Comment: Scots firms can find new fortunes in the Far East

James Buchan, MD of digital marketing agency Zudu, shares his insights for firms looking to take on new Asian markets after a recent trade mission to China.
Smart checkouts at Chinese supermarkets are revolutionising the shopping experience, says Buchan. Picture: ZuduSmart checkouts at Chinese supermarkets are revolutionising the shopping experience, says Buchan. Picture: Zudu
Smart checkouts at Chinese supermarkets are revolutionising the shopping experience, says Buchan. Picture: Zudu

When James Bond wanted to get into Asia, albeit North Korea, he dived out of a high- altitude stealth plane, parachuted into the sea and surfed ashore under the guns of watchful guards.

There are many markets in Asia, the largest of which, of course, is China, but many UK businesses apparently feel that the perils and obstacles of trying to enter into these new markets would challenge even MI6’s most gung-ho agent.

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Certainly, Scottish companies appeared to be shying away from the boundless opportunities available when our specialist digital agency exhibited at the region’s biggest trade show, the massive Food and Hotel China, towards the end of last year. The international trade show attracted more than 91,000 trade buyers and featured around 2,450 exhibiting companies from 69 countries.

It is fair to say that there are valid reasons for reticence among companies considering taking the plunge into a new and foreign marketplace. One of these is presumably the language barrier, of course, but even seemingly simple things like digital communication methods or business etiquette can prove to be problematic. These challenges can extend through to differences in employment, legal, regulatory and tax structures.

Many of these issues can be overcome by finding a trusted partner in the target market who shares the company’s vision and has similar values. But when successfully established enterprises turn their concentration to marketing, there are still more surprises in store.

Travelling around China last month – a process which, in my experience, was significantly less stressful than making my way around the UK – it was impossible not to be impressed by the huge strides China has taken towards a very efficient, digital and, in many cases, cashless economy.

For instance, KFC has made huge inroads into the fast food market by selling China-specific menus, majoring in rice, and carefully listening to the concerns and wishes of a high-demanding consumer market. Of course, all the menus have quick response, or QR, codes and payment is linked to AliPay and WeChat Pay. In many restaurants and food outlets you can scan a QR code, pay and order to your table without having to leave your seat.

Similarly, on the bullet train, food can be ordered from the QR code on the seat armrest. It is linked to a WeChat mini app and food is brought directly to the customer in their seats from delivery drivers who arrive at each station.

If the train is a bit pacey, travellers can download an app and rent a bike by scanning the QR code to unlock one of the hundreds of rental cycles on city street corners. Even street beggars are tech enabled, with QR codes which allow you to donate to them without rummaging around for change.

The same simplicity of transaction applies to mobile phone chargers, restaurant Wi-Fi, paying the bus fare, exploring tourist attractions or even making a donation at one of the many temples. The mobile centric population has developed in ways which outclass methods seen in western countries. Supermarkets such as the HiTun have revolutionised shopping, letting customers shop in store and have everything delivered to their door within minutes.

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These kinds of opportunities are ripe for the picking for fast, sharp, digitally aware UK companies who are ready to make transactions smoother and more user friendly for a market holding hundreds of millions of customers.

WeChat’s app had 902 million daily logged in users in November 2017 – a figure that will only have increased since. The platform is more than just social media, it is a way of life for many Chinese. No more procrastinating over lengthy business emails, no more cash transactions and no more credit cards. Paying bills, ordering subscriptions, buying groceries and conducting business deals can all be done on WeChat, made even easier for international communication through an instant digital message translation.

WeChat and other Chinese digital platforms can be used by UK companies to promote products or services, engage with the audience and create complex mini-programs (think an app within an app) to improve process and create an overall better customer experience.

As became very clear to us on our travels in China, the needs and interests of the Chinese are changing and it is vital for companies who want to trade there to keep up with new marketing trends and practices.

So, what’s the take-away for Scottish businesses who fancy the prospect of entering the Chinese market but are unsure of how to do so? It’s simple, speak to someone who knows how it works.