A look back at Content Commerce Insider’s trend forecast for 2020 makes it clear how many twists and turns this year threw our way. In 2019, content-commerce became a key marketing strategy in China, and CCI predicted that the biggest trends of the following year would include 5G and interactive content, e-commerce livestreaming, branded shows, and celebrity incubation by streaming platforms.
Although we could not have foreseen how the Covid-19 pandemic would spread a cloud over the whole of 2020, affecting virtually every facet of daily life, these trends did make their influence felt, with e-commerce livestreaming in particular taking off and becoming a crucial sales driver for brands across the consumer spectrum, while the likes of Alibaba, Bytedance, iQiyi, and Bilibili took stronger control of talent identification and cultivation as they invested in the production of streaming content and moved into supporting virtual influencers that might become the next big celebrities. So with that in mind, here are the top trends that CCI found to be the most important and influential in 2020:
1. Cloud Living
In the first quarter of the year, as Covid-19 spread throughout China and led to extended quarantines and closures of stores, restaurants, and theaters, the entire entertainment and marketing industries were forced to move all of their efforts online as a matter of survival. As CCI wrote in February, since much of the viewing (and shopping) public was housebound, the concept of “cloud living” took off, with content such as musical performances, cooking lessons for nascent at-home chefs, and pandemic make-up tutorials, followed soon after by the pivot by popular talk shows that moved from TV studios to a conference-call format with hosts taking part from the comfort of their own living rooms. Brands, too, were quick to jump on the “cloud” trend, with Nike and Lululemon offering online fitness classes, while in the cultural space we saw music festivals and museum tours take the streaming route, leading to record growth on short video and livestreaming platforms like Bilibili as audiences tuned in with little else to do at home.
Even as China got the coronavirus outbreak largely under control in the second half of the year, cloud living continued to be part of the contemporary lifestyle, and in 2021 we expect to see the continued growth of livestreamed programming along with educational and cultural content.
2. An E-commerce Entertainment Boom, Fueled by Livestreaming
With the fuse lit by the cloud living boom earlier this year, 2020 was the year of livestreaming in China. While far from new to the market (as CCI noted in our “Next-Level Livestreaming” report), livestreaming spread beyond its influencer and entertainment comfort zone this year and expanded into new areas like celebrity livestreaming, boss livestreaming, and even employee livestreaming to spur e-commerce sales and build connections with housebound audiences who spent hours a day glued to their smartphones. The big e-commerce platforms all vied to outdo each other with massive gala shows on satellite TV networks to promote major shopping festivals in June and November, fueling record sales and confidence and China’s post-Covid consumer recovery. At the same time, competitive pressures mounted for e-commerce livestreaming to up its entertainment quotient to keep audiences engaged.
But it wasn’t all easy money for livestreaming-focused platforms like Taobao Live, Bilibili, Kuaishou and others, with the central government and provincial authorities rushing to issue new regulations as the year went on. Covering everything from consumer protections to content restrictions, the regulatory environment is likely to be firmed up in 2021 as e-commerce livestreaming settles firmly into the marketing mainstream.
3. Short Video Apps Branch Into Longer-Form Entertainment
Another major shift this year has come as short video apps have made moves to become forces in long-form entertainment production and distribution, looking to centralize content creation and keep users locked into the platform for even more hours per day. One of the earliest examples of this came at the beginning of the year. With theaters closed due to the coronavirus at what should have been peak moviegoing season during the Lunar New Year holiday, studio Huanxi Media decided to cancel the theatrical release of its highly anticipated comedy sequel “Lost in Russia” (囧妈) and instead release it for free online via a partnership with Bytedance that saw the film distributed on Douyin, Jinri Toutiao, and Xigua Video.
In all, the Lunar New Year holiday week saw the debut of 26 films on Chinese streaming platforms, with average daily views of these movies doubling that of the previous year. But while movie releases on short video platforms attracted the lion’s share of headlines this year, long-form lifestyle content quietly became another massive growth category, with Bilibili the best-placed to capitalize.
