China / Hot Issues

Beyond marketing, expect the unexpected

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily) Updated: 2016-02-02 08:05

I never have much confidence in the marketing people who tout their extraordinary ability to turn some ordinary guys or events into - well - widespread media coverage. What fascinates me about those pieces of breaking news that were not really newsworthy yet caught public imagination is the unexpectedness of it all.

Take two recent examples. On Jan 17, a group of young people took to Beijing's subway and, at the designated time, whipped out their books. Reading in subway trains is nothing new. What made them unique were the paper books they held in their hands, not the mobile gadgets that are ubiquitous nowadays. So their performance art piece, orchestrated online but never rehearsed, hit a point that resonated with the media people, who arguably have more nostalgia for the dead-tree form of books that is fast receding into memory.

On top of that, there was the whiff of danger of an unregistered but obviously organized event.

The second story involved an amateur choir in Shanghai. It had been singing the standards since its founding in 2010. Everything went as anticipated until the end of last year, when Jin Chengzhi, the master of the choir, hit upon a ludicrous idea and composed a piece titled Where did you leave the key, Zhang Shichao?

Zhang, his roommate and classmate from the conservatory years, had gone on a date with a college girl in another part of Shanghai, forgetting to leave their shared key.

The mock frustration and anger would better fit an online ditty, but with eight parts of trained voices the comedic effect came into sharp relief. Chorus singing has always been associated with the grand and the sublime, not the mundane complaints of a misplaced key.

Beyond marketing, expect the unexpected

Anyway, nobody could have predicted it would be the first breakout song of the year, even though it is not quite hummable. Millions of dollars are spent on making pop songs into hits each year, but other than talent there is the wildcard of luck. Very often the surprise comes from the unconventionality of your approach. Had the subway youngsters stuck to e-books or the choir selected The Yellow River Cantata, they would never have attracted public notice.

That brings us to my stroke of luck 15 years ago. I never planned to be a film critic. I was writing on a wide range of subjects, including business and high tech, which were closer to my area of expertise. Because I wrote film reviews in the style of US mainstream publications, which were unfamiliar to most Chinese back then, I stood out instantly. Some scholars lambasted me for not following the norm, which highlighted my difference. If I had hired a marketing team to promote me, I would have doubled my effort and achieved half the result.

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