Localize and Globalize — As a global brand that is helping other businesses go global, we understand the necessity and challenges of opening to new markets. But, make sure you are opening local offices, like ours in NY, to offer a local perspective to a global strategy.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Erica Chan, Head of Brand, Experience and Insights, B2B North America, Alibaba.com
Erica Chan joined Alibaba Group in 2018 to lead brand and marketing strategy for Alibaba.com in the U.S.. Alibaba.com is one of the world’s largest B2B ecommerce marketplaces and a business unit of Alibaba Group. She helped oversee the brand re-launch in the U.S. in 2019, when it unveiled its enhanced platform to enable U.S. small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to sell their products to millions of Alibaba.com buyers in the U.S. and around the globe. With a mission to make it easy for SMBs to do business anywhere, Alibaba.com is dedicated to making it easier for the nearly 30 million SMBs in the U.S. to access the 23.9 trillion dollars global B2B ecommerce market, an opportunity that is six times larger than the global B2C ecommerce market.
Prior to joining Alibaba, Erica was Strategy Director at Interbrand where she worked with top global brands to build business and brand clarity, internal capabilities and winning customer experiences.
Erica has a B.S. in Applied Economics from Cornell University and a Master in City Planning with a focus on economic development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up, I dreaded two types of questions: “what do you want to be when you grow up”, and “which one/ what would you like”.
The inability/ resistance to choice would come as no surprise to those familiar with my wardrobe. It is also what attracted me to study economics and urban planning — the study of choice, and how relationships and decisions are formed and intertwined to shape our built, social and economic landscapes.
But when it was time to find a job, I still couldn’t answer the question “what I wanted to do/ be when I grow up”. With luck and serendipity, I ended up on a meandering path that took me around the world, from North America to Asia and Europe (and a brief stint in Africa), shuttling between the private, public, and non-profit sectors. I am blessed to have worked with and learned from a variety of generous and inspiring people that span from recovering heroin addicts, to Ivy league/Oxbridge educated executives, to scrappy and resilient small business owners and entrepreneurs. Whether it was creating and bringing to market a brand of condoms and harm reduction facilities to conducting commercial due diligence on sectors that are invisible to many, to seeding and sustaining NYC’s entrepreneurship and tech ecosystem, to designing and corporate growth strategies, a few learnings prevail:
- Change is never a straight shot, and so the long(er) view and context are important.
- Change doesn’t happen in silos — getting people to collaborate and approach problems from a systems point of view takes work, but is important.
- It’s all about trust.
My role as a brand and business builder is, ultimately, about building trust — internally across stakeholders and business units, and externally with our customers and the larger ecosystem.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
While I can’t think of any “funny marketing mistakes”, one thing that we always need to be cautious of, when working across borders and building a global brand with Alibaba.com, is that humor and slangs often do not translate. So balancing “global” with “local” is always something we need to keep in mind. What in one country may be considered a funny quip, in another could be seen as an insult or lack of respect to the receiver, so we always have to be mindful how things are presented globally vs. locally.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Alibaba.com, we are striving to reinforce our customer-first approach across the entire organization. One of our core values is trust makes everything simple — so we try to reinforce that every chance we get. If we can garner trust from our customers and trust each other at work, our jobs all become easier. Our Brand Team is more than just the folks who work on marketing or sales, each employee is considered part of the brand team in order to play a positive role with customers. When we put the needs of customers first, everyone has a role to play in ensuring the brand serves customers and the insights we gain from customers result in better products, services and experiences.
We have a bit of an office wide expectation and competition in New York that we call ‘Customer Hours’. Our small business customers teach us more each day about what they need than any research we could do. So, each employee, no matter if you’re Head of Marketing, a sales executive or on the design team has to spend a certain amount of time each week speaking with customers. At the end of the week, the employee with the most Customer Hours gets a shout out. It has been a really fun way for us to internally gamify increased customer interaction. Instead of working in silos on the brand, customer success or sales teams, we are all one team with a shared goal.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Just a few weeks ago we shared the results of our second US SMB Confidence survey which found that manufacturers are adopting digital tools at a faster rate than they have ever before. Given manufacturers are now rapidly turning to these channels to catch up, now more than ever they need practical, pragmatic advice and guidance but what we hear is they’re not sure where to start or turn for help. So, we launched a new initiative to help: the Alibaba.com Digitization Sprint for US Manufacturers to provide curriculum, coaching and community to help US manufacturers accelerate the digitization of their online marketing, selling and sourcing and to help ensure their long-term digital success. And as an ally to businesses and the organizations that serve them, we are tapping our relationships to bring together partners like the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the Brooklyn Navy Yard to give manufacturers a bootcamp that truly impacts their business. We will be kicking off later this month and manufacturing businesses with fewer than 500 employees can apply now at Alibaba.com/digitalsprint.
The 3 focuses of the program are:
- Curriculum from Alibaba.com’s team, industry leaders and collaborators. The four-week sprint will feature modules that cover topics from the basics of eCommerce like jargon and acronyms to tangible skills and tips on digital advertising, taking quality product photos and leveraging social media to build your brand and reach B2B customers.
- Coaching from Alibaba.com and other experts on succeeding in the digital economy with weekly modules and tailored sessions.
- Community through a private LinkedIn group and round table discussions with experts and peers.
I think as more manufacturers are attempting to navigate the digital world it is so important to offer resources and community like this so we can support them and they can support each other.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
At Alibaba.com, we think of all marketing as Brand marketing and even consider each member of our team to be on the Brand Team. We try not to differentiate our products from our brand mission and therefore focus all of our marketing efforts on the brand.
