As one of the world’s largest markets, China presents an excellent opportunity for many businesses. But how should you approach marketing to the region?

Domenica Di Lieto, CEO of leading Chinese marketing consultancy Emerging Comms, shares her experience and advice on growing businesses in China.

From choosing the correct channels to the importance of localisation, Domenica provides an overview of the differences marketers should consider when working with the Chinese market.

Listen to the podcast now via the links below:

Transcript: Interview with Domenica Di Lieto – Emerging Comms

Speakers: Mike Maynard, Domenica Di Lieto

Mike: Thanks for listening to marketing B2B Tech, the podcast from Napier, where you can find out what really works in B2B marketing today.

Welcome to marketing B2B technology, the podcast from Napier. Today, I’m joined by Dominica Di Lietto. Dominica is CEO of specialists Chinese agency Emerging Communications. Welcome to the show Dominica.

Domenica: Lovely to be here, Mike. And thank you very much for having me on here.

Mike: Well, it’s great to talk to you. But I mean, to start off with, I’d really like to understand how you came to be, you know, an expert on marketing in China. So what was your career path to get where you’ve got to now?

Domenica: Way too many years on the clock for one. So I started life in publishing. So for many years, I was in women’s glossy magazines, newspapers, the Daily Mail group. And then late 1990s, obviously saw this thing coming called the Internet called, that makes me sound old. And I went and work for a couple of clients and agencies that specialised in digital. And I was working across the apple, New York and London. And I ended up getting quite fed up with that and launched my first agency, which I sold in 2011. And that was a front end development ecommerce agency, we were a supplier to the company that bought us. And then when I was looking for something to do, I randomly ended up being a commercial director for a Chinese agency for a year. So an interim job, really enjoyed the market, but felt that possibly it could be done better, putting clients at the heart of what we do, and very much focusing on what do their customers want. So that should align what their marketing should be. And emerging communications was born about a year later, it’s sort of like 2015.

Mike: So you were doing international marketing? Was there a reason you decided to jump into China? Or was it just the job opportunity?

Domenica: Well, I think for me, I get quite bored. I’ve been in the UK digital market and the American market for quite a long time. And China just doesn’t stop you just about understand that and you understand the legislation, and all the channels, and then the following day will change. And I like that speed of change. wrongly or rightly, I love the fact that I never quite know what I’m going to find in the morning, literally. So the whole changing landscape of the way consumers behave in China, the legislation, the government narrative just keeps me on my toes. And I think I’ve just gotten the most incredible team of talented individuals. So I’m kind of with China. I think for the rest of my career, I would think it’s fair to say, may not just do emerging comps, I might do other things. But China is fascinating. And people look to Silicon Valley, for learning about digital and tech, and they should be looking at China, because they’re good five, seven years ahead of everyone in the world. And that really fascinates me.

Mike: That sounds really exciting. And also interest about something else you said you said you wanted to put clients at the heart of the agency. So tell us a little bit about who you work with who are your clients?

Domenica: Absolutely. So we do work with some b2c, but predominantly, we are working in the B2B space, even if a client also operates in the b2c space. So we work with people like Penguin Random House, where we have worked to basically give them a voice amongst their consumers, because all of the marketing they do is with distributors. So that’s B2B. We work in the pharma space, biotech space with a lot of consultancy firms. We work with a lot of chemistry clients, clients that target librarians, universities that target the research space. So I would say that in terms of the B2B space, most categories, but they all tend to have one thing in common, which is that they’re all established in China, with a distributor or an agent or a salesperson or a sales team. And they’ve they’ve come across some kind of issues, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on. So it’s more the fact that they are operating B2B in China. So they are very much reliant on a human being to close the sale. We’re not tending to deal with clients that are selling the end result online in the B2B categories that we deal with it as a human being, there’s actually closing that sale.

Mike: And that’s interesting. Is that something you’ve build expertise about? Or is that a deliberate choice not to go into E commerce brands in China?

