the overseas market, I would find somebody who would be able to help you build a marketing strategy for the target market, and then have that person hire a team capable of filling out specific, executional roles to help that strategy succeed.
"A lot of these executives do need to place trust in the people that they hire, even if it goes against [their] own thinking. Many Chinese executives might hire a candidate, and they’ll realize: this person is not recommending to me everything that I wanted to hear, or he’s saying I can’t get a story in the New York Times by paying a thousand dollars. Obviously, that’s not possible. A lot of companies will tend to stick to what they’re comfortable with, but if you’re going overseas, it’s not the China market.
"You have to put trust in the people that you hire. And if you stick to whatever you’re really comfortable with, it’s unfortunately not going to work."
The failures of some companies such as LeEco in that regard may come to mind, though Bea demurred when asked to comment on specific cases. But here, too, Chinese companies and their executives are learning, and, Bea said, are coming to appreciate the need for a kind of cultural interpreter:
"[Chinese companies] are starting to look for not just people who can craft the strategy, but also those who can help bridge the communication between the CEO and that type of [overseas marketing] team.
"A lot of these companies will consider just opening an office in the overseas market. However, they’re also beginning to admit to the fact that there is a cultural difference or a communication gap that needs to be filled by someone capable of managing this.
"More executives are beginning to understand or even [become] cognizant of this problem, and so they’re looking at strategic hires that can bridge that gap."
Much of this may sound reminiscent of the experience that so many foreign companies have had in entering China, or, more to the point, of virtually any company that tries to expand internationally. There is always a learning curve, one that Chinese companies are now beginning to climb, just as others have had to do.
Of course, not everyone gets it right, and there are still many cases of Chinese companies leaping overseas only to land flatfooted. But cases like that of Zero Zero Robotics, and Bea’s own testimony to China’s startup landscape, show that China’s tech companies are beginning to grow savvy to the many ins and outs of marketing abroad.
“I’m pretty excited for the future to see how China has been able to flip its stereotypes on [their] head, and I’m happy to have been a part of that.”