As CCI noted last month, when the Covid-19 outbreak closed schools and sped up the online learning initiatives, Bilibili became an official course provider in Shanghai as schools started back online in March. The platform also started streaming courses from Tsinghua and Peking University, China’s most prestigious institutions of higher education. In addition to the streaming courses, livestreamed “study sessions” have also become popular, with more than 20 million Bilibili users joining to watch virtual companions (livestreamers) engaged in course work while they study alongside them, often using the hashtag #StudyWithMe.
This type of content is highly sticky and, as it does on YouTube, encourages hours-long viewing sessions, keeping users coming back to Bilibili on a regular basis. For brands and marketers, this has made Bilibili highly compelling, helping the platform break out of its early laser-focus on the ACG (anime, comic, and games) subculture and rack up 197.2 million average monthly active users by the third quarter of the year, a year-on-year increase of 54%.
4. Women Over 30 Become a Vital Demographic
The valuable consumer group represented by women over the age of 30 took center stage in 2020, due in no small part to two hit shows: Mango TV’s idol group competition show “Sisters Who Make Waves” (乘风破浪的姐姐) and Dragon TV drama “Nothing But Thirty” (三十而已, also available on Tencent Video), with brands seeing notable impacts as a result. While “Sisters” put a new spin on the pop group competition format by casting established celebrities over the age of 30, “Nothing But Thirty” dramatized the lives of three thirtysomething protagonists from different walks of life and the trials and tribulations of materially and socially keeping up with the Joneses.
Audiences and brands took to these programs with enthusiasm, with C-beauty brand Thanmelin gaining broad exposure as the title sponsor of “Sisters,” and its products featured heavily throughout the show. Meanwhile, eagle-eyed viewers of “Nothing But Thirty” sought out styles from the show from sellers on Taobao, even though it was not associated with the show, and the show attracted sponsors ranging from e-commerce platform Vipshop to Lancôme and Cadillac. “Lady Land,” the rapid-fire sequel to “Sisters Who Make Waves,” landed JD.com as the title sponsor and a varied group of consumer brands including Oreo, which also sponsored “Sisters.”
The “cool factor” of 30+ women spread beyond these programs as the year went on, with brands tailoring their content-commerce efforts to get on the bandwagon. The online meal-kit service Missfresh released a short film encouraging thirtysomething women to embrace self-confidence, while skincare brand Helena Rubinstein took title sponsorship of the Tencent Video talk show “Middle Me 30+,” a rare example of an international beauty brand taking such a prominent role on a Chinese show. By late November, New Zealand beauty brand Geoskincare had signed on as title sponsor of the TV show “Hear Her” (听见她说), the small-screen directorial debut of 44-year-old actress Zhao Wei, while Italian luxury house Fendi (which announced Zhao as its China spokesperson in July) received special thanks in the show’s credits and had its products featured prominently in the first episode.
In an example of striking while the iron was hot, producers were quick to try and apply the same magic appeal of women over the age of 30 to their male counterparts, announcing a male version of “Sisters Who Make Waves” titled “Overwhelming Brothers” (披荆斩棘的哥哥).
5. Chinese Tech Gives the Cold Shoulder to U.S. Listings
Another major story in 2020 was the growing number of global Chinese companies — many listed on U.S. stock markets — pursuing secondary listings in Hong Kong and/or Shanghai. Driven by rising regulatory scrutiny in the United States and Beijing’s promotion of the corporate “homecoming” of internationally listed Chinese companies, as many as 60 U.S.-listed could turn to either the Shanghai or Hong Kong exchanges in the next three to five years.
