Weekly Focus: Alibaba Taps Marketplace Insights to Help Brands Create New Products

This week, the spotlight is back on Alibaba Group and its touted use of online customer data to help brands come up with new products that cater to current consumer desires and needs.

The Chinese e-commerce operator, together with global confection maker Mars, created a new flavour for the latter’s Snickers bar that tapped the popularity of mala amongst consumers in China. Mala, typically used in the form of a sauce, is spicy and numbs the lips and tongue when eaten.

The flavour profile was used to create a chilli-infused Snickers specifically for the Chinese market, following an analysis of Mars’ consumer data, as well as insights from Alibaba’s user base of more than 500 million across its online marketplaces. The two companies also conducted customer surveys to identify potential flavours that could be introduced locally.

The process took a year, from concept to launch, and included the use of tools to determine pricing structures, merchandising, and package design.

Mars’ head of digital commerce and China digital innovation centre, Wallace Du, said: “Leveraging the insights we got from the collaboration, we connected a flavour loved by 41% of Chinese consumers with our chocolate.”

Since its introduction last August, ‘Snickers Spicy’ has rung up sales exceeding ¥9m (£1.02m) and received a 92% positive review from consumers, according to Du.

Alibaba credited the success to the ability to extract data insights from its sizeable online customer base and applying the company’s analytical tools to help brands “navigate every stage of the product cycle” – spanning discovery, design, and development.

Such efforts were the offshoot of the company’s opening, in April 2017, of its Tmall Innovation Centre, which aimed to assist brands in creating products that better catered to Chinese consumer demand.

Located in Hangzhou, the centre boasts a team of market researchers who take care of market research, sales, and data analysis as well as product design. To date, the facility has worked with 37 international brands including Mars, P&G, Mattel, SkinCeuticals, and L’Oreal.

Alibaba’s Tmall brand marketing and head of the innovation centre, Duan Miya, said: “By offering brands a fuller look on what and when to offer to the Chinese customers, we have significantly increased the success rate of the product and reduced the lead time and cost for our partners.”

The centre also offers services to help brands come up with targeted advertising campaigns that will run on Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, as well as customised online messaging, social media posts, TV commercials, print ads, and a redesign of the brand’s store on the Tmall platform.

The innovation centre, for instance, worked with SkinCeuticals to send out free samples and survey forms to shoppers who used medicated skincare products. Its findings revealed that, unlike the U.S. company’s customers in Europe and the U.S., Chinese consumers showed more interest in anti-blemish, rather than anti-wrinkle, products.

Its findings prompted a redesign of its online storefront on Tmall, which helped double average spend per transaction and drove the store’s conversion rate to 71% in the month after the launch of its new marketing initiave.

SkinCeuticals China’s project director Huang Qiuying said: “With the help of Tmall’s market analysis, we were able to more precisely identify our China customer base, differentiate our online versus offline customers, and curate our product assortment and promotional campaign.”

3 Carmakers Tune Into Tmall Genie

In a separate announcement, Alibaba said it had signed on Audi, Daimler, and Volvo as the first batch of auto manufacturers to support its Tmall Genie device and enable their connected car apps to work with the voice-powered smart speaker.

Car owners of the three brands will be able to use Tmall Genie to carry out various functions whilst remaining in their home, such as monitoring fuel levels and engine status as well as controlling car doors and windows.

App support from the car manufacturers is expected to be available “in the near future”, according to Alibaba. While Volvo had unveiled plans to do so for its XC90, S90, and XC60 models, Audi and Daimler had yet to offer similar details.

Alibaba’s head of AI Labs and creator of Genie, Chen Lijuan, said: “Cars are an environment, alongside the home and the office, where individuals spend a significant amount of time and which, through connectivity, can become an important part of life. Identifying how to serve car users with our smart home assistant Tmall Genie is one of our top priorities.”

According to Alibaba, more than two million units of Tmall Genie have been sold in China since its launch in July last year.

Iceland Foods Goes to China on JD.com

The UK’s supermarket chain, Iceland Foods, has unveiled its first online store in China through JD.com’s cross-border e-commerce site, JD Worldwide.

The partnership would see Iceland-branded products, as well as a selected range of products from other brands, such as Pulsin and Re-gen, made available to Chinese consumers on the e-commerce platform. JD.com boasts a base of 300 million active customers in the country.

First introduced in 2015 to offer local consumers access to international companies, JD Worldwide currently offers products by 20,000 brands from 70 markets worldwide.

UK brands, specifically, doubled in number over the past two years, JD.com said, adding that sales of products from these retailers also doubled last year.

JD.com’s CEO and chairman Richard Liu said early this year that the company was targeting to sell £2bn of UK goods to Chinese consumers over the next couple of years.