For the first 17 years Alibaba.com was a catalogue of suppliers mostly based in southeast Asia. Nearly three years ago we began an earnest transformation on our journey to reinvent global trade — this time by disrupting ourselves. We set out to transition to an end-to-end global trading platform with simple search and discovery, efficient communication and trusted payment, financing and logistics options — and to add global supply. In doing so we had to completely challenge what was already known about our brand and in turn we pivoted our marketing strategy as well.
Our mission has always been to make it easy for businesses to do business anywhere, and we continue to keep that as a North Star through every change to our business. We recognize that global trade is difficult for small and medium-sized buyers and sellers who may not have the expertise or services available to facilitate cross-border marketing, sales and supply chain management, so we use insights from our customers to help remove the biggest barriers to trade and deliver an experience that enables their success.
Instead of creating new products and marketing them, we make sure our new products always ladder back to our vision so we can market honestly and gain the trust of our customers.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
I think in today’s world we have found that customers are really looking for brands they can trust. By investing energy and resources into building a trustworthy brand, in the long run you will find yourself with more loyal customers and even more loyal employees.
As an established brand in China and a burgeoning brand in the US, we are focusing on our customers first. Because our customers tend to be new to eCommerce, we are building an ecosystem of different types of partners and collaborators, including other B2B service providers such as ShipStation and local and national trusted communities such as trade associations and chambers of commerce to support these B2B SMB customers on their digital journey.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
- Listen and Learn — Make sure you are spending a part of each of your days talking to your actual customers and learning what they actually are looking for instead of a perceived notion. Each employee at Alibaba.com New York has to spend a certain amount of time on the phone with customers each week so we can all understand the business better.
- Offer Resources — In January, Alibaba.com launched B2B Tuesday, an awareness and educational initiative to spotlight, celebrate, and support B2B focused U.S. small businesses, highlight their contributions to the U.S. economy, and help them grow. Given the business environment in March, Alibaba.com has rapidly expanded the weekly resource series into a daily format that we call “B2B Today” to help our customers and all small businesses navigate the disruption to the economy, their businesses, and their families.
- Increase Accessibility to Leaders — During COVID-19 we realized everyone was in need of leadership, so John Caplan, President North America and Europe for Alibaba.com began a weekly LinkedIn Live series with other business luminaries sharing tips and lessons learned.
- Stay True to your Purpose — We are focused on giving sellers a doorstep to the world, targeted visibility and allyship throughout their entire journey and are learning everyday what buyers need from us and then creating those products — whether it be easier logistic integrations, payment terms or digital trade shows.
- Localize and Globalize — As a global brand that is helping other businesses go global, we understand the necessity and challenges of opening to new markets. But, make sure you are opening local offices, like ours in NY, to offer a local perspective to a global strategy.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
A company which has done a great job building their brand is AirBnB. It has turned an idea that is highly uncomfortable — introducing strangers into your home and staying in strangers’ homes, into something that is exciting and desirable.In the process, they have redefined travel and how we relate to the places that we visit. I am excited to see how they continue to innovate as the travel industry continues to face increasing challenges.
Alibaba.com is a similar situation in that we are trying to broker trust between businesses from around the world. Global trade is fraught with uncertainties and complexities, and that is often exacerbated when things are done online, when the buyers and sellers do have the benefit of an in-person factory visit, or the assurance of a face-to-face conversation and handshake. One thing we can learn from AirBnB is how they have created and reinforced a triangle or trust — between host-guest-AirBnB — because of the trust that customers place in the platform, they have overcome their skepticism and can build trust with one another to unlock new experiences and opportunities. That is exactly what we want to replicate for the world of digital B2B trade.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
We measure the success of our brand building on the success and growth of our customers’ businesses. By building more awareness and understanding of our brand and customers in the US, we are gaining more traction to our site and ultimately to our sellers who are able to do more business.
This differs from product marketing because we aren’t focused on sales of individual services we offer, but instead the products and services our customers sell.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
Our main goal in branding is to stay as authentic and customer-first as possible.So, we carry that through to our social media efforts. We highlight our customer success and pivot stories and share resources for small businesses to succeed.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks off. Learn a new skill. Volunteer. Do something totally unrelated to your day job. Perspective is important because as marketers or guardians of customer experience, we always need to make sure that we’re not just speaking to, or designing, for ourselves in our own bubbles. I also find that these experiences often inspire me to do things a little differently in my day-to-day, and makes me appreciate what I do more.
I must say, this has been especially hard during COVID when we are all seemingly working all the time, and are not taking enough time off to avoid burnout. It is also harder to go volunteer or travel.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Take a gap year, no matter whether you’re in college or mid-career. Do something different/ outside of your comfort zone, get to know people who are different from you, and get a new perspective. It is ironic that as the world is getting increasingly connected, we are getting more polarized and isolated. I am lucky to have lived and worked in different places and settings. For anything to happen, building trust is critical. And building trust needs to start with an open mind, and by being able to take a step in the other person’s shoes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Alibaba has a core set of values that are customer-first and employee-centric. My personal favorite is If not me, who? If not now, when? I think this is so important at work but also in my personal life. It emphasizes that I am empowered to show up both to work and at home every day and make decisions that are impactful and push towards the future.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Serena Williams — world-class athlete, activist, entrepreneur and mother — how does she do it all! Also, what are tips on raising strong daughters/ women!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericachan2/
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.