The controversy that hit previously high-flying Chinese unicorn Luckin Coffee in April spurred U.S. action against Chinese companies, and the topic of secondary listings heated up both among startups and well-established major global companies. By July, the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong had launched a new share index that included 30 of the biggest tech firms listed in the city, anchored by Chinese technology powerhouses such as Tencent, Alibaba, and JD.com. But it wasn’t just tech firms jumping on the homecoming bandwagon. In September, Yum China Holdings — China’s largest restaurant company and operator of KFC and Pizza Hut in China — launched a secondary listing in Hong Kong that raised $2.22 billion.
While a U.S. listing was, and still is, the dream for many tech founders in the China market, rock-bottom Sino-U.S. relations have only made secondary listings in Hong Kong or Shanghai more enticing as “insurance policies” that will insulate tech firms if the environment continues to deteriorate in the United States. In 2021, we can expect to see more Chinese firms avoiding U.S. listings altogether or even choose to delist and move to the Shanghai or Hong Kong bourses.
6. DTC and the Surge of Internet-Famous Brands
The year 2020 proved once and for all that consumers (in China, at least) do not necessarily require a physical touchpoint to build loyalty towards a brand or its products. “Internet-famous” (wanghong) brands — fully-online brands with no physical presence — and brands boasting a powerful online presence with a relatively small brick-and-mortar footprint surged this year, driven by purchases from consumers staying at home, and maintained that momentum even after life largely got back to normal in China during the second half of the year.
Among the digitally savvy brands that saw great success was the three-year-old C-beauty brand Perfect Diary, which has expanded into physical stores since its initial online-only launch. Owned by fast-growing Yatsen Holding, which saw its revenue quintuple in just one year and listed on the New York Stock Exchange last month, Perfect Diary is an example of a Chinese brand that is investing heavily in online marketing and data mining, the latter of which the brand uses to crank out new products — which are white-labeled for the brand by South Korean and Italian contract manufacturers — in rapid-fire succession. This year, in addition to opening more brick-and-mortar stores, Perfect Diary made tentative steps into global markets, signing Australian performer Troye Sivan as the face of its popular animal eye shadow collection.
Another “internet-famous” brand that had a big year was bottled drinks maker Genki Forest (元气森林, aka Yuanqi Senlin), which saw its market valuation triple between November 2019 and July 2020, powered by successful marketing of its “0 sugar, 0 fat, 0 calorie” beverages to younger consumers. This year, Genki Forest proved highly adept at employing the full range of popular marketing strategies, including celebrity ambassadors, brand collaborations, and sponsoring hit shows, and became the top-selling drinks brand on Tmall during the June 618 shopping festival, outselling global brand powerhouses Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
7. Brand Collaborations Are Now a Must-Have
Last year, we noted that collaborations were an important way for brands to create a spike in demand for limited-edition products while boosting publicity for the brands involved, pointing to particularly successful 2019 collaborations such as White Rabbit x Scent Library and MAC Cosmetics x Honor of Kings. In 2020, brand collaborations in China went from a nice-to-have to a must-have, with dozens (if not hundreds) of domestic and international brands rushing to launch collaborations aimed at driving sales during a difficult, pandemic-hit year.
While cosmetics and skin care remained fertile ground for brand collaborations (with MAC continuing its hot streak in this regard, rivaled by C-beauty brand Perfect Diary), the field opened up this year as partnerships branched into food and beverage, culture, fashion, and gaming — often in new and surprising ways.
Winners in the brand collaborations game this year included the buzzy eight-year-old tea chain Hey Tea, which delighted young consumers via collaborations like a limited-edition Adidas sneaker featuring a colorway inspired by the popular “succulent grape” beverage, an exclusive cosmetics crossover with Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty, and a partnership with Airbnb and actress and musician Lin Yu-pin to create a unique summer vacation stay in Shanghai. But a glance at our “best of brand collaborations” series proves that brand collaborations are not just for cosmetics brands or cute tea stores — they’re fully mainstream and now used by everyone from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Louis Vuitton to appeal to Gen Z and millennial consumers.