Domenica: We do do ecommerce brands in China in terms of marketing, but they tend to be b2c. So in the B2B space, it’s more about how business is done in China. It’s no different to here and as much the same Making units quite complicated. But in China that disjoint between what’s going on in market versus what HQ wants, and that could be in the States, Europe or the UK, is where most of the problems lie. So a total reliance, for example, on your distributor in China to do your marketing to do your brand to do your sales and your marketing is one common problem. Or it might be you’ve got one or two salespeople who are alienated and lonely and misaligned with what’s going on back at HQ. So I think that integration of often online and that integration with both Western and Chinese team is our forte, yes. But ultimately, everything we’re doing is to make sure and ensure that the brands we work with are the brand of choice or the company of choice, so that their sales increase, and their conversion increases through their sales efforts. So in other words, we get the marketing, right, according to how customers want to engage with it, and what they want to see. And that sounds pretty obvious. And that’s how marketing should work. But you’d be amazed at how many people try and shoehorn their American marketing with a bit of Chinese on it into China and hope it’s going to work? And of course, it doesn’t.

Mike: So that leads me on to the obvious question. I mean, how different is it in China? I mean, obviously, some of the channels are different, you know, for example, social media, in in America or in Europe will be different to China. But I mean, how different is the approach? Is it completely different from a strategic point of view? Or is it more tactical differences, both.

Domenica: So strategically, I would say that Guan chi, and reliance on your network of people that you trust is very, very high in China, more so than here. And so no matter how much marketing you do often online, if you don’t take into account and nurture your top customers, and make them your platinum customers and make them what we call Kayo C’s or keeping customers, you’re going to miss a trick. I think that it’s been a very interesting time with COVID and COVID restrictions, because of course, B2B has always historically been run a very key exhibitions, events, press launches in China. And all of that moved online to webinars, podcasts effectively, but using Chinese software and platforms. Now, there’s a bit of a hybrid, there’s still a heavy reliance on that. So strategically, I would say it’s more complicated, because you’ve got to align your brand in China and your messaging and what you stand for, and why you much more so with your headquarters, but make sure it’s still relevant to your B2B customers. But from a tactical standpoint, there are a lot of differences. So not just the fact that social media channels are wildly different, there’s a lot more of them across the board. So using online PR, for example, social media and search, you’re using a completely different channel mix, and some will work and some won’t. And there tends to be a sense of oh, I’ll just go straight and do some paid search to Monica. And I’ll do a little bit of online PR and what we do instead to brands and customers is, firstly, we need to know who your customers are and where they hang out. Because the chances are, they may not be searching on Baidu, it may well be another channel, they may not leverage or engage with certain online channels that you’re looking to use, they’re going to use others. So understanding who they are and where they hang out and how your competitors behave in your space is more complex. But once you know that, then everything kind of fits into place in terms of driving sales, the right sales and your conversion rates, which is what marketing is supposed to do, right. But there are I’m struggling to think of a single channel we use here in the West that you’ve got in China. Now even LinkedIn is no longer accessible in China. So there is really nothing, no Instagram, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Google. So basically, everything is just government owned, but a lot more sophisticated and a lot more one on one engagement. So that’s a totally expected thing in China, much like one to one email used to be back in the 90s is expected that that prospect you will talk to them as if it’s just then. And that’s where we chat CRM and targeting through certain channels. And that’s what really comes into its own but But you can’t just broadcast your messaging in China won’t work.

Mike: So just expand a bit on what you mean by that one to one marketing, you’re talking about brands having to engage individually with people who respond is that what’s expected?

