Alibaba’s Biggest Challenge: Make 11.11 About Growth, Not Just Shopping

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Alibaba 11.11 Singles Day

To make one of the stars of a TV show about two financially struggling women the face of the world’s biggest celebration of conspicuous consumption is both appropriate and ironic. But that’s just what China’s Alibaba has done.

Beth Behrs, star of the hit US TV sitcom 2 Broke Girls, will join Katy Perry as a face of Alibaba’s 11.11 Singles Day shopping extravaganza. They won’t be the only celebs fronting Alibaba’s all-new 11.11 event. But these global stars are not just being hired to promote shopping; Alibaba has promised, this year 11.11 will be about “more than shopping.”

(For more on the billion-dollar 11.11 Chinese shopping holiday called Singles Day, read this first.)

Jack Ma Kobe Bryant Alibaba Singles Day 11.11

German soccer superstar Thomas Mueller and US NBA star Kobe Bryant have both been put on retainer by Alibaba for 11.11. OneRepublic, the US band behind the hit Counting Stars, will perform at Alibaba’s festivities. Sui He, China’s first Victoria’s Secret model, will also appear. And those festivities will be coordinated by fashion honcho Nick Wooster and TV veteran David Hill, whose resume includes both Oscars and NFL Super Bowls.

The stars aren’t just Western. On Nov 1, South Korean pop superstar and one-time Girls Generation group member, Taeyeon, dropped a new single titled “11.11.” The somber, Singles Day-themed love ballad already has 5.6 million views on YouTube.

Alibaba is making it about more than brand ambassadors, wanting this to be the most virtual 11.11 ever. To that end, Alibaba is preparing new virtual reality shopping experiences.

To get consumers excited about those VR shopping experiences, starting October 21, Alibaba e-commerce site Taobao began selling 150,000 VR headsets for just 1 yuan each ($0.15). Last year, Alibaba reported that it was selling 300,000 VR headsets a month (yes, a month!)

According to Alibaba, these VR headsets will allow “the entire shopping experience, from perusal to purchase” to happen in VR, including the event’s mascot, a VR “carnival cat.” It’s just one more win on the long list of gimmicks Alibaba is hoping will meet its promise to make 11.11 about “more than shopping.”

Alibaba 11.11 Singles Day Carnival Cat

This is the fundamental challenge facing Alibaba’s 11.11. What is it, if not shopping? Until now, the event has been defined by its size and not by much else. Even Alibaba seems willing to play into this.

Its new in-house web film, An American at Alibaba: Inside China’s Giant 11.11 Online Sale, can’t get past 30 seconds without launching into how many billions of dollars worth of merchandize the brand sold in 24 hours last year. But it fails to answer a question every consumer outside China will want to know about 11.11: What is it beyond a global shopping spree?

There does not seem to be an answer for this right now at Alibaba. The group’s current message is, “Hey, come shop 11.11 because it’s so big.” Defining your brand simply by size and displacement is in some ways a very Chinese thing to do. But it is not good branding. While 11.11 is a phenomenon, what is its brand? We know about its visual identity. But what is the mixture of attributes that make up its personality? Is it anything more than “big” and “discounts?” Can it reach holiday status?

As brandchannel observed not long ago, Alibaba’s 11.11 is desperate to be about something other than discounts. Discounts are certainly back this year. Apple will severely discount products at its Tmall store—though this might have something to do recent worrisome rumors about underwhelming Apple events and brand enthusiasm in China.

Nike, Leica, Macy’s, Target, Dyson and even the new Shanghai Disneyland will offer Tmall discounts. The massive consumer holiday that Alibaba created and trademarked just a decade ago is poised to see sales up by at least one-third this year to close to $20 billion.

Alibaba’s investment in star power and a week-long circus of fashion shows, VR content and promotions is an attempt to reverse-engineer 11.11, to take an already phenomenal event and give it meaning. It needs that meaning to go global, beyond the “international” targets this year of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

A testament to the challenge Alibaba faces is how little anyone it’s trying to reach is talking about 11.11. It’s the largest concentrated consumer event in the history of the world—yet anyone in the US would be hard-pressed to see anything about it in popular media.

In fact, there is almost no news coverage in the US beyond a few Forbes articles, pieces like this one on branding new sites and from Alibaba’s own news unit, Alizila, which keeps pumping out 11.11 promotional videos in different languages including these:

Alibaba is thinking past 11.11, both in the sense of this year’s event and the diversity of the company’s business in the long term.

Alibaba recently created a new arm that is made up from Youku Tudou (YouTube-Netflix-like web streaming), Alibaba Pictures (film studio), Yu Yongf (music streaming and publishing) and UCWeb (mobile web browsing). The new arm will be a powerful force in media.

Add to this the fact that Alibaba also just took a stake in Amblin Partners, Steven Spielberg’s filmmaking production company. Clearly, Alibaba aims to be the world’s biggest name in entertainment. But is this 11.11 the tipping point for those aspirations?

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