Jumping on the brandwagon: good or bad?

While consumer trends provide great opportunities for brand marketers to engage with consumers, we should think before jumping on the bandwagon.

Update in 2019: Great minds think alike. The water fountain concept (counter-)recommended in this article from 2017 is now adopted by Pepsico in their sustainability initiative — Hydration Platform. It has won the Innovation by Design Awards of 2019 (UX category).

A bike rider with Mobike (Photo: Mobike)

To stay relevant, brands need to be agile. Thomas Ordahl, a brand consultant from Landor, listed the four key criteria of agile brands:

1) Be Open-Minded: Consumers are not stupid; they do not accept everything brands tell them. Consumers want to feel in control; participation allows them to feel apart. Agile brands listen to consumers and collaborate with them to build the brands consumers love.

2) Be Flexible: Agile brands are not bounded by themselves. To remain current, they adapt to changes quickly. Agile brands are not afraid to break out of existing models and habits (see Netflix).

3) Be Responsible: Agile brands are responsible citizens. They give back to their community. Consumers, especially those born in the 1980s and later, increasingly value brands that are socially responsible.

4) Be Present: Brands should be there when they are needed. Agile brands add value at the touch points where consumers need them most.

Brands often ride on popular events, social issues or market trends to stay connected with consumers. Agile brands do these while staying true to themselves and adding value to consumers. They aim for long-term brand equity rather than the short-term spotlight or a brief sales spike. Brands that jump on any bandwagon without careful consideration are simply blind followers.

In recent years, sustainability has become an issue that agile brands cannot ignore. Whether by revamping their business models or processes through innovations in products or services, or by partnering with governments or NGOs, agile brands need to take an active role in caring for our environment and future.

An example of a government-backed sustainability programme is bike-sharing. Beginning in Europe around the 1960s, we have seen bike-sharing schemes being introduced around the world over the years as a solution to the need to provide more sustainable modes of transportation. Many of these are government-backed. Bike-sharing can be used as part of a multi-modal transportation strategy to better suit individual needs, and it can help ease congestion on the roads. Besides, bike-sharing also offers a healthy, alternative means to experience the city.

In New York, Citibank was selected by the New York City Department of Transportation in 2011 as the title sponsor for the city’s bike-sharing scheme. Citibank pays for the bikes. The scheme is called Citi Bike, which of course reminds us of Citibank. Riding on Citi Bikes, painted in Citibank’s familiar blue hue, provides “free” mobile advertising around the city, strengthening the brand’s equity by reminding people that Citibank supports sustainable living. On a branding level, Citi Bike is a success.

Across the world in China, we are beginning to see a lot of buzz around bike-sharing (共享單車). Updates about user experience, sometimes along with fitness tracking results, are now trending on WeChat Moments (朋友圈) and Weibo (微博) — the most popular Chinese social media platforms.

While bike-sharing schemes have been around for some time in some Chinese cities, most of them are government-funded, smaller in scale and limited in availability, since the bikes must be parked at designated docking stations. A Chinese identity card is required for registration, so these schemes are also not accessible to the large expatriate population in China.

But the bike-sharing scene is changing. With private start-ups joining in, bike-sharing schemes are growing rapidly around China. For example, Mobike (摩拜單車) recently completed another round of funding for US$215 million. Its investors include Tencent, Ctrip, Huazhou Hotels Group and Foxconn. Initially launched in Shanghai in 2015, the distinctive orange Mobikes could be found in 13 Chinese cities by the end of 2016. In 2017, Mobike aims to expand to a total of 100 Chinese cities and internationally, in places such as Singapore. Another major competitor in the market is Beijing-based yellow Ofo (小黃車), with its name resembling the shape of a bike.

Like Citibank with its sponsorship of Citi Bikes, Ofo has also secured partnerships with bicycle brands like Phoenix (鳳凰) and Forever (永久). Is there any other way for brands to take a share of this? Can brands ride on the trend in China as successfully as Citibank did in New York? Do brands need to ride on every trend that emerges in the market to remain agile?

At the time of writing, brands other than the above have yet to take full advantage of the bike-sharing hype in China. But I have managed to find one article by a market researcher, suggesting a list of possible ways beverage brands can leverage the opportunities offered by this trend:

1. Position beverage products more on hydration
2. Emphasize that packaging better suits bike rides
3. Position on fun/leisure/pleasure or convenience/mobility aspects of their brands to go with predominant motivations behind bike riding
4. Tie-ups with bike sharing companies for marketing purposes
5. Come up with innovation specific to bike riders, e.g. a premium product that enhances the experience of riding a bike or makes it easier to ride
6. Marketing centered around connectivity (apps) and social media
7. CVS focus for product distribution
8. Segment specific innovation, e.g. gender-specific composition of the product or packaging

While the list is long, his suggestions are too generic. Two questions immediately pop up: Aren’t beverage brands already doing most of these? How about sustainability?

The second question is perhaps a bigger problem.

Underlying the wide array of bike-sharing schemes around the world is the basic tenet of sustainability. Biking is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Yet to emphasise “packaging (that) better suits bike rides” is to promote smaller SKUs suitable for on-the-go consumption, thus creating more waste and carbon emissions. Doesn’t this run counter to the one of the main goals of bike-sharing? It sure is a bandwagon that packaged beverage brands should not jump on just like that.

As an alternative, I have the following suggestions for beverage brands. First, be open-minded, flexible and responsible. Hold back the urge to promote single-use packaged drinks. Instead, encourage bike riders to carry a reusable water bottle and refill it. To increase their presence at touch points where bike riders will likely need them, beverage brands can forge partnerships with convenience stores to install drink stations that offer water and other thirst-quenching beverages (like the soft-drinks fountain on the left below). Such reusable water bottles (with the beverage brands’ logo) could be purchased at convenience stores. Exploring such new product formats, particularly those that offer an “easy way out” for consumers to live green and resonate with their increasing awareness for sustainability, could demonstrate just the type of agility that brands need to stay relevant in today’s fast-changing marketplace.

Drink station in a convenience store (photo taken from the internet)

Hong Konger. World Explorer. Fun Lover.