Domenica: Yes. So I’d say one of the first things to understand is I talked to so many huge global brands I’ve been in China for quite some time and they’re they’re having problems with their with their marketing their sales, and we’ll find that they will do their normal e CRM marketing from something like Salesforce or HubSpot in China, and your B2B, Chinese customers are not going to engage with you on email. That’s just not a medium that’s used. Everybody uses WeChat for every CRM. So when I say one on one, that’s exactly what I mean, I mean, really understanding, because we’re talking large customers here, in complex B2B, high ticket value, you know, sales, more often than not, because even if the individual sells tiny, they’re buying in volume. And so that relationship tends to be done by human being. And so that sort of integration between the sales team and China or sales person, quite often it starts with one person, and what the actual marketing effort is, and making that aligned with what’s going on globally is absolutely critical. Because all too often what I see is poor disparate, one or two salespeople in China, being asked to do the marketing plan, marketing, strategy, marketing, delivery, and drive their own leads, and their salespeople, they should be good at converting sales. And so we made that very clear with the client, their salespeople, and it’s our job to drive them the right leads. And we talk to sales teams all the time we engage them in our regular monthly catch ups. They’re the ones talking to the client, and they’re the ones that are going to get the objections. And they’re the ones that can tell us what’s working, what isn’t, what’s converting what isn’t. And so it’s just that integration piece is really, really key. And then the same when it comes to now of course, we’ve got events and exhibitions and conferences now back in China, after three years with hardly any. And just basic stuff like collecting WeChat data, not business cards, making sure everything’s translated, including ourselves schemes, making sure that you’ve got Mandarin speakers on the stand. Now, the sound already obvious, but you would be amazed, and you only had to look at the news at the weekend to get BMW to see how badly you can get it wrong. So the whole the whole cultural nuances and understanding that so it’s not, I wouldn’t say it’s complicated, I’d say all comes down to one thing, understand your Chinese customers, all of them in the stakeholder chain, and understand how they behave and where they hang out how they want to engage with you. And then you map your marketing coordinator, you don’t do it the other way around.

Mike: So it’s interesting. I mean, you’ve kind of alluded to this issue of control. And obviously trying to basically transplant an American or European campaigns, China isn’t gonna work. But equally, trusting salespeople to drive marketing themselves when they’re not marketing professionals is probably not a good idea, either. So, I mean, how much control do you think brands should take when they’re trying to grow their business in China?

Domenica: Oh, that’s a really good question. I’m doing a webinar on this in a couple of weeks, because it’s probably the single biggest question I get asked. we’ve coined a phrase called glocalization. And the reason that we coined that phrase is that you need to localise your approach so that your Chinese B2B Customers will engage with it, it’s answering the pain points that they have, and using the channels where they’re hanging out. But you also need to be on brand. Because if you’re not, you’re not recognisable, and you don’t have the credibility, and you can’t build the credibility, China is a humongous country with over 3 billion consumers and lots of geographies. So it’s a balance. It’s like a seesaw. And what I say to brands is, if that seesaw is, is straight, and you’ve got the balance about 5050, that’s about right. If you localise too much, then it becomes absolutely no alignment whatsoever with the global brand. And then you get what I call leaks in the bucket, or holes in the bucket rather than leaks. So you get things like your distributor or salespeople running your WeChat marketing, and it doesn’t even make sense. And it’s too local. It’s not on us. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t sound like you. It’s not saying the right thing, or the literature is nonsensical, and the list goes on. But if headquarters are controlling the brand, then all it will look like and it’s fine. If you are a footsie 100 company, everybody’s heard of you. But most companies don’t have sort of like bottomless pockets. So you do need it to be consistent, but for it to be localised, and we always localise at the very beginning of our campaigns.

And when we work with the client, we localise not just the typography, because of course, it’s Chinese characters, but the brand of the way it looks and feels and also the narrative. So we have a very clear approved comms strategy. And another thing to think about with a brand alignment is crisis management plan. So if BMW had had one, I can guarantee their response would have been quicker and better. And so you can’t stop salespeople or your representatives and say, exhibitions, events or PR stunts or what have you. You can’t control everybody. But what you can do is if things, obviously, they get cultural training, but if things go wrong, you need to have a plan that can be actioned within minutes. Because things can go horribly wrong very quickly in China, just because everybody takes to social media and there’s a lot of people and so what might be 1000 comments here is millions enjoy. So yeah, so you’ve got to have the balance, right. So I say in an ideal world brand control and marketing control should reside with the client and their specialist agency. But it should be a localised approach. And we’ve done work, for example, with IKEA, where I had to be the intermediary between the Russian global team and the Shanghai AES agency, so that they could understand each other in terms of why did the creative look like that? And why why was it localised in such a way? So it was actually really just so that the global team could understand the approach by the Shanghai US agency, which was actually perfect. It was on brand yet localised, localised? So it’s, it’s a balancing act. But if you get the balancing act, right, it’s absolutely spot on. And the best way to find out is ask your customers, right. So that’s my point, if you know what your customers want is pretty easy. Yeah.

Mike: That sounds like great advice. I’m interested. I mean, a lot of people listening might be from the States. And certainly if you look at geopolitics, the relationship between the West and China is not at its best at the moment. I mean, how Western brands have Dickie American brands seen by Chinese customers, particularly in B2B, is it still as big an opportunity is there still as much enthusiasm?

Domenica: There’s no doubt about it. There’s a couple of major obstacles to us right now, not just not just political ones. But also the time difference is potential depending on whether you’re east or west coast, we tend to be the intermediaries for a lot of American companies, because we can just about talk to China because our teams start late in China and start early in UK. And we’ve got a bit more than four hour overlap on an average eight hour time difference. So time differences a problem. I think if you look at if you know anything about Hofstede, or any kind of cultural philosophy, there is an even bigger difference between American culture and China culture than European culture. So that’s also a bit of a challenge. I spoke to not that long ago and American brand global American brands has been really successful in Indonesia and Vietnam and other APAC regions, they were going into China. And it’s a franchise model. I’m not gonna say who they are, and they were absolutely dead set that this franchise model would work in China. And I was like, it will not. You’re not offering anything that isn’t offered by local competitors in China. Nobody recognises your motif, I nearly gave it away then. And the animal that is the representative in your logo. In fact, it has negative connotations, culturally, you’d have to localise. But that isn’t their model. So they’ve decided to go to other APAC region.

So I think for America, yes, there is the political tensions, but there is still plenty of opportunity in China. And depending on what categories they operate in, obviously, you deal with a lot of B2B Tech, engineering, tech, pharma, bar science, biomedical science, chemistry, these areas are huge in China, and has have actually not been impacted by COVID. And some of our clients have grown substantially throughout COVID. Because actually, there was more demand for what they do. So I’d say that as long as you get the cultural side, right, you understand your customers, you work with a specialist agency, there’s no reason why American brands can’t be successful. I’m not suggesting for one second, that the strap lines and the creative and copy that we come up with focuses on where they’re actually from, that might not be a terribly good idea. But if they have a better product or service than their competitors, you’re still going to be successful in China. There’s enough demand basically.

Mike: So that sounds really positive. I mean, one of the things I’m interested in is if a brand is looking to enter China, you talked about having kind of a sequence so people initially put sales teams in or a couple of salespeople before they they bring in marketing. I mean, what is the most effective way to enter and grow in China?


