Alibaba Unveiled: Unpacking the Biggest Consumer Brand Name in the World

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Alibaba

Earlier this week, luxury brand Kering sued Alibaba, accusing it of knowingly profiting from the sale of knockoff and counterfeit products. But those products are sold on Tmall.com, not on Alibaba.com.

Although it’s the largest consumer name in the world, few outside China understand exactly what Alibaba is or does. Nor do they know what Tmall and Taobao are, or how AliExpress.com differs from Alibaba.com.

Following is a quick tutorial on Alibaba and its subsidiaries.

Alibaba Group: Founded in 1998 as a simple, single commerce site, the Alibaba corporate brand has grown into B2C, B2B and C2C portals encompassing a bit of everything—an eBay, Amazon (both its sales and cloud computing arms), Disney, PayPal, Google shopping, Spotify, Hulu and YouTube, among others.

Alibaba.com: This platform is largely B2B. If your business is looking to take advantage of the seemingly endless manufacturing and production capabilities of China, this is where you go. For example, Alibaba.com has personalized red enamel mugs for a minimum order of 10,000 pieces. Be prepared to fill out customs paperwork.

AliExpress.com: If Alibaba.com is overkill, AliExpress may be more your speed. Here you can order customized enamel mugs in quantities of 50 or less. AliExpress per-piece prices are generally higher, but shipping is faster and often done in small enough packages that no serious customs paperwork is required.

Taobao.com: Alibaba’s original C2C e-commerce site, Taobao (淘宝) means “panning for treasure” or a better match for English “treasure search.” Taobao offers more than 750 million products and is best compared to eBay, with most transactions happening between individuals. Consequently, if you’re looking to find counterfeits—or to be ripped off—Taobao is your best bet. A vast majority of Taobao’s revenue comes from selling advertising to retailers looking to get noticed by shoppers.

Tmall.com: The greatest confusion around Alibaba is between Taobao.com and Tmall.com. Tmall was launched in 2008, five years after Taobao.com. Meant to be a B2C complement to Taobao, Tmall grew into almost a competitor of Taobao. In 2011, Tmall.com was spun off into its own independent e-commerce company.

Tmall.com cat logo Tmall

If you see a cat logo, that’s the “skycat” and you’re on Tmall.com as the site’s known in Chinese as 天猫 (tiānmāo), or “lynx.” For foreign brands, Tmall.com is Alibaba’s most attractive “legit” B2C platform. Tmall sellers are required to provide significantly more registration information than Taobao sellers. Tmall.com facilitates brand storefronts, allowing some to reach hundreds of millions of consumers while foregoing brick-and-mortar stores altogether. For example, luxury Tesla automobiles are sold exclusively on Tmall.com. Tmall.com is also where China’s e-commerce innovation is happening. For instance, New Zealand apple growers used clever Tmall.com marketing to sell 60,000 apples in two hours.

11main.com: Launched in 2014, Alibaba’s US-based shopping platform aims to be Tmall.com for America. While it has attracted some retailers on the strength of its parent’s name, it remains to be seen if 11main.com can make a name for itself amongst better-established competitors like Amazon.com.

Alipay: With 300 million users and processing in the neighborhood of $700 billion a year—about half of all of China’s online payments—Alipay is an 11-year-old financial powerhouse. Alipay is now global and looking to court international users and partners such as Walmart.

Aliyun: Like Amazon’s service, Alibaba’s cloud computing service is both a reliable host for e-commerce services as well as data-mining resource. Aliyun (阿里云) literally means “AliCloud.”

eTao.com: Originally part of Taobao, eTao (一淘), meaning “one search,” is a comparison shopping site much like Google’s shopping portal.

Aliwangwang: A free instant messaging app designed for use between Alibaba.com and Taobao.com members.

Laiwang: One of Alibaba’s business areas where it does not dominate is instant messaging. Competing with crazy popular messaging service Wechat, Alibaba has retooled late-to-the-game Laiwang (来往), meaning “contact,” to be more of a group chat service.

Youku Tudou: Youku.com is a huge video portal with both user-generated content and professional content, much like YouTube. Youku legally streams many popular international shows, including Korean and US dramas, pulling in hundreds of millions of views.

Xiami.com: Clearly influenced by popular western equivalents Spotify and Pandora, Alibaba acquired  Xiami (虾米 “shrimp rice”) in 2013 to get a foothold in music streaming for China.

Alibaba Pictures: As Alibaba’s foraying into filmmaking, in February 2015 its motion pictures arm released its first movie, Wolf Totem (狼图腾), which was based on a popular Chinese novel. A modest success, Wolf Totem ranked No. 57 for China’s all-time biggest opening weekends, grossing over $110 million. Time will tell if Alibaba can find a way to be dominant in China’s exploding movie business, in addition to branded entertainment.

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