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Is Singles Day ready to woo Europe?

By Mike Bastin | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-11-27 15:04

Alibaba should analyze just how the phenomenon, so wildly successful in China, can be expanded into other countries

Now that the dust has settled on yet another incredible Singles Day shopping binge, it may be a good time to take a closer look at the annual event and consider whether the concept could be exported across Europe.

A cursory glance at the colossal year-on-year growth in spending surely suggests Alibaba would be well-advised to screen overseas markets and specific European countries where a similar Singles Day event might appeal.

The European economy remains decidedly sluggish, and any boost in investment and consumer spending will be warmly welcomed.

Is Singles Day ready to woo Europe?

Singles Day this year, Nov 11 - or 1111, where the four numerals stand for four people - raked in an unbelievable 120 billion yuan ($17.4 billion; 16.4 billion euros; 14 billion) via Alibaba's e-commerce platform. More than a billion payments took place in total, which represents a surge of almost 50 percent year-on-year.

Let's not forget that this massive consumer spending spree, and the growth that shows no sign of abating, is happening at a time when the Chinese economy continues to slow and grow more modestly.

It is also important to be aware that Singles Day sales exceed the combined sales that take place on Cyber Monday and Black Friday.

So, what about international expansion of the now established Singles Day brand?

Certainly Alibaba and its more-than-charismatic leader Jack Ma have made no secret of their commitment to international expansion.

At present, sales take place in over 200 countries worldwide, and a whopping 47 million consumers participate with purchases largely of well known international brands.

The US, now with President-elect Trump, would not appear to represent the most attractive Singles Day exporting opportunity. But Europe is another story, where individual countries protect often very different customs and cultures.

To conduct a thorough review of attractive European markets for Singles Day expansion it would behoove Alibaba to enlist the cooperation and collaboration of those brand producers that benefit most from the current Singles Day sales extravaganza. Apple and Nike continue to reign supreme here and would surely welcome anything that in any way resembles the sort of Singles Day spending spree witnessed recently across China.

Crucially, Alibaba must immerse itself in major European cultures and histories in order to arrive at a decision whether or not to promote the Singles Day brand and, if an opportunity appears feasible, precisely how to position the brand in each European country.

Segments of Europe, north and south, have varying climates that have contributed considerably to tangible lifestyle differences and cultural values. But, starting with northern Europe, even this divide requires careful attention. The UK provides a good example of a European country that contrasts with, say, Germany and Scandinavia.

Critically, the UK - and France, too, for that matter - observe Remembrance Day every Nov 11. Inaugurated by King George V in 1919, it commemorates the end of hostilities in World War I in 1918. Across the UK and France this is an integral part of national culture and heritage. So Alibaba needs to look further afield in order launch any sort of Singles Day celebration for European consumers.

The solemnity of Remembrance Day in the minds of the British and French would appear to represent an insurmountable entry barrier for the Singles Day brand on that day.

Purchasing power considerations lead logically to the other European members of the G8 - Germany and Italy.

Across Germany, November represents the star of the carnival season and a runup to Christmas festivities. So there's some hope here for Alibaba. But German consumers differ significantly in their consumer behavior patterns from Chinese.

One stark difference is the importance of celebrities as part of any brand promotion campaign. This year, Alibaba signed the Beckhams of world football fame, US basketball star Kobe Bryant and film star Scarlet Johansson.

The German public may not object to the near overuse of global sports and entertainment celebrities, but such figures will probably not influence consumer spending in the same way as they would with Chinese consumers.

For Singles Day brand positioning inside the German consumers' mind it is important to go back to the very beginning of the event. Contrary to popular belief, Singles Day did not start with Alibaba but has its roots in the early 1990s. Back then, a small group of university students adopted the four numeral "1"s on Nov 11 as a symbol of four single - and perhaps lonely - people.

A more rational yet emotionally romantic brand positioning of Singles Day based on these origins will sit far more comfortably inside the German consumer's mind.

Germany, like the collection of Scandinavian countries, has evolved into a very modern, caring and sharing society that is widely respected around the world. As a result, any Singles Day brand image needs to fit in with these societal values. The German people will respond positively to a Singles Day event that encourages consumption in order to increase belonging and reduce isolation and loneliness across the country.

Currently, Chinese Singles Day perhaps represents "excitement" and "energy" that could remain for any German brand model, with the important addition of "togetherness" and "belonging".

The German market is also seen as a gateway into Eastern Europe, largely due to East Germany's historical influence across large parts of the former Soviet Union.

Thus, Poland, where Nov 11 is referred to as Independence Day, appears to offer a natural European step by step expansion plan for the Singles Day brand. Moreover, the Polish people appear to celebrate their Independence Day without the solemnity and seriousness of Remembrance Day in the UK.

Finally, there is the remaining G8 member, Italy. Due to Italy's controversial role in World War II and the association of Remembrance Day with both world wars it might appear that the country should also be overlooked as a Singles Day brand expansion target. But both Italy and Spain possess a very passionate set of cultural values. Spain, for example, celebrates often with fireworks displays in ways not much different from the razzmatazz Alibaba now displays in China.

Spain and Italy could, therefore, represent brand penetration opportunities for Singles Day where a similar "energy", "fun" and "passionate" set of values could be used to give the brand a suitable position.

International brands such as Apple and Nike, which ride on an incredible consumption wave during Singles Day, should work closely with Alibaba to establish a European country-by-country brand expansion plan.

The German government - as well as the governments of many other European countries - should also take a close look at the Singles Day phenomenon and consider how a suitably adapted version could work for their consumers and provide a much-needed economic boost.

Singles Day has, in effect, become a sub-brand of the corporate Alibaba brand, and both are here to stay. And both can expand internationally. European brands and governments should be analyzing just how this phenomenon can work for them.

The author is a visiting professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and a senior lecturer at Southampton University. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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