Oh, that’s a million dollar question, which depends on the category that you’re in your budget and your attitude to risk. But I’m a real believer in you see, you’re trying to journey a bit like a staircase. And if you’re getting to the top of the staircase, you don’t try and fly from the bottom step to the top step you have to learn as you go, learn, invest, learn, invest, and mitigate your risk. You certainly depending on what category you’re in, need somebody in market, we do have brands who don’t have anybody and we are their customer service team and we support on the ground in events. Some of our largest clients only got one person in market, but has eight people in the APAC region that also support at large events and we support them a lot on the ground as well as strategy and marketing. But the reason I say you’ve got to have some foothold is you’re selling something correct. So if it’s consultancy, or if it’s a product and you are on E commerce platforms like Taobao For example, JD, you still gotta have one person on the ground for customer service or one person on the ground that’s going to talk to your key platinum customers. And how a lot of brands start is they will choose a distributor dependent on if that’s their model, or they will have a salesperson and they’ll use some kind of launch pad like the China Business British Council who are fantastic. And they’ll work from their launch pad with that one person, they’ll pay them from the CBBC. They’ll go to exhibitions, events, and they kind of grow from there. But we do have a lot of clients whose HQ in APAC is in Hong Kong, or Singapore, and actually latterly Bangkok, a lot of expats left Shanghai during COVID, and went to Bangkok. And it also works if you have got somebody in the APAC region, it’s not quite as good, because they have to fly in and out of events and exhibitions, but you do kind of need somebody, even though we can support that one person, but you’ve got to make sure your products and services can actually get to the right people. So most people start with a distributor, to be honest.

Mike: That makes a lot of sense. I guess that’s not dissimilar to other countries. With a distributor, yeah.

Domenica: Yeah, very similar.

Mike: So if you’re gonna give advice to people who are looking to grow their business in China, I mean, what do you think would be the one bit of advice people should really listen to to avoid making those big mistakes?

Domenica: I think there’s a lot of assumption with global brands, that your brand or your product is going to be the right thing for the China market. So firstly, don’t assume anything. You need objective advice. So I would say you need to be looking at who your competitors are in the China market. There’ll be some global, some local, and can you compete in that space? What do you offer that they don’t? What is your differentiator, your competitive advantage, that’s the single biggest thing. And make sure that that’s in the eyes of the consumer, the customer, and there will be many different types of customer in the B2B decision making unit. So don’t assume that you’re what I call your USP is what your customers that your USP is. So make sure that you’ve, you’ve done your competitive research and your customer research. If you’ve done that, and you know, what your competitive advantages and you know, you can compete and you’ve got a better product, and that there is a market there. And none of this needs to cost a fortune. We do this with brands quite enough inexpensively, but enough to know how we’re going to market that brand. And obviously, the other thing you need to think about is how you’re distributing your product or your service, which is your operations bit, which is why most people use a distributor, then it’s just a question of about mapping out what marketing is going to engage, entice and sell to your customers that you’ve selected, according to where they hang out. So for example, Chinese search engine largest search engine is Baidu, there are a few others, but it still got the lion’s share of the market. If there’s no demand on Baidu index for your brand, or for your type of product, I’m not going to start there, I’m going to start with something else, I might start with online PR, I might start with some B2B influencers, in vertical sectors or on certain channels. So it’s about really understanding your market, the opportunity there and your customers.

Once you’ve done that, and we won’t touch a brand, that we haven’t done that because otherwise what we’re doing is noise. And China is huge. And we get fantastic results. And we get those results, because we know that what we are saying and where we are saying it is going to engage with their customers and they’re going to buy otherwise, it’s pointless is just basically throwing money at the problem. And I don’t believe in doing that. I believe that it should get a return everything you do. And on that note, just real quickly about tracking is don’t listen to anybody who says you can’t track things in China. They’ve heard a lot of horror stories about clickbait, you know, and there are so many agencies that just fabricate results. And we can look at it and within two minutes tell a client that is not real people engaging that is that is that AI technologies, it’s very easy to sport. So you can track everything and you should track everything. And we do track everything. So don’t be for one second muscled into thinking that’s not true. So you can track it properly, far better, actually, than any other market I’ve ever worked him.

Mike: I think that’s great advice. I love that that real thought through process as well in terms of going into the market and focusing on money where it’s going to generate return. I think that’s fantastic.

