Brands Turn To Live-Streaming As China Returns To Work

Taobao Live, Alibaba Group’s live-streaming platform, saw a sharp rise in brand activity this past month as merchants slowly resumed operations and looked for ways to reach consumers amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak. In early February, livestream sessions on the platform had increased by 110% compared to the same period last year, according to Taobao Live. Driving that growth was the surge of businesses using online tools to maintain sales and engagement with consumers while their physical stores remained shuttered and millions were confined to their homes to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

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This month, Taobao Live users can watch chefs broadcasting cooking tutorials in restaurant kitchens, real-estate agents giving tours of apartments, celebrities and singers performing online concerts from their homes, rural farmers promoting their fruits and vegetables and even auto dealers showcasing the interiors of luxury cars. Auto brands such as BMW are leveraging livestreaming to introduce consumers to car models, interiors and experience test drives. “We want to make it easier for different clients across sectors to make use of livestreaming and help them more quickly resume operations,” said Yuan Yuan, head of content operations at Taobao Live.

For some brands, livestreaming is not just a standalone marketing tool but can be used strategically alongside other online resources to drive sales of new products. On Feb. 13, Chinese technology brand Xiaomi tapped Taobao Live, among other livestream channels, to broadcast the launch of its new flagship smartphone, the Mi 10, from its Beijing headquarters. The phone officially went on sale the next day during Xiaomi’s Tmall Super Brand Day, which utilizes all the resources across the Alibaba ecosystem to create a smaller version of the company’s annual 11.11 mega-sale for a single brand, and became the top-selling smartphone on Tmall, leading to over 300 million yuan in total sales for the brand.

The spread of the virus has also taken a heavy toll on the restaurant industry. Last year, earnings over the Spring Festival holiday represented about 15% of the annual revenue of China’s food and beverage industry, which totaled 4.67 trillion yuan, according to a report released by the China Cuisine Association earlier this month. The survey found that about 73% of companies chose to close all their offline stores in response to the outbreak. The CCA also estimated that consumers – many who called off family reunions to avoid face-to-face contact during the outbreak – canceled about 94% of food orders ahead of the Chinese New Year. Beijing-based restaurant chain Meizhou Dongpo, for example, said it canceled 11,144 table reservations across its 100-plus stores from Jan. 21-30 and lost about 17 million yuan during the Spring Festival period.

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With offline businesses at a standstill, Meizhou Dongpo began leveraging its brick-and-mortar staff to virtually connect with consumers and drive sales to its online store. Its chefs appeared in livestreams to show viewers how to make traditional delicacies like homemade glutinous rice balls ahead of the Lantern Festival. This allowed the brand to share its craft with fans and receive direct feedback on things such as popular dishes. The sessions also directed consumers to products like braised pork belly in the chain’s Tmall flagship store, creating another revenue stream for the restaurant.

Businesses have also taken the opportunity to train employees and build partnerships based around livestreaming. China’s second-largest home-improvement and furniture retailer, Easyhome, said staff from 232 of its stores nationwide broadcast 4,810 sessions last week to 3.58 million viewers. Meanwhile, in collaboration with brand partners such as Estée Lauder, Lancôme, Kiehl’s, Vans and Baodao Optical, Intime department store launched an initiative encouraging staff to stream from their homes.

Idle factories and traditional markets, like the wholesale marketplaces in the Chinese city of Yiwu, are also using the tool to bring in business. Taobao said it plans to hold an online market on Feb. 27 for all brick-and-mortar business owners, including the 3,000-plus Yiwu-based merchants already registered on Taobao Live.

Taobao Live said it is now collaborating with even more industries to bring their offline experiences and products online. These include tourism agencies, fashion shows and museums, such as the National Museum of China, Suzhou Museum and Dunhuang Museum.

“The future of shopping will be more dynamic, interactive and driven by real-time feedback. Livestreaming offers a peek into that future and new possibilities,” said Yuan.