Domenica: Yeah, absolutely. And but we’ve got an eight C’s model that we follow in exact order of what you do first, and customers are right at the top before we even look at competitors is that literally your customers, your competitors you know, your competitive advantage your comps and just do it in the right order. And it’s a bit like a tick box exercise as much as market research is would hate that and everyone’s quote unquote, involved. But there is a process. And once you do it like that, then you’ll get return. But if you go straight to the channels and activate channels, you don’t know what channels you’re activating, you don’t know what you’re saying, because you don’t know what your customers want to hear. So it’s the wrong way around. Yeah.

Mike: That’s great advice. I’ve really enjoyed talking about China, there’s a couple of questions we’d like to ask. So the more general questions of our guests. And you know, I’m interested, you’re obviously really excited about marketing, thinking about marketing in China. What would your advice be, if you met someone, a young person who was thinking of starting a career in marketing?

Domenica: I would my biggest advice to anybody who wants to get into marketing is to study business first. So too often, the marketers I meet fresh out of university have done a marketing degree in marketing, postgrad, no practical experience, they focus so much on delivery of marketing tactics, that they don’t focus on what the business problem is, you need to at least at the very least understand how business is structured, how p&l is structured, and how the board is structured. I think that’s really important. And there are also so many jobs in marketing, you know, are your creative personality, an analytical person? Are you really good at writing, that people just lump it together as marketing. And they’re very, very different roles. And they’re going to be very different roles again, in 510 years time, you know, AI technology and drone technology. And so I think that, be sure that marketing is the right thing is number one, and which side of marketing but really do understand the business context, because it will make you a very good marketer.

Mike: I love that. So that’s really thoughtful. The other question we always ask is, what’s the best bit of marketing advice you’ve ever been given?

Domenica: I would say, and it’s not just for marketing, it’s just across the board is mistakes are good. We really celebrate them emerging coms every Monday in our speech, because every time we make a mistake, and we’re very open with clients as well, it might be that we’ve leveraged a channel that hasn’t quite gone according to plan, or maybe one of their sales team says something they shouldn’t. If everything is a learning thing, you don’t do it twice, then it’s going to benefit, the brand is going to benefit the relationship and it’s going to benefit the results. To not make mistakes, in my opinion means you’re not moving forward, especially in China. So I would say making mistakes need to be celebrated within Ries. I think somebody told me that a couple of years ago, and I always used to feel awful if things went wrong. But now I’m very much do you know what? What do we learned from that? How can we make sure we don’t do it again? And I think yeah, I think China’s got a different context. And I would say the best advice I can give to anybody doing business in China is work with an expert, don’t work with somebody who did Chinese a level work with Chinese nationals. And basically, you’ve got to understand the cultural context at all times when you’re doing business in China, whether that is negotiation, supplier relationships, or talking to your customers. So work with people that understand that.

Mike: That’s fantastic advice. Thank you so much for your time on the podcast, it’s been really fascinating. I’m sure people would want to learn more about China and about how you can help them in China. What’s the best way for listeners to get in contact with a

Domenica: I’m very active on LinkedIn, so Domenica Diletto, or feel free to email me Domenica at emerging If you Googled America, Diletto you’ll also find me through many different channels. I would say I wouldn’t ring my mobile, I tend to have 60 calls a day, so I tend to switch it off. If you email me, it will get picked up or you send a message through LinkedIn, I go through my messages every day, I will get back to you straightaway. But if you call you might be waiting some time. I work out if it’s a cold call or not because I get rather a lot of them.

Mike: Well, that’s fantastic and very kind for you to give your email address out. Thank you so much for all your insight Dominica. I really appreciate it.

Domenica: Pleasure, Mike really enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.

Mike: Thanks so much for listening to marketing B2B Tech. We hope you enjoyed the episode. And if you did, please make sure you subscribe on iTunes, or on your favourite podcast application. If you’d like to know more, please visit our website at Napier B2B dot com or contact me directly on